Honestly, Halloween isn’t my favorite holiday. It’s not even in the top five. I’m all for pumpkin carving and candy and cute kids dressing up in costumes, but I don’t enjoy being scared. I don’t watch scary movies and I for sure don’t go to haunted houses, but as I was thinking about this past Wednesday’s Halloween, I became curious about how this holiday came to be and what it looks like around the world. I hope you enjoy as much as I did learning about the history and cultural traditions surrounding Halloween!
But First, A Little History
Halloween as we know it today began in Ireland with Samhain, a Gaelic festival marking the beginning of winter (Samhain translates to “summer’s end”). The winter season, described as the “dark half” of the year, begins at sunset on November 1 and continues until May 1. On October 31st, the boundaries between the otherworld and our own were to be at their thinnest, and so spirits could pass through freely. This brought the tradition of creating bonfires and dressing up in costumes to confuse harmful spirits and prevent them from recognizing living people they disliked. However, there were also many who left out food and kept their doors unlocked out of respect to their ancestors and in hopes that the spirits would be appeased by their generosity. The Catholic Church disliked these pagan traditions and declared November 1st as “All Saints Day”, and the preceding night become known as “All Hallows Eve”. The ancient traditions melded over time to create what we recognize as today’s Halloween.
Even if it doesn’t look like our American “Halloween”, almost every culture has a celebration of their ancestors. Here are some of the most unique traditions from around the world.
Today, Ireland still holds on to some of its older traditions, such as serving a barmbrack cake. Hidden in the fruit bread is a coin, a ring, and a rag. Everyone receives a piece, and the person who gets the coin is said to gain prosperity, the ring brings romance, and the rag represents a loss of wealth. The Irish also still continue to light bonfires for Samhain festivals, but most Halloween festivities today look similar to what we have in the US.
In Austria, people leave bread, water, and a lighted lamp on a table before they go to bed, which is said to welcome dead souls back to earth for the night. Austrians then continue their celebrations throughout the next week until November 8 for Seleenwoche, or All Souls’ Week.
One of Britain’s most unique traditions is turnip carving, as opposed to our traditional pumping carvings in the United States. The Scottish were originally carving turnips into faces with a candle inside to frighten evil spirits away. When Europeans came to America, they brought the turnip-carving tradition, but Americans found pumpkins easier to carve. Today, pumpkins are more common in Britain, but turnip lanterns can still be found.
Germany celebrates Halloween as a return of the dead, but they take precautions. Germans hide all of their knives on Halloween night to avoid hurting the returning souls (or being hurt by angry spirits).
People from the Czech Republic have a tradition to place chairs around the fireplace, with one for every living member and one for the spirit of every departed member.
Spanish-speaking nations have some of the most famous traditions associated with Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), which lasts from October 31 to November 2. The traditions of Day of the Dead are more celebratory and joyful than the dark Halloween we’re used to. Instead, these countries celebrate love and respect for their ancestors. It stems from the Aztec traditions that saw death as a natural phase. To them, the dead were not forgotten but kept alive in memory and on Dia de los Muertos, they returned to earth. Altars are set up in homes to provide offerings and to welcome spirits back to the physical realm.
Cambodia has a 15-day long celebration to show respect for ancestors that takes place in September and culminates in Pchum Ben Day. During this time, they dedicate food and other offerings to the dead at the pagoda. In the Vihear Sour Cheung village, water buffaloes are raced every year as part of the celebration for the entertainment of spirits during their time back on earth.
China celebrates the Hungry Ghost Festival, a month long tradition typically held in July or August. It is one of seven festivals to worship ancestors in China and includes putting photographs of deceased family members, food, and incense on a table at night. Legend has it that ghosts are released from the underworld at the first day of the month. On this day, the Chinese burn make-believe money to give to their ancestors to use during the month and make sacrifices of food to appease angry spirits. On the last day of the month, all spirits are to return to the underworld. To celebrate, many families float river lanterns in the evening and write their ancestors’ names on the lanterns.
There you have it, Halloween around the world! What are your favorite Halloween traditions? Let us know in the comments!