The holidays are all about fun, food, tradition, and family – with family being the most important part. But so that we don’t have to limit celebrating our families during the holidays, let’s expand our horizons. That way, no matter what time of the year it is, we can answer the question: how can we honor our ancestors?
Honoring ancestors can be as simple as remembering them or learning about them, although it can also involve observing cultural holidays. These cultural holidays honor ancestors by setting aside time to learn about, remember, and connect to the family who came before.
Keep reading to learn about 12 cultural and family history celebrations that happen worldwide – and that we can learn from in order to honor our own ancestors and families.
You’re welcome to read the article in its entirety- we certainly recommend as much! However, this is a long article. So if you’re pressed for time, use this Table of Contents to jump to the sections you’d like to read.
- How to Honor Your Ancestors
- Holidays to Celebrate Ancestors and Family
- Can You Celebrate Your Ancestors Using Another Culture’s Holiday?
- How to Celebrate Your Family Heritage Year-Round
- How to Find Family-Specific Days to Celebrate Your Family
- How to Celebrate Your Ancestors Respectfully – Any Day!
- Celebrating and Honoring Ancestors as Latter-day Saint Christians
- Final Thoughts on Honoring Our Ancestors
- Related Questions
Ready? Let’s dive in, then!
How to Honor Your Ancestors
Honoring our ancestors looks different across cultures and religions, but it all boils down to one similar thread: to be grateful for those who came before us.
We can honor our ancestors by:
- remembering them;
- learning about them;
- celebrating them, their lives, and their deeds;
- by participating in relevant and appropriate cultural and religious events.
Now, a lot of these celebrations and traditions revolve around cultural and religious beliefs. These beliefs and traditions vary, and with that variance comes room for each of us to learn more, understand more, and become more.
- Some cultures, traditions, and religions believe that the spirits of their ancestors carry on after death. Others do not.
- Other practices, seen as a normal way to connect two worlds within the local cultural and religious traditions, could be seen as idolatrous or problematic by others – unless you’re willing to take another look.
Now, it’s easy to see something different as inherently wrong (or even idolatrous) especially if it’s taken out of context or we don’t try to understand it. After all, some practices take the appearance of worship. However, let’s look at a few examples so we can get some more context and understanding.
|Alters used on Dia de Los Muertos||These alters aren’t used in worship, but as part of an “offering” to connect the worlds of the living and the dead.|
|Honoring Ancestors and Filial Piety||Different cultures and religions see “honoring your parents” at different levels – and that honor includes different rules or culturally appropriate recommendations.|
|Ancestral Veneration||Venerating ancestors also have a positive or negative connotation, depending on personal, cultural, and religious bias. Ancestral veneration involves several aspects, including asking ancestors (or saints) to help in the afterlife, in the current life, or in asking a deity to have mercy on an ancestor.|
|Baptisms for the Deceased||This is another way to honor our ancestors that could be frequently taken out of context or misunderstood. This example is included to show that even Latter-day Saint Christian practices can be widely misunderstood when taken out of context, too.|
When we understand that these concepts are all ways to honor our ancestors, they become more understandable – and maybe even something that we could see ourselves doing.
Because no matter your belief, you can think and honor your ancestors and the life they lived, honor them, or honor their memory. Around the world, many people celebrate holidays that include honoring ancestors.
That’s a simple truth, although putting it into practice is less simple. This is because there are some differences between how each culture and religion interpret our collective duty to remember and honor ancestors.
This article’s focus isn’t on debating or justifying any particular practice or specific differences. Instead, we wanted to look at the underlying, similar thread of finding a way to honor our ancestors by learning from our worldwide family. This includes looking into worldwide cultural and religious practices.
Learning about worldwide cultural and religious practices to honor our ancestors is a way to collectively honor our entire human family – by learning more about each part and member of our extended human family.
However, we did want to at least reference those differences, as many of them are giving us new-to-us ideas for ways to honor our ancestors, as well as new-to-us cultural celebrations that are designed to help us do exactly what we want to – which is to honor our ancestors and family.
If you want to see some of the sources we used to find various cultural and religious celebrations of family, please make sure you check our section of this article called “Sources” – it’s at the end of the article. We use an ML8 style citation to list all of the references we used to write this article.
