From Mexico’s Day of the Dead to the lights of Hindu Indian’s Diwali, here are the must-know November holidays around the world. A 101 on the origin and traditions of each festivity or commemoration, where to experience them and the appropriate greeting for sending well wishes to those observing the occasion.
November holidays around the world
31 October – 1 November Samhain (Pagan feast from which Halloween is derived)
31 October – 2 November Dia de Muertos, in English, Day of the Dead (Mexico)
5 November – Guy Fawkes Night (the UK commemorates the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot)
7 November – Diwali (Hindu Festival of Lights in India)
11 November – Armistice Day (aka Remembrance Day or Veterans Day)
22 November – Thanksgiving (USA)
Samhain – old school Halloween
Samhain (pronounced: sow-in, sow as in a female pig) meaning “summer’s end”, is a Gaelic festival that celebrates the closing of harvest season and beginning of winter. Historically it was celebrated in Ireland, Scotland and the Isle of Man, and was spread by their diaspora. Wiccans and Pagans still celebrate Samhain today. While contemporary All Hallow’s Eve or Halloween was derived from a Christianised version of Oiche Shamhna “Samhain Eve.”
Traditionally, Samhain was a time to prepare for winter by taking stock of grain, collecting cattle from summer pastures and slaughtering livestock.
During Samhain, it was thought that spirits and faeries including passed ancestors were more active because they could more easily transfer between the living world and the “Other World”. In order to protect against any negative interference by these spirits, they needed to be pacified with offerings of food and drink. A place was set for dead ancestors at the head of the feast table.
Seasonal fruits and vegetables such as turnips, apples, pumpkin, squash, and potatoes are all featured in Samhain feasts as well as beef, chicken and pork, corn, nuts, mulled wines and ale. Dessert is commonly bram brack, a dark cake studded with dried fruit.
Originally it was large potatoes and turnips that were carved into jack-o-lanterns in remembrance of souls in purgatory. Immigrants to the U.S. began carving pumpkins instead.
Historically, games and folk plays took place, as well as the original form of Trick or Treat known as “guising” where costumed (or disguised) people went door-to-door reciting verses and receiving food in return. Additionally, bonfires were a common cleansing and protective ritual to scare off menacing ghosts.
Experience: The best way to experience Samhain in the modern world is to witness or partake in Halloween celebrations in Ireland, Scotland or the United States.
Greetings: Happy Halloween in English or in Irish, Oiche Shamhna Shona Duit (pronounced: EE-hyeh HOW-nuh HUN-uh ditch)
Dia de los Muertos – Day of the Dead
Dia del los Muertos (Day of the Dead) in Mexico is a time to honour deceased family and friends. In the pre-Spanish era of central and southern Mexico, Dia de los Muertos was celebrated by indigenous groups in early summer. However, the date was moved to coincide with All Saints Eve/Day (aka All Souls Day) as Spanish colonialists introduced Catholicism. Due to it’s proximity to Samhain/All Souls Day and skull decorations, customary visits to cemeteries etc, Dia de los Muertos has been incorrectly compared to Halloween. The Mexican celebration is not intended to be scary, but a time of remembrance and celebration as living people are reunited for one day with their loved ones passed. It dates back to the Aztecs who honoured the leader of the underworld, Mictlantecuhtle and his wife Mictlancihuatl during the festival. In fact, the holiday is so unique, in 2008, UNESCO recognized Dia de Muertos as Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Common rituals of the three-day event include building ofrendas, private altars to honour the deceased with sugar skulls (calaveras), candles, marigolds, food and drink. Similar items are also left on graves. Pan de muerto is a slightly sweet bread made for the occasion.
Experience: The best places to experience Dia de los Muertos in Mexico are Oaxaca City, Chiapa de Corzo, Merida, San Miguel de Allende, and Lake Patzcuaro.
Greetings: No greeting is traditionally used for Dia de Muertos.
