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Burning candles in an autumnal forest

Ancient rituals that mark the start of autumn

Image: Shutterstock

Thanksgiving: the celebration of the end of summer can be found in ancient history worldwide. Whether it’s the carving of pumpkins rooted in ancient Celtic history to the lighting of lanterns in ancient Chinese history, the observance of autumn has been celebrated globally since pre-history. Here are five examples of ancient autumnal celebrations that you might not have heard of.


Held annually around the time when the last seeds of the year were sown, Thesmophoria was an Ancient Greek festival held in honour of the goddess Demeter and her daughter Persephone. Believed to date back as far as the eleventh century BC, Thesmophoria was celebrated throughout the Ancient Greek world. Promoting fertility and abundance (both in agriculture and female reproductive health), Thesmophoria was celebrated exclusively by adult women. Little is truly known about the festival as the rituals practiced throughout were kept private from men.

Thesmophoria took place over three days and included rites such as fasting, electing overseers of the festival, and praying for fertility.

The Mooncake Festival

The Mooncake Festival, AKA the Mid-Autumn Festival or Moon Festival, is a traditional festival that can be traced back to the Zhou dynasty over 3,000 years ago. Celebrated in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, and Vietnam, the celebrations stem from the ancient worship of the moon.

During the full harvest moon, kings would offer sacrifices to the moon goddess as they believed this would bring them a bountiful harvest in the following year.

Legends state that the tradition of eating moon cakes to celebrate the festival began during the Yuan Dynasty when rebels passed vital messages against the invading Mongol armies between villages in mooncakes. Still popular today, the festival became a national holiday in 2008.


Perhaps most recognisable with today’s current autumnal traditions, Samhain is a pagan festival that celebrates the harvest and ushers in the darker half of the year. It was believed that the barrier between the world of the living and the world of the dead breaks down at this time of the year. This thinning of the veil would allow the fae folk to become more prominent in our world and perform mischief and mayhem. Traditions such as carving lanterns from root vegetables to ward off mischievous spirits and leaving offerings and gifts from the harvest to those visiting from the otherworld can be seen in more contemporary practices of pumpkin carving and trick or treating today.


Homowo is an African celebration that is centred around the yam harvest. Celebrated from the end of August to the start of September, the festivities are dedicated to the crops of the year head, and in hope of another bountiful harvest to come. Villages get together to share their crops, wear animal masks, and dance and sing. Of all the vegetables that are harvested, yams are considered the most important and are at the heart of the festivities.

Dia de Los Muertos

Dia de Los Muertos, or the day of the dead, has gained popularity in recent years thanks to the Disney film Coco. Celebrated across the first two days of November, Dia de Los Muertos is a Latin American festival that remembers and honours ancestors who have died. Altars are constructed to honour lost family members, and offerings of their favourite foods, drinks, pastimes, and even clothes left to celebrate their life. Graveyards come to life and are brightly decorated while families gather there to celebrate life, death, and pay tribute to their ancestors.