One further note: because many cultural celebrations and traditions revolve around or evolved from religious beliefs, let’s all be respectful.
We’ll do our best to be respectful in presenting the material we’ve found. We welcome feedback to make this better, especially when it comes from someone with experience within a specific culture, tradition, or religion. To give us specific feedback, please contact us.
In any case, now that we’ve admitted that there are cultural and religious differences, let’s focus on the similarities and specifics – and how we can show our ancestors some respect, esteem, and admiration – while remembering and learning more about them.
Holidays to Celebrate Ancestors and Family
Depending on your own family’s locations, traditions, and culture, you may already have a holiday to celebrate your ancestors and family. However, let’s take a look at some of the worldwide celebrations of ancestors and family.
|Holiday||Dates Celebrated||Country of Origin|
|All Saints Day and All Souls’ Day||November 1-2||Roman Catholic holiday celebrated all around the world|
|Dia de los Muertos||November 1-2||Mexico|
|Gai Jatra||August or September||Nepal|
|Hungry Ghost Festival||15th night of the lunar calendar’s 7th month (mid August)||China|
|Obon or Bon Odori||15th day of the 7th month (July or August, depending on whether using the solar or lunar calendar)||Japan|
|Pchum Ben||15th day of the 10th Khmer month, this year it was September 16th||Cambodia|
|Chuseok||15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar||South Korea|
|Ari Muyang||A month after Chinese New Year||Carey Island, Malaysia|
|Famadihana (Turning of the Bones)||between July and September||Madagascar|
|Pitri Paksha (Fortnight of the Ancestors)||16 day period in the Hindu calendar, usually September/October||Hindu|
|Qingming||usually April 4th or 5th||China|
|Samhain||October 31-November 1||Gaelic, Scotland and Ireland|
Beyond each holiday, there are other special, individual times during which deceased family members may be honored or remembered. Some of those times include:
- During a death, funeral, or period of mourning for a family member.
- On important, family-related anniversaries, like an ancestor’s birthday or date of death.
- When a new child is born or named for an ancestor.
- When families are connected in marriage, then ancestors and other dearly-departed loved ones may be remembered on varying levels.
- During personal or family prayers and meditation.
- Remembering and honoring ancestors during other family, cultural, or religious holidays.
- On remembrance-based holidays, like Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and others.
Neither our table nor our above list are, by any means, exhaustive. But hopefully they’re helping us all see that remembering and honoring ancestors on holidays isn’t a new or weird thing. It’s a worldwide human tradition that shouldn’t be forgotten or neglected.
But now let’s focus on how we can remember our ancestors on some of the specific, ancestor-remembering days (and holidays) of the year. As before, always make sure you treat the festivals of other areas with respect. We’ve tried to collect information about and present each celebration with that same respect.
Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls’ Day
Halloween, All Saints Day, and All Souls’ Day are rooted back in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. We’ll talk more about Samhain later in this article, so make sure you read that part.
In any case, Samhain evolved over the years. First, it was adopted and adapted by the Romans when they ruled the area. Next, the Catholic church tried adapting things to better fit with their beliefs. Things continued to evolve into the current iteration of All Saints Day and All Souls’ Day. They are days to honor saints and our ancestors.
To this day, All Souls’ Day involves visiting cemeteries, lighting candles, praying for our ancestors, leaving treats for the dead, and other celebrations. Like Dia de los Muertos, All Souls’ Day revolves around the idea that our kindred dead are still near us. We just need to remember them.
How did All Saints Day and All Souls’ Day morph into Halloween? First off, there are still plenty of people who celebrate both of those holidays. So they’re still around. But, for some of us, Halloween came around because All Saints Day was also called All Hollow’s Day. So the day before it, Allhallows Eve, became known as Allhallow e’en.
Halloween has become a totally different type of holiday – at least in the United States. Here it involves costumes, candy, and craziness (but the fun kind). It’s become a new tradition, albeit a somewhat commercialized one. Despite the commercialization, it can still be fun to tie family history into it. Or just enjoy trick-or-treating – and celebrate All Saints and All Souls’ Days on November 1st-2nd.
