For many, Halloween is a time when we’re allowed to eat bowl-fulls of candy, dress up in crazy attire and watch scary movie after scary movie just to give ourselves a thrill.
But for others, it can mean so much more.
This highly-anticipated holiday is thought to have originated around Ireland roughly 2,000 years ago with the ancient Celtic festival of “Samhain.” This was a time when people would light bonfires and wear costumes to ward off roaming ghosts.
Traditionally it was believed that on this night, marking the beginning of the dark, cold winter, that the veil between the living world and the spirit world was thinnest, allowing ghosts of the dead to return to earth. On Halloween night, people thought that they would encounter such ghosts if they left their homes, and would therefore wear masks to avoid being recognized thinking ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. People would also place bowls of food outside of their homes in order to appease the ghosts and keep them away from their houses.
It was also said that the Druids (Celtic priests) were able to better predict the future at this time of year. In commemoration of this event, the Druids would build large sacred bonfires, wearing costumes typically consisting of animal heads and skins of the sacrificed mammals, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes, giving great emphasis to the deathly aura that surrounds this holiday.
In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints and martyrs, which he dubbed “All Saints’ Day,” while the evening before was known as “All Hallows’ Eve.” This gave a more Christian spin to the Celtic tradition, and was celebrated similarly to Samhain with bonfires, parades and dressing up in costumes as saints, Angels and Devils.
From here, trick-or-treating became a tradition during this time as the poor would beg for food during the festivities and were given pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the giver’s dead relatives. This practice, which was referred to as “going a-souling,” was eventually taken up by children who would visit the houses in their neighborhood and be given ale, food and money.
Halloween Across the Globe
Such traditions have transformed into how we most commonly celebrate Halloween today, but the meanings and ideas behind them have been repeatedly interpreted all over the world. While some still manage with bobbing for apples and dressing up in costumes, other countries have found different ways to honour the day of the dead.
On November 11, Austria celebrates “Martini” which includes costumes and a lantern procession. Some would leave bread, water and a lighted lamp out to welcome dead souls back to earth on a night said to be brimming with strong cosmic energies. Austria also has a Pumpkin Festival in Retzer Land called “Kürbisfest im Retzer Land.”
The custom in Belgium is to light candles in memory of dead relatives, with some villages celebrating Halloween while other villages focus on All Saints’ Day.
Modern Halloween celebrations in Canada began with the arrival of Scottish and Irish immigrants in the 1800s. Jack O’Lanterns are carved and the festivities include parties, trick-or-treating and the decorating of homes with pumpkins and corn stalks.
Here, the Halloween festival is known as “Teng Chieh” and is a night for spirits. Food and water are placed in front of photographs of deceased family members while bonfires and lanterns are lit to light the paths of the spirits as they travel the earth. Worshipers in Buddhist temples fashion “boats of the law” from paper that are burned in the evening hours. This serves as a remembrance of the dead while helping to free the spirits of the “pretas” so they might ascend to heaven. “Pretas” are the spirits of those who died from an accident or drowning and whose bodies were consequently never buried, and whose presences is considered to be very dangerous.
Hopefully you have a small family (or a ton of chairs) In Czechoslovakia as chairs are placed by the fireside on Halloween night, one for each living family member and one for each member’s spirit.
Traditionally, little English boys and girls carved a design into beets for Halloween and carried these trinkets through the streets. Later, Halloween was changed to Guy Fawkes Night and moved to November 5 when people would light bonfires, set off fireworks and wear Guy Fawkes masks.
People put their knives away on Halloween night so as to not risk any harm befalling the returning spirits. “Halloween auf Deutsch” became popular in the 1990s and on November 11, Germans celebrate “Matinstag” which includes costumes and a lantern procession.
The Halloween celebration in Hong Kong is known as “Yue Lan” (Festival of the Hungry Ghosts), where spirits roam the earth for 24 hours. Some people burn pictures of fruit or money at this time, believing the images would reach the spirit world and bring comfort to the ghosts.
Celebrating in a similar American fashion, the Italians give their sweets a bit of a twist with their traditional Halloween recipe called Fave dei Morti (Beans of the Dead), which is an oval cookie like a macaron.
The Japanese celebrate the “Obon Festival” (also known as “Matsuri” or “Urabon”) in July or August, which is dedicated to the spirits of ancestors. Special food is prepared, bright red lanterns are hung and placed on rivers to float, and a fire is lit every night in order to show the ancestors where their families might be found. Memorial stones are also cleaned and community dances are performed.
Similarly, the Koreans do not celebrate Halloween, but rather hold a festival known as “Chusok.” This is a time when families thank their ancestors for the fruits of their labor, paying their respects by visiting their ancestors’ tombs and making offerings of rice and fruits. The Chusok festival takes place in August.
Mexico, Latin America and Spain
Celebrations are taken to higher level on All Souls’ Day, (which is known as “El Dia de los Muertos”), which is celebrated for three days from Oct. 31 to Nov. 2. Many families honor their deceased relatives by constructing an alter and decorating it with candy, flowers, photographs, and samples of the deceased’s favourite foods and drinks. A wash basin and towel are also considerately left out so the spirit can wash before indulging in the feast. Candles and incense also burn to help the departed find his or her way home. Often, a live person is placed inside a coffin which is paraded through the streets while vendors toss fruit, flowers and candies into the casket.
Relatives then tidy the gravesites of deceased family members and adorn it with flowers, wreaths or paper streamers, and on November 2, they gather at the gravesite for a picnic while reminiscing. Some of these gatherings may include tequila and a mariachi band, although American Halloween customs have started to take over the celebration.
Because of the great emphasis on predicting futures in Celtic traditions, fortune-tellers recommended that an eligible young woman name a hazelnut for each of her suitors and then toss the nuts into the fireplace. The nut that burned to ashes rather than popping or exploding, the story went, represented the girl’s future husband. (In some versions of this legend, confusingly, the opposite was true). Many variations stemmed from this practice, and at some Halloween parties, the first guest to find a burr on a chestnut-hunt would be the first to marry; at others, the first successful apple-bobber would be the first down the aisle.
Halloween is known as “Alla Helgons Dag” and is celebrated from October 31 to November 6. The Friday prior to All Saint’s Day is a short day for universities while children are given a day off school. They then go trick-or-treating and tend to the graves of departed loved ones with their families.
Other fun facts and traditions
- The British tradition of carving a scary face into a vegetable was originally done with turnips. When Irish immigrants took the idea of the Jack O’Lantern to North America, they started using pumpkins because they were cheaper.
- Many believe light keeps away ghosts and ghouls, which is why sticking a lit candle in a carved pumpkin became so popular.
- The stereotypical image of the haggard witch with a pointy black hat and warty nose stems from a pagan goddess known as “the crone,” who was honored during Samhain. The crone was also known as “the old one” and the “Earth mother,” who symbolized wisdom, change and the turning of the seasons.
- During Autumn in Mexico, around El Dia de los Muertos, many Monarch butterflies return to the oyamel fir trees, and so it was the belief of the Aztecs that these butterflies bore the spirits of dead ancestors.
- Part of the Halloween tradition in colonial America involved the baking of a Halloween cake. Bakers would hide various things in the cake to tell the future, and if you bit into a thimble, it was said you would be unlucky in love.