Guy Fawkes Day – triumph over terrorism
Guy Fawkes is the name of a Catholic Englishman who fought in the Eighty Years’ War between Catholic Spain and Protestant Dutch reformers. He returned to England and joined in what is now known as the Gunpowder Plot to assassinate Protestant King James I in favour of a Catholic monarch. However, a tip-off alerted authorities about the plan to blow up the houses of parliament. Fawkes, who was guarding a stockpile of gunpowder, was arrested on November 5 and the plot was foiled. This triumph over terrorism has been memorialised as Guy Fawkes Day.
Celebrations traditionally involve fireworks displays and bonfires with an effigy of Guy Fawkes as the centrepiece. Revellers eat foods heated or cooked over the bonfire including potatoes, sausages and soup. Dessert is commonly a sticky ginger and oatmeal cake known as Parkin.
Experience: Some of the best Guy Fawkes celebrations take place in Lewes, Liverpool, Manchester, Carlisle, Birmingham and London. There are also sizeable Guy Fawkes festivities in Glasgow, Scotland and Cardiff, Wales.
Greetings: No specific greeting, just familiarise yourself with the ditty “Remember, Remember the 5th of November”.
Diwali or Deepavali- festival of light
Diwali, short for Deepavali, translates directly as “row of candles,” and is the Hindu festival of lights. Pronounced di-waa-lee or di-var-lee, the holiday celebrates the triumph of light over darkness; good over evil. Festivities last five days, where the third day is the most significant. This climax is scheduled for the darkest night of Kartika, a month in the Hindu lunar calendar that falls somewhere in October-November in the Gregorian calendar. There are a number of origin stories that hail from different parts of India – you can read some of the variations here.
Diwali traditions include cleaning homes/businesses and decorating them with vibrant flowers to entice Lakshmi, Hindu goddess of wealth, fortune and prosperity. Feasting, making sweets, gifting, and all forms of light such as candles, lamps, sparklers and fireworks are also customary ways to celebrate.
Experience: Diwali can be witnessed in all it’s glory in Indian cities such as Varanasi, Jaipur and Amritsar. Outside of India, Sri Lanka, Fiji, Singapore, Australia and United Kingdom are places you can catch sizeable celebrations.
Greetings: “Happy Diwali” in English or Diwali ki Shubhkamnayein in Hindi. As many languages are spoken throughout India, see this article for more variations.
Armistice Day – remembrance and commemoration
Armistice Day also known as Remembrance Day, commemorates the signing of the armistice that ended World War I on November 11, 1918. The armistice took effect at the eleventh hour, on the eleventh day of the eleventh month. Remembrance Day is observed in France and Belgium where it is a public holiday, as well as the UK and other Commonwealth countries such as Australia and Canada. In the US, the name was changed to Veterans Day in 1954, to honour veterans of all wars.
Armistice Day is generally a time of solemn remembrance, rather than celebration. Services are held and silk poppies that are symbolic of the flowers that grew on WWI battlefields, are sold to raise funds for veteran causes. A minute or two of silence is commonly observed at 11am.
Experience: Ceremonies are usually centred around local war memorials.
Thanksgiving (United States) – Turkey Day!
Thanksgiving, celebrated on the fourth Thursday of November, originated as a harvest fete. Early Christian colonists of the United States known as the Pilgrims, held a feast in October 1621 to thank god for their bountiful yield. The occasion was attended by Native Americans of the Wampanoag tribe who had taught the new settlers how to cultivate corn and other necessary survival skills. Thanksgiving was celebrated regionally until 1863 when then President, Abraham Lincoln, declared it a national holiday.
Many people travel at this time of year to be reunited with loved ones. Contemporary Thanksgiving traditions involve a large meal that brings family together. The meal is usually centered around a turkey and commonly includes mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and pumpkin pie for dessert. Volunteering to help the less fortunate is popular at this time of year.
Experience: Plymouth, Massachusetts claims the first American Thanksgiving and therefore is a historic location to experience the holiday. Thanksgiving parades in New York City and Chicago are popular.
Greeting: “Happy Thanksgiving”
I hope this brief overview of November holidays around the world has sparked your imagination. There is far too much history, mythology and symbolism to cover in one blog post. This was intended as a small taste of some magical cultural experiences to add to your bucket list.
Peace, love & inspiring travel,