With the arrival of October each year comes thoughts of Halloween. For many of us in the English-speaking world, that means fancy dress, sweets and pumpkin carving. However, Halloween traditions vary significantly around the globe. As such, we’ve taken a look at how the original Celtic celebration has translated and localized across both time and international borders.
The origins of Halloween
Halloween can be traced back to the Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The festival marked the end of the harvest and was celebrated from sunset on 31 October to sunset on 1 November. It was celebrated by Celts in what is now Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Isle of Man and some parts of northern France and southern England. Cattle were brought back from summer pastures, livestock was slaughtered for winter and special bonfires were lit.
The Celts believed that Samhain was a liminal time, meaning it became easier for spirits to cross from the Otherworld into our world. The Otherworld was a real of deities and, possibly, the dead.
Halloween also falls on the eve of All Saints Day – a major Catholic festival – which has intertwined with the earlier Pagan celebrations to influence the way that modern Halloween celebrations have developed.
Halloween celebrations today
Today, Samhain is still celebrated in Scotland and Ireland, with bonfires and fortune-telling taking place on the night of 31 October. In other countries, that original Celtic festival has transmuted into other styles of celebration. However, many components reflect the early Samhain celebrations.
In England, children dress up as ghosts and other spooky creatures, reflecting the liminal associations of the occasion. In the US, they do the same. In both countries ‘trick or treating’ takes place, with children knocking on the doors of houses and demanding that owners choose between a ‘trick’ (usually a silly, mild-mannered prank) and a ‘treat’ (the provision of candy). Most homeowners who want to take part leave a carved pumpkin with a candle inside it outside their home and have a bowl of sweets ready for the arrival of sugar-crazed children in fancy dress.
Children in the Philippines also go door to door at this time of year – on All Soul’s Day on 1 November. They take part in Pangangaluluwâ, singing songs in exchange for sweets.
From sugar to alcohol…
In Mexico and Spain, Halloween presents as Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Dressing up and sugar are both involved, though in a different manner than in the English and American celebrations. People dress up as their ancestors, often with faces painted to look like skulls adorned with bright decorations. They build altars at which offerings are made, from tequila to skulls made of sugar.
In Haiti, Fed Gede (Festival of the Ancestors) involves drinking chili-infused rum by candlelight, often while visiting ancestors’ burial places.
Feasting and parades
Asian nations also celebrate Halloween. Many of the celebrations have strong links with food and the seasons, just as the original Samhain festival did. In South Korea, the Chuseok celebration includes a harvest festival and traditional feast. The three-day celebration is one of thanksgiving and a chance to spend time with family members and pay respects to ancestors.
In China and Hong Kong, the Hungry Ghost Festival runs for whole month, starting on the seventh day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. Food is a key focus (along with food offerings for the dead), along with parades and operas to entertain the spirits.
In Nepal, the Gai Jatra celebration also involves a parade, with those who have lost a relative in the past year joining a procession led by a cow (or a boy dressed as a cow, in the absence of an easily sourced bovine leader). The cow helps to ease the passage of the deceased into heaven.
In Ireland, parading is taken to the next level at Banks of the Foyle in Londonderry. The largest Halloween parade in Europe, the extensive celebration takes place nightly for a week, with drummers, dancers and fancy dress for all ages, as participants celebrate the thinning of the barrier between this world and the Otherworld.
Halloween around the world
Plenty of other countries have their own take on Halloween. In Poland, families pay solemn respects to their ancestors on Zaduszki (1 November), placing wreaths, lanterns and small gifts on graves. In Japan, the Buddhist Obon celebration includes pilgrimages to family graves and ceremonial dances. In Cambodia, the 15-day long Pchum Ben religious festival includes the fantastically varied combination of family feasts, lighting candles for the dead, monks chanting through the night to indicate the opening of the gates of hell and buffalo races.
How does your family celebrate Halloween? Do you see it as a solemn, religious occasion or a chance to indulge in excessive amounts of sugar? Leave a comment to share your traditions!