Unschooling: Harvest Festivals from Around the World

When I was a kid, Halloween was definitely my favorite holiday, hands down. I loved the feeling of dressing up as someone or something vastly different than myself, of going out at night, everyone in disguise, that almost cozy feeling of the whole neighborhood celebrating something special together. Even through my twenties, I cherished the holiday as a way to escape the dull realities of adulthood and be silly again.

While I still love a good costume party, something in the last decade or so has changed my feeling about this iconic American celebration. As I have gotten more spiritual and experienced the loss of dear ones in my life, I suppose I just long for a way to honor our loved ones who have passed on in a more respectful way. For all that Halloween is, with its silly zombies and creepy ghost people, its certainly not a celebration of our ancestors (in the average American household at least), though the date once indicated such an occasion.

For this and other reasons, I have always made it a point to educate my kids- and myself -about the many festivals around the world which do indeed celebrate and pay respect to those who have passed on. I have always been fascinated by how many of these occasions happen around the same time of year or even the same days as Halloween, All Saints Day and Day of the Dead- some of the more widely known traditions. I suppose it makes sense that when the plants begin to die, at least in the northern hemisphere, we tend to think about mortality. Other festivals of the dead tend to occur in August or September- harvest season in many places. The universality of these customs is a reminder of all we have in common with the rest of humanity and, at least I hope, helps provide a wider context for the reason behind our fun and macabre ritual each year. ( I have also been grateful that we have a wonderful Day of the Dead event in a nearby town which we attend most years).

On a similar note, I’ve always been interested to see the many ways that humans celebrate the harvest around the world, and with our North American harvest festival approaching next month, its the perfect time to branch out into a little geography/social studies exploration. Though I have probably spoiled my kids on the subject (oh mom, not MORE stuff about international harvest festivals!), I still think its a valuable topic to return to annually. Thus I have put together a shortlist of resources and summaries of some of the most interesting international festivals honoring the dead and celebrating the harvest. I hope you enjoy weaving them into your homeschool day in the next month or two.


Obon, or Bon, is one of Japan’s major holidays and one of the three most widely celebrated by international visitors. Falling in the middle of August by the older solar calendars, it is a Buddhist tradition honoring the spirit of the ancestors, who are believed to return to this plane to visit their relatives at this time of year. Though perhaps most recognized for its stunning tradition of floating lantern to guide the spirits home, there are lots of other activities associated with Obon that are worth paying attention to, including sweeping and decorating family gravesites, placing food on the doorstep or altar, and even a special dance called Bon Odori. This link leads you to a wonderful educational site packed full with stories about Obon and activities you can do with your kids, including instructions for making paper lanterns and even a step by step guide to the dance!


Chuseok, a major holiday in South and North Korea, is a great one to include in this study because it essentially combines elements of a harvest festival such as Thanksgiving and a celebration of the dead. Held on the 15th day of the 8th month of the traditional lunar calendar, it is a time for families to gather, share food, and give thanks to their ancestors for the hard work and sacrifices they made. Food preparation, dances, family time, and games, especially wrestling and archery are traditional Chuseok activities, as are cleaning gravesites and praying to ancestors. Here is a link to the recipe for making songpyeon, traditional rice cakes served on pine needles at Chuseok.

Dia de Los Muertes

Dia de Los Muertes, or Day of the Dead, is a beloved traditional holiday in many Latin American countries, though it is becoming more and more popular in other countries as well. Traditionally celebrated on the 1st and 2nd of November, it is a time to honor those who have passed on and is considered a time when the veil between the worlds is thinned, a similar belief to holidays such as the Gaelic Samhain, or Chinese Ghost Festival. Participants in the Dia de Los Muertes festivities seem to feel the dead have returned to celebrate with them, and the holiday is exuberant, colorful and lively. Music, costumes and parades, special food and exquisite sugar skull sculptures are just some of the wonderful traditions of this unique holiday.


I learned about Sukkot a few years ago from m partner, who was raised in a Jewish household, and I loved the ideas so much that I insisted we create a Sukkah with the kids. Sukkot is a traditional Kewish holiday celebrating the harvest and falling 5 days after Yom Kippur, usually in mid-October. A Sukkah is a small dwelling made of woven branches and foliage, which is meant to be used for sharing meals and other times with family during the celebration. The link includes directions for creating a sukkah as well as lots of other information and related activities.

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