Fall is a season of celebration, and all over the world religious and secular festivals gather people together for many different reasons, in honor of loved ones, spirits, figures, deities, historical events, and more.
Sharing themes of community, gratitude, and traditional foods, here are seven cultural celebrations which began in countries around the world and are still observed each year.
Chinese Moon Festival
Celebrated on the 15th day of the eighth month of the Chinese lunar calendar, the Chinese Moon Festival, or Mid-Autumn Festival, is the second most important holiday after the Spring Festival, and honors the full moon as a symbol of peace, prosperity, and family reunion. People in China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Vietnam, and other neighboring countries light lanterns and send them aloft while gathering to pray and give thanks.
Mooncakes are a traditional delicacy enjoyed during this celebration, their circular shape and intricate design symbolizing completeness, and sharing them with loved ones signifies the unity of families. Usually made with a rich, thick filling of red bean or lotus seed paste, these pastries can also contain fruit or savory foods. While traditionally made with lard, China’s pledge to cut meat consumption over the next few years has led to an increase in vegan version of this mouthwatering cake, with dates, coconut milk, nuts, matcha, and strawberries now showing up in recipes.
For some stunning photos of Asia’s mid-autumn festivals, check out this gallery of images.
Primarily celebrated in Bangladesh and parts of India, Durga Puja is held in the Hindu month of Ashwin (September-October) to commemorate the first time Lord Rama invoked the blessing of the Goddess before declaring war on the mighty demon king Ravana. Marking a very different kind of worship from the previous traditions, this also became known as “akal-bodhan,” meaning “out of season worship.” Today, Durga Puja is more than a religious ceremony, it is also a huge cultural event that promotes social harmony and well-being, one of the largest outdoor festivals around the globe. Pandals (makeshift tents) are built to hold the sculptures of Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartikya, and Ganesha, until the icons are taken on a triumphal procession to the nearby river and ceremoniously immersed, marking the end of the goddess’ brief visit to earth.
Since the Hindu religion prohibits consumption of meat, celebrations feature a variety of veg-friendly delicious foods. Many different dishes are enjoyed during Durga Puja, such as luchi, a deep fried flatbread enjoyed with spicy vegetables. Shukto is a rustic curry with mixed vegetables and fried lentil dumplings, and aloo potol posto is a gourd cooked in thick poppy seeds and coconut puree with red and green chillies.
El Señor de los Milagros
Held in honor of a 350-year-old mural of the Christ, the Procession of the Lord of Miracles is one of Peru’s most important religious festivals, and one of the largest processions in the Catholic world. Painted by an Angolan slave in 1655, the mural became a place for people to pray and worship, especially after a violent earthquake destroyed the chapel that housed it, saving only the adobe wall on which it was painted. But Ecclesiastical authorities, mistrusting the adoration, attempted to paint it over several times. Only when the image burned brighter despite additional attempts to cover it and upon hearing reports of additional miracles was it accepted by the Catholic church. During the celebration, devotees make requests of the painting, and follow the procession of several thousand monks and religious figures, all of whom wear purple for the month of October as a sign of tribute.
Turrón de Doña Pepa is a traditional nougat said to be created by Josefa Marmanillo, a slave who suffered from a disease that disabled her arms, freeing her but leaving her unable to support herself. After supplicating the mural for her health and being healed, she created the sweet as a thank you gift, which was said to have been smiled upon and blessed by the figure in the painting.
Thailand Vegetarian Festival
Taking place in Phuket on the 15th day of the 10th month of the Thai lunar calendar, this vibrant festival appeals to the Nine Emperor Gods for purification of the mind and body. After raising the lantern pole to notify the nine Chinese gods that the festival is about to begin, people bring their household gods to the temple to benefit from the spiritual energy that fills the temple. Some participants walk in a procession while in a trance, others run across a bed of burning coal or climb a ladder of sharp blades while in a trance. Acts of self mortification like body piercing with knives and skewers are undertaken in the belief that the Chinese gods will protect such persons from harm.
Spring rolls and stir fried melon leaves are popular foods offered by street vendors all around the festival. Strict observation of this holiday includes the practice of “jay,” which goes beyond the Western vegetarian diet to also restrict some pungent spices and vegetables as well, like garlic or onion.
Miwok Acorn Festival
The Native American Miwok (also Miwuk, Mi-Wuk, or Me-Wuk) people have lived in Northern California for thousands of years, in diverse tribes who were the first to make their homes in what is now Marin County, Sonoma County, the foothills of the Sierra Nevada, and the Sacramento Valley. In the land of towering oaks, acorns were a main source of food, and in the late September of every year, families from all around would gather for the annual acorn harvest, for four nights of prayer, song, and dance ending with a feast. The traditions today also include games and storytelling.
Acorns are high in nutritional value, once the tannins have been leached away with water. Acorn stew, griddle cakes, and bread, were and still are some of the most popular dishes made with this plentiful nut. Also a featured food at such celebrations, frybread is a fried or deep-fried bread that is eaten on its own, with honey, jam, or powdered sugar, or made into tacos.
Dia de los Muertos
The Day of the Dead is a holiday originating in Mexico and observed throughout Latin America in which people honor loved ones who have died. On November 1 and 2, Dia de Los Muertos remembers the dead while celebrating life, recognizing death as a natural part of the human experience. Traditionally, mourning has not been allowed, as it is believed that tears would make the spirit’s path treacherous and slippery. People decorate altars with sugar skulls, candles, and marigolds in memoriam, make the favorite foods of the dead, and care for their graves. During this celebration the community of dead are said to awaken from their eternal sleep to spend time with their loved ones.
Many of the traditional foods hold a deep symbolic meaning, as well. Elaborate sugar skulls are both a symbol and an actual delicacy, crafted and given as gifts, with colorful designs representing the vitality of life and individual personality. Semisweet breads called Pan de Muertos are baked in the shape of bones and dusted with sugar, symbolizing the soil.
Also called The Festival of Lights, Diwali is an ancient festival originating in India and celebrated by Hindus, Jains, and Sikhs, in a five day event falling sometime in October or November according to the Hindu Lunisolar calendar. The five day event signifies the victory of light over darkness, of good over evil, and is often linked to the return of Lord Rama and his wife Sita from exile after defeating the demon king Ravanna. Candles are lit in traditional earthen diyas, and houses are decorated in colorful rangoli artwork–patterns on the floor created from rice or powder. During this time, animals are draped with marigold necklaces and blessed with vermillion; dogs, in particular, are honored as they are associated with the Hindu god of death.
Traditional Indian sweets are highlighted during this festival, such as gulab jamun, rolled balls of fried dough and milk that are chilled in sugar syrup. Peda is made from thickened milk, sugar, and pistachio, cardamom, or saffron flavorings, and karanji is a dough pastry filled with coconut, sugar, or fruit.
Autumn is nearly at its end, along with the many incredible festivals that happen all around the world during that time. As we move into the next seasons of our lives, may you and your family continue to have beautiful celebrations full of your own culture’s traditions.