Día de Los Muertos
Día De Los Muertos is another fun mash-up of ancient cultural and religious celebrations. This holiday originates in Mexico and involves an amazing display of unique visuals, bright flowers, and elements steeped in symbolism. Here are a few of the most amazing aspects of the events.
- Calaveras – skulls and skeletons are everywhere during Día de Los Muertos. They’re an iconic visual associated with the celebration. They can be seen as decorations, artwork, and even a special face paint on those who celebrate the day.
- Calaveras de Azucar – These sugar skulls have dual symbology: both life and death can be sweet instead of bitter. Names of both the living and the dead may be written on them as a show of appreciation and remembrance.
- Literary Calaveras – Families write and share funny poems about how people died. This isn’t done to make light of anything, but rather to impart perspective.
- Picado – these paper banners are full of holes so that the spirits can travel through them. They’re made of paper (often tissue paper), which reminds us of life’s fragility.
- Ofrendas – these altars for offering gifts, treats, and tokens of remembrance. Ofrendas also hold photographs of dead family members. These photos are both for remembrance and to allow the dead to come to visit.
Día De Los Muertos is an amazing celebration. It’s one that we recommend researching and appreciating, especially if you can find a friend from Mexico who can help you respectfully navigate things.
Gai Jatra is a Nepalese celebration to honor and remember all of those loved ones who have passed within the last year. It’s the day to connect with those who have died while they make the official transition from this life to the next. This happy celebration is full of singing, stick dancing, and cows.
Here’s the story behind Gai Jatra. In the 17th century, the king and queen lost a son. The king, in order to help his queen understand that they weren’t alone in their mourning, organized a new celebration. Everyone who had lost someone in the last year dressed up as a cow – and the queen was able to see that she wasn’t alone in her grief.
Now, this celebration is a way to remember those who have died, see that grief is a widespread feeling, and help the dead get to the afterlife by parading decorated cows (both actual cows and folks dressed up as cows) around. Why cows? As we understand it, it’s said that grabbing the tail of a cow facilitates the passage to heaven.
Ghost Festival (Hungry Ghost Festival)
The Ghost Festival (also called the Hungry Ghost Festival) originates in China and is celebrated by both Taoists and Buddhists. It’s a day to appease the spirits of visiting ancestors, who are visiting for the ghost festival.
As such, those who celebrate the ghost festival leave out an assortment of offerings, including:
- Candles, incense, and lanterns – these lights will help the ghosts find their way. These lights also give the ghosts directions on where to go.
- Joss paper or hell money – these banknotes are printed to resemble legal currency, although they aren’t real tender in this life. Instead, it’s afterlife money printed on joss paper to be burned as a way to offer money to ancestors in the afterlife who have money problems. After all, even ancestors in the next life will need money!
- Paper mache offerings – these are often in the form of clothes and other fine goods so that ancestors can have fine things, too.
- Food offerings – elaborate meals are served at home, while leaving a space for each of the dead to attend the dinner.
This festival is often celebrated with the distinctly separate Qingming (tomb-sweeping) festival.
Obon or Bon Festival
Obon, or Bon, is a three-day-long Japanese Buddhist festival to honor ancestors and families. Spirits come to visit household altars. Historically, it’s a lot like a combined Hungry Ghost Festival and Qingming in many of its trappings, as it involves visits from spectral ancestors and cleaning of graves.
There are, however, a few differences.
- Bon also involves the Bon Odori, or Bon dance.
- Bon has also become a time for family reunions.
- An important part of the Bon festival is to help free ancestors of their pain.
The Bon Odori dance does have some variation depending on the region. It can reflect the region’s area, specialization, and heritage.
Pchum Ben originates in Cambodia and has several purposes:
- to honor family and ancestors of up to 7 generations;
- to appease the visiting spirits with food and other offerings;
- and to benefit those living and dead with food offerings and chanting.
Some of the spirits may have been released when the gates of hell opened. Ancestors visiting from purgatory may be able to endure more suffering once fed, especially if they have to return to hell for more of the same.
People celebrating Pchum Ben do so by gathering in home towns, visiting where ancestors lived or are buried, remembering ancestors, and throwing balls of rice. There’s also lots of food in general involved, as ancestors in heaven (or those who have been reincarnated) also benefit from the ritual food offerings.
