It’s that freaky time of year when the nights come early, the cold descends and spooky things happen…
Halloween is often perceived as an American tradition that we have imported to Europe in recent years. And although some aspects of it are definitely influenced by our trans-Atlantic friends, Halloween actually has old world roots.
Wherever you’re celebrating this year, and whatever you’re doing on the 31st October, these are some of the Halloween traditions you’ll find around the world.
(NB: These aren’t strictly all Halloween, but are about the practice of honouring the dead or spirits).
Originally a Celtic festival, Samhain took place around the beginning of November and involved dressing up in scary outfits and dancing around bonfires.
In the 8th Century, Pope Gregory deemed all these shenanigans a bit too heathen for the Catholic church, so instead changed the 31st of October to be a celebration of the Saints that don’t have their own day. ‘All Hallows Eve’ as it was known became shortened over time to the Halloween we know today…
There were (and still are) bonfires and demons associated with the night which is also closely tied to the celebration of the beginning of winter.
The tradition of the carved pumpkin head is said to have started in Ireland too. In the 18th Century, Jack, a cursed blacksmith was denied entry to heaven and was doomed to wander the earth for eternity. After asking the devil for something to light his way he was given an ember of coal that he placed in a pumpkin.
After that, villagers across the isle used carved pumpkins (Jack o’lanterns) to keep the doomed wanderer away from their doors.
The modern home of Halloween has made the night a huge celebration with crazy costumes and trick or treating. Believe it or not the practice of trick or treating was actually introduced by British immigrants (more on that to come), but has evolved into a very American experience which has in turn been re-exported.
Besides trick or treating, American’s take the whole Halloween pretty seriously with sweets (or candy, especially corn candy), house decorations and extravagant costumes.
Here in the UK we kind of assume that the modern Halloween is all very ‘merican. Which it is. But we actually invented trick or treat…
Pre 16th Century Britain was full of superstitions, and people believed that the time of year was when spirits descended back to the earth. People believed that spirits came in the form of beggars, so people (especially children) would roam from house to house asking for food or money, sometimes singing pagan songs to scare people into offering treats.
Another practice involved going house to house with a scarecrow to ask for money or food, a practice which has now become associated with Guy Fawkes night.
Mexicans celebrate ‘dia de muertos’, or the day of the dead on the 2nd of November every year. In contrast to the European/American practice of warding off spirits, the Mexicans choose to honour their dead with colourful celebrations. Decorated sugar skulls, singing and dancing and lavish feasts are all the order of the day.
Marigolds feature a lot, with flowers often being laid on graves with photos of relatives, added to food and even infused with tequila.
The celebration has become more popular globally over the years and you’ll now see dia de muertos celebrations in many big cities around the world (often in the form of drinks promotions). If you’re in Mexico then prepare yourself for some crazy celebrations including fireworks and loud music!
Although they don’t celebrate Halloween (at least not as much as we do), the Japanese have their own day of the dead. The Obon festival, also known as the Bon festival, occurs in mid-August (in 2019, 13th-15th August).
On the first day of Obon, fires are lit and feasts prepared to welcome the dead spirits back to earth. Prayers are said and often, in a very Japanese style, some cleaning and housework to put the home in order for the spectral guests. Processions and events are also held all across Japan during the dates of Obon.
Being very astrological based, the Chinese Ghost festival is movable. So, on the 15th day of the Seventh month (July or August in Chinese years), the Chinese celebrate the Ghost festival, also known as the Hungry Ghost festival.
Families will honour their dead with food, prayers, incense and special ceremonies. Some people also burn fake paper money as an offering, red lanterns are displayed and there are processions and ceremonies in every town and village.
Sade, or Jashne Sade is not actually a day of the dead, but a winter festival designed to scare away the darkness and bring back the light. With its roots in the Zoroastrian religion, Sade occurs in late January and involves lighting bonfires, eating and sharing food and hanging out with friends and family.
The festival these days has little importance to Iranians but you’ll still see family parties and fires across Iran around the end of January.
Pitru Paksha or Mahalay is Hindu festival which normally falls in mid-September. For 16 days Hindus offer food and prayers to their anscestors, often to help them in life or to ask for advice. Although there are no big events as such during this time it is seen as an auspicious period.
Wherever you are, enjoy Halloween! And if you’re up for exploring some other cultural takes on our mortality, we hope we’ve inspired you to go and explore.