Halloween traces its roots back to ancient harvest festivals.
Today, five of our staff writers from around the world – India, Ethiopia, Cambodia, Honduras, and Bolivia – describe how the harvest season is traditionally celebrated in their part of the world!
India – by Annila Harris
With the majority of our population dependent on farming, India is predominantly an agrarian society. We welcome the new harvest with a variety of celebrations.
The practice of thanksgiving for a successful harvest is ancient. The celebrations are marked by praying, feasting, visiting with family, wearing traditional attire, dancing, and singing.
Different parts of the country celebrate the harvest differently. In Northern India, they harvest wheat in spring – late February or early March – whereas Southern India celebrates in August or September when they harvest rice.
In March, Holi, the Spring Festival, marks the arrival of spring, the season of joy. Fields are full of crops, promising a good harvest. Holi is a festival celebrating agriculture and a good spring harvest.
Holi is a two-day festival of colors. Day one is called “Chhoti Holi” (small Holi) where on its eve people light bonfires. The bigger event, “Badi Holi” (big Holi), happens the next day with the main celebration, called Dhuleti. It is a day of games, dancing to drums, and Bollywood numbers folowed by Holi delicacies.
Food: Gujiya (sweet dumpling), mathri (flaky savoury biscuits), Aloo and Puri (potato curry and fried Indian puffed bread), and other traditional delicacies.
In the southern state of Kerala, the Malayali people celebrate a harvest festival called Onam, which takes place for 10 days during the month of Chingam (August-September) and includes elaborate feasts, folk songs, dances, games, elephants, boats, and flowers.
Kaikottikali is a folk group dance: at least 10 women clap in unison and move in a circle. The rhythm is carefully coordinated and the women move with the beat of the song. The dance takes place around the Pookalam (flower decoration).
Food: Onasadhya is the grand meal the family eats after completing the morning rituals. Served on a banana leaf, the meal is an elaborate spread from 24-28 strictly vegetarian dishes served as a single course.
Ethiopia – by Kebede Gizachew Ayalew
One of the many cultural and religious festivals celebrated in Ethiopia is Maskel, which occurs following the departure of Kiremt’ – the rainy season (mid-June to late September when 70 percent of crops are harvested).
Maskel is celebrated to commemorate the Finding of the True Cross in the tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. According to legend, Queen Helena, the Mother of Constantine the Great, discovered Christ’s cross in 326 AD.
In Southern Ethiopia, Maskel is a cultural feast of the New Year. Preparations for Maskel begin in early August and continue through September. The celebration begins on September 26 with the burning of a “Demera” bonfire at public squares and in the courtyards of individual households.
After the bonfire, children sing songs in groups going from door to door praising the household; in return, the households give them a drink called ‘Tella” and bread (but these days give money), as well as blessings for the children.
In the morning, everyone greets each other, saying, “Maskala yoo-yoo, maskala yoo-yoo, danaw-dana, mithada-shuchada, ambada-zumada” (welcome Meskel we shall live as old as the big trees and rocks, mountains and hills.)
Everyone saves money throughout the year for Maskel, when they buy fattened oxen in groups. They slaughter the ox and share the meat (called kircha) equally among members of the group.
Food: The meat is eaten as kurt (sliced, raw), kitfo (minced, raw) mixed with butter and hot chili, injera (flat bread made of teff), and kocho (false banana root).
After the meal is prepared, the neighbors eat together. Then in the afternoon the youth gather at a Maskel field (similar to public square) to play traditional songs and dances in groups.
During the celebration, everyone dresses in beautiful hand-woven garments (though today people wear modern clothes).
The Maskel celebration marks the transition from the torrential rainy season (Kiremt) and welcomes the spring season where harvesting of crops take place.
Cambodia – by Ratana Lay
80 percent of Cambodians are farmers and depend on agriculture. Every year, the villagers celebrate a harvest festival called Bun Da Lean at the end of the rice harvest in January, February, and March. It is to thank the spirits for good weather, to celebrate their crops, and to relax after the harvest. It is held at a Sala Bun (a public building.)
Homemade noodles called Nom Banh Jok are the unique food for the celebration. The villagers make hundreds of kilograms of noodles with Khmer soup and Kari soup. They offer the food to monks and spirits in a religious ceremony called Sot Mun, lead by elders. They pray for good weather and higher yield for the coming year. During this ceremony, the elders wear white shirts and long traditional skirts called Samput Av Pak (for women) and pants (for men).
Lakhon (theater of Cambodia) and Ayai (alternative songs) are performed on a stage built in the temple. They have traditional dances such as Rom Vong, Sarawan, Rom Kbach, and Lam Leav after the elders finish the spiritual ceremony.
It is a gathering time with friends, family, and neighbors. They enjoy eating noodles and traditional dances.
This festival comes from a story of two brothers. A younger brother has an idea to share and offer some food to monks. He finds that his older brother has a big yield of rice and he lobbies his brother to share some with the monks and other poor people, but the older brother refuses.
Finally, the older brother shares a piece of rice land with the younger. He is very happy and calls for his neighbors to grow crops, and during the harvest he calls his friends to collect the yield and offer part to monks and to other poorer families. Thus this tradition began.
Honduras – by Claudia Ordonez
In Honduras, we celebrate the harvest season with town fairs and carnivals. There are traditional games for the children, like the dreidel and rondas (children hold hands in circles and sing traditional songs), as well as music and marching bands.
There are also costumes and bombas in the middle of any traditional dance, where girls and boys split into two groups, and the boys start saying compliments to the girls to "make them fall in love" and the girls reply.
We use the Honduran flag and colored paper (red, blue, yellow, green) to decorate the town or village central park.
This festival has its origins in an annual ceremony of the indigenous Lenca people called Guancascos, in which two neighboring communities come together to renew bonds of peace and friendship. Though these celebrations have incorporated Catholic influences, they also include traditional costumes, dances, and greetings.
Food: Atol de alote (corn beverage), baleadas (flour tortilla with beans, cheese, eggs, sour cream), traditional dish of grilled meat, beans, sour cream, avocado, rice, plantains, crazy corn (corn cob with sour cream and cheese), tamales, and pupusas.
Bolivia – by Andrea Cabrera
Since we have different cultures in Bolivia, traditions can be very different between regions. But one tradition that everyone celebrates is "Todos Santos," or the day to remember the dead.
Beginning at noon on November 1st and ending at noon on November 2nd, this celebration marks the beginning of the drought season where farming families give a share of the harvest to their dead relatives to ask them to protect the crop.
In Bolivia, the harvest season starts in March, on the Autumn Equinox. Farmers and their families celebrate the beginning of this season to offer the harvest to the land.
Carnival is another way to celebrate this season’s beginning. It is a 4-day celebration with traditional dances, family reunions, costumes, and street parties.
During the equinox, tables or K'hoas are made. Families place the first products from the harvest (the best ones) in a small, portable stove and light a fire. They cover the fields with the smoke while the yatiri (Andean priest) says some words in the local language.
Families keep these first crops and hide them inside the house so the family will have a good harvest and sufficient food all year. This ceremony is accompanied by traditional dances and pipe and flute music. Families also sacrifice a sheep or pig to eat during the celebration.
In the Andean region, there is an internalized belief in the deity of Mother Earth, who provides wealth for communities, allowing them to grow food. Thus, all the rituals, traditions, festivals, dances, and music are dedicated to her.
When the colonial era began, many of these celebrations, considered pagan, were banned or mixed with Catholic traditions. But many of them remain as part of local customs. For example, during the carnival, dances are dedicated to the Virgin Mary, asking welfare and prosperity for the year.
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