Chuseok is an autumn celebration in Korea held in honor of ancestors. Those who celebrate Chuseok travel to their hometowns, participate in ancestor celebration and/or worship, enjoy delicious food, and tidy graves.
There are also many games and a harvest festival reminiscent of Thanksgiving, but with songpyeon, jeon, and Korean pears.
Ari Muyang is a celebration of ancestors specific to parts of Malaysia and Carey Island. It involves food offerings placed in front of figures.
- 3 black figurines represent warriors to protect from evil spirits.
- 1 yellow figurine represents blessings, purity, and holiness as spiritual or additional protection from evil.
During this time, people honor their ancestors, ask them for help and advice, and perform traditional dances.
Famadihana (Turning of the Bones)
Famadihana is a celebration of ancestors originating in Madagascar. It’s also known as “Turning of the Bones” as family members participate in an elaborate ceremony.
It starts when families take their ancestors’ bones out of crypts to remember them, participate in ceremonies, rewrap the bodies (or bones), and honor them with dance as they return the bones back to the refreshed crypt.
Pitri Paksha (Fortnight of the Ancestors)
Pitri Paksha is a celebration of ancestors over a fortnight. Fortnights are usually 14 days, but this celebration actually happens over 16 days as it’s based on a lunar calendar. The celebration involves special rites, food offerings, and remembrance.
This celebration honors the ancestors of the three preceding generations, who remain in the realm between earth and heaven and helps them proceed from that realm into heaven. Those same ancestors can then pass along wisdom, wealth, and other blessings to the living family.
There are other rules and customs for who should offer the rites and when they should be done.
Qingming is a Chinese festival also known as Tomb-Sweeping Day. Simplified, it’s like a Chinese Memorial Day. It’s often celebrated in conjunction with the Hungry Ghost Festival.
But on tomb-sweeping day, families visit tombs to clean gravesites. They may also pray to or for their ancestors while providing various offerings.
Samhain is a Gaelic and Celtic festival to celebrate a variety of things: the harvest, butchering livestock, the opening of burial mounds for passage into the Otherworld, visiting spirits of ancestors and other dead, mischievous fae (spirits and fairies), and the beginning of the darkest part of the year. In part, Samhain’s celebratory offerings were to help ensure that the people and their livestock survived the winter.
Gaelic and Celtic days started at sundown, so bonfires were lit at the start of Samhain. Bonfires were both to protect the participants from fae (spirit or fairy) visitors from the Otherworld, spirits from the afterlife, and to help them see. There were also rites and rituals involved in the celebration. Food offerings also helped protect the living from the spirits and otherworldly visitors.
Samhain evolved, merged with, and has been changed over the years. It is celebrated in each of its various forms to this day.
Can You Celebrate Your Ancestors Using Another Culture’s Holiday?
Now, while looking at all of the various cultural, traditional, and religious holidays it’s important to ask ourselves this question: can we celebrate our ancestors while using another culture’s holiday or traditions?
In other words – can we honor our own ancestors while using the trappings from another celebration? Is doing so cultural appreciation? Or is that cultural appropriation?
And while this article isn’t really focusing on the differences, it’s an important enough question relating to celebrating holidays that we need to address it, albeit briefly.
- Cultural appreciation is when you are honestly and diligently wanting to learn about, appreciate, and celebrate another culture, tradition, or religion. It is embodied with respect, decency, active learning, understanding, empathy, moderation, tolerance, and open dialogue with those who actively practice the cultural event.
- Cultural appropriation happens when anyone takes an aspect (or multiple aspects) of one culture in order to mock, disrespect, or disparage them. It doesn’t usually involve research, nor does it involve active learning about the culture.
In other words, it boils down to your intent and how you go about things. We think it’s possible to learn about the holidays and cultural heritages of other people as long as we do so respectfully. Here’s how we can do that.
- Learn as much as you can about the traditions and celebrations you’re wanting to celebrate, especially if you’re wanting to incorporate parts of them into your own family’s traditions.
- Ideally, talk to people who actively celebrate those holidays and traditions. Learn about the events, the history, and the reasons behind each part of the celebration.
- Participate in an appropriate manner that feels authentic to both your own beliefs and to those celebrating around you.
- Always be respectful.
If, at any time you’re unsure about your motives (or you’re unsure if what you’re doing is appropriation or appreciation), then go ahead and ask yourself these questions. These may help you determine if what you’re doing is acceptable or not.
- What is your reasoning? Why do you want to celebrate or “borrow” this holiday? Is it out of genuine interest? Is it something you feel called to do? Does it simply look appealing and trendy?
- What is the source material? Where are you getting your information? Are you using reliable sources? Are you using artwork or other pieces made by people from that culture? If so, are those people aware of how their cultural identity is being used?
- How respectful is this? Would people from that group object to what you’re doing? Would the celebratory décor or art being used normally be sold to outsiders?
The bottom line is to think about where your heart is. If it’s from a place of genuine interest and an attempt to educate yourself for better understanding, then it’s generally seen as cultural appreciation, not appropriation.
How to Celebrate Your Family Heritage Year-Round
In addition to celebrating our families on specific holidays dedicated to ancestor remembrance, it’s possible to also celebrate our families year-round with other holidays.
Specifically, it’s time to look up popular holidays in your family’s country (or countries) of origin and see how they’re celebrated. Look for all holidays your family may have celebrated. Look for any that your family may have celebrated culturally, religiously, or otherwise. Think about incorporating those observations into your current family traditions.
This isn’t to say that you have to observe or celebrate all of them. You also don’t have to always celebrate all of them. But by learning more about your family’s culture and heritage, you’re honoring your ancestors – whether or not you actually incorporate those practices into your everyday life.
Here are some quick ideas on how to enhance your current family celebrations while incorporating your family history.
- See if and how your ancestors would have celebrated birthdays.
- Did your ancestors celebrate special anniversaries? What kinds of anniversaries are they?
- Did your ancestors celebrate local holidays or traditions?
- How can you use food to celebrate your ancestors? Can you cook an ancestor’s favorite food, as if they were coming to dinner? Are you comfortable with leaving a place at the table for those who are no longer with us?
- Can you safely use special lights or candles in your family celebrations?
- Can you give service or donate to causes that your family would have wanted (or still want) to support?
Again, you don’t have to adopt every holiday or celebration or tradition that your ancestors celebrated. Here are a few thoughts we’ve run into while doing our own research.
- Learn about as many traditions, celebrations, and holidays that your ancestors may have celebrated.
- Learning alone will foster understanding and empathy, which are the basis for honoring our entire human family.
- Adopt or adapt those traditions that will work well for your family’s traditions.
Many traditions, holidays, and celebrations do have a deeply religious aspect to them. That’s a fact. It’s also a fact that many people see those old family beliefs as fundamentally contrary to their current religious beliefs. Some may even call those old beliefs “pagan” or “barbaric.”
We’d posit that learning about one’s family, history, and ancestor’s beliefs do not a current belief make. It’s a delicate line, sure. But we believe that simply learning to better understand your family and ancestors doesn’t mean you’re converting or betraying your current religious beliefs.
Instead, it’s a desire to respect, care for, remember, and honor those who came before us by learning more about them. Respecting and honoring others is totally in line with most religious beliefs. In fact, it’s in the core beliefs and commandments of most religions.
Now, not all of these events are going to have the same tone. Many of them have happy, silly, colorful, or party-like atmospheres. Others of them are more reverent and include praying.
But each celebration (whether dedicated to celebrating ancestors or not) had a purpose and some element of giving service to it. Sometimes the service is cleaning graves. Other times it involves rites or rituals. Or maybe it’s in giving offerings to those in the next life. If any of those doesn’t sit well with you, that’s okay. Remember and the underlying purpose: to serve those around us.
Learning about those will help us better understand our family members and the overall family narrative.
How to Find Family-Specific Days to Celebrate Your Family
Now, if you’d like to find specific-to-your-family (or culture) days that you can celebrate your family, FamilySearch has a really cool tool. It helps you see specific family dates and events that you can use as you celebrate your family and ancestors.
Now, in order to see your family-specific calendar, you will have to have an account. Thankfully, though, it’s totally free. Once you’ve logged into your account, FamilySearch’s calendar tool will open up your family’s calendar based on the current date. Then, you’ll get to see your family’s important dates like:
- Marriage dates
- Death dates
- Christening dates
- and more!
In searching through my own, it doesn’t seem to include any specific references to cultural celebrations, though. However, it does link to individual and family pages, where I can then track where my family members are from – and then I can use some deduction to figure out which holidays they would have celebrated.
From there, I can use research and cultural appreciation to bring back those cultural traditions and celebrations into my family that may have been lost.
You can go to FamilySearch’s Calendar by clicking here – it’ll open the link in a new window.
How to Celebrate Your Ancestors Respectfully – Any Day!
Just because today isn’t a special holiday doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate your ancestors and your family. It’s totally possible to celebrate them every day. All you have to do is tell their stories, make them a part of your life, and make your family’s presence felt in your home.
Seriously – that’s it.
Honoring and celebrating our ancestors can be as simple as living your life every day.
As we live our lives, our actions become part of our family’s narrative. So as you live your life and build your family, it’s adding to your family’s story. And as we focus on building our family’s narrative and in passing along names and information, it helps future generations to look back and work to live up to our family’s expectation and hope of trying to be and do better.
If you haven’t already, seriously consider signing up for FamilySearch’s calendar tool (here’s the link again) for daily or regular reminders of your family’s special dates and events.
Celebrating and Honoring Ancestors as Latter-day Saint Christians
Now, a final note about how Latter-day Saint Christians honor ancestors via temple work. Both Breanne and I are members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. We believe that doing temple work is a way to honor and respect our ancestors. We see it as a way to give service to our ancestors. So it’s important to us.
And in the context of researching ways to honor ancestors, I’m so glad Breanne mentioned temple work. I hadn’t ever mentally compared (or contrasted) LDS temple work to the various rites and rituals done to honor the dead worldwide.
There are some distinct differences (that we won’t go into right now), of course. Even so, it’s kind of cool to see that the underlying motivation is the same: it’s done out of profound love and respect for those who came before. It’s another type of service done for our ancestors.
Final Thoughts on Honoring Our Ancestors
Celebrating and honoring our ancestors doesn’t have to be complicated or difficult. It really can be as simple as learning about them, learning about their culture, and being grateful for their sacrifices and contributions to your family.
Or, if you’d like to incorporate more aspects into your family traditions, then that’s okay, too. Doing so with an attitude of respect and honor can help you appreciate their cultural and religious heritages without compromising any of your own beliefs.
How Far Back Can I Trace My Family with Records? Family lineages were kept starting at different times, depending on location. Most family lineages can go back to about 1500, though some go back further. For more information, read our article on how far back records actually go.
Can We Incorporate Genealogy into Family Reunions? Family reunions are a great time to celebrate your family history, as long as it’s kept fun and engaging for everyone of all ages. For 21 ideas on exactly how to do that, read our article on the best family history-related reunion ideas.
How Can I Help My Kids Learn to Love Genealogy? Children can learn to love doing genealogy, but it won’t come unless they’ve been exposed to it and they know why it’s important. Here are our top 11 ways to help the youth love doing it – and here are our best ways to help small children learn to love family history.
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- Circus, Phare. Cambodian Holidays: Pchum Ben. 29 Jan. 2019, pharecircus.org/how-to-celebrate-pchum-ben/.
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- Marissa. “What to Expect at Pchum Ben, Cambodia’s Spirit Festival.” Culture Trip, The Culture Trip, 8 Sept. 2017, theculturetrip.com/asia/cambodia/articles/what-to-expect-at-pchum-ben-cambodias-spirit-festival/.
- Nittle, Nadra Kareem. “Understanding Why Cultural Appropriation Is Wrong.” ThoughtCo, www.thoughtco.com/cultural-appropriation-and-why-iits-wrong-2834561.
- “Veneration of the Dead.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 9 Nov. 2020, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veneration_of_the_dead.
- Zed, Rajan. Faith Forum: Is the Concept of ‘Filial Piety’ Still Valid Today? 4 Mar. 2016, www.rgj.com/story/life/2016/03/03/faith-forum-concept-filial-piety-still-valid-today/81294620/.