Halloween around the world
29th October 2014
Ouija boards at the ready! We’ve been looking at how other cultures celebrate the souls and spirits of their ancestors – it makes for a spookily interesting read…
Although Halloween is believed by many to have originated in America, in Ireland the Celts celebrated Samhain – also known as All Hallowtide or the Feast of the Dead – as early as the sixth century! The celebration marked the end of summer and the start of the winter months when it was believed that the dead revisited the mortal world. During the eighth century, the Catholic Church designated the first day of November as All Saints Day (All Hallows) – a day of commemoration for saints without a specific day of remembrance. The night before was known as All Hallows’ Eve, which, over time, became known as Halloween.
Although the origin of the popular jack-o-lantern is uncertain, one legend has it that this particular tradition dates back centuries to an Irish blacksmith called Jack; after conspiring with the devil, Jack was denied entry into Heaven. Condemned to wander the earth alone in the darkness, he asked the devil for a guiding light and was given a burning coal ember, which he placed inside a turnip. Over time, Jack and his lantern became the symbol of a lost soul; on Halloween, people in Ireland scared these souls away by carving faces on turnips.
Another Irish tradition still popular today is snap apple, where an apple is tied with a piece of string suspended from a height. Children are blind folded and a prize is given to the person who manages to take a good sized bite from the apple.
When over 2 million Irish fled to America during the Great Famine of 1845-1852, they took some of their Halloween customs and traditions with them. Americans have adapted these traditions somewhat in the commercialisation of the holiday, for example, by using pumpkins as jack-o’-lanterns as they are in much greater supply. All Hallows’ Eve is celebrated every year on 31st October and in addition to playing traditional Irish games, children dress up in spooky costumes and play Trick or Treat, knocking on their neighbours’ doors to ask for sweets; if no sweets are offered, some children play a mischievous trick to get revenge. Halloween celebrations can now be seen throughout the globe, particularly in the UK, France and Germany. However, some countries have their own spooky holidays and religious rituals at different times of the year to celebrate the dead.
Scottish traditional beliefs say that Halloween is when witches are able to walk among the living. On Halloween night, an empty chair would traditionally be left for a departed family member, along with a plate of food, in case their spirit wished to come and eat. Much like the Irish tradition, turnips and not pumpkins were originally the vegetable of choice for carving into lanterns. Halloween bonfires were (and still are) lit to ward off evil spirits, and children dressed up, pretending to be spirits because their parents believed this would disguise them and prevent them from becoming targets instead. Unlike today, originally when trick-or-treating, children would have to sing or tell stories and recite poems in order to receive a threat. As well as bobbing for apples, nowadays children also play a game called treacle scones, where a scone is covered in treacle and hung from a piece of string; the aim of the game is to catch the scone with your mouth and take a bite! You can still see the pagan roots of the tradition alive and well in Scotland today, with performances from groups such as the Beltane Fire Society, which you’ll be able to catch in Edinburgh putting on a Samhuinn Fire Festival on Halloween night this year.
Austrians begin their celebrations on 30th October, which is known as the religious event All Saints’ Day, and marks the start of Seleenwoche – a week where Martyred Catholic saints are remembered. On All Saints’ Day itself, bread, water and lanterns are left on a table in every home in the hope of welcoming dead souls and spirits for this one night. It is traditional to celebrate this festival with the whole family by attending a special Requiem Mass, walking through graveyards with lanterns to guide the spirits through the dark and placing the lanterns on the graves of loved ones. In addition to the religious aspect, the Austrians have adapted American customs in the form of their annual Kürbisfest (Pumpkin Festival) in Retz, where you will find a Halloween Parade and even a pumpkin harvest!
In Portugal, Halloween on 31st October is celebrated by children dressing up and going trick-or-treating, as well as taking part in pumpkin-carving competitions in schools. The first day of November, All Saints’ Day, is a national holiday in Portugal. Traditionally, children go from door to door to do a different type of trick-or-treating on All Saints’ Day morning, asking for pão-por-deus (bread in God’s name) and reciting poems in exchange for bread, cakes, fruit or nuts. Later in the say, families cover the graves of their loved ones in candles and flowers.
In keeping with Mexico’s reputation as one of the major festival capitals of the world, they certainly don’t let themselves down with el Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead). Celebrated as a time during which the living and the dead are reunited, festivities take place throughout the country to honour the lives of the departed. Steeped in tradition, festival’s origins are deeply rooted in the country’s indigenous heritage, dating back thousands of years. However, it is thought that the modern Day of the Dead festivities were introduced by the Aztecs, who dedicated the festival to the Goddess Mictecacihuatl, otherwise known as the Lady of the Dead – spooky! The celebrations began in the ninth month of the Aztec calendar and lasted four whole weeks!
Since the Spanish conquest of the Aztec Empire in the sixteenth century, the festival has taken place on the first two days of November, corresponding with their own Catholic holidays. The Conquistadors believed that the celebrations were sacrilegious but despite their best efforts to suppress the festivities, the folk customs of El Día de los Muertos prevailed. Every year to this day, Mexicans prepare for the arrival of the deceased by building spectacular ofrendas – altars covered with marigolds (a symbol of death) and adorned with foods such as Pan de Muerto (Bread of the Dead), candied pumpkin and sugar skulls. These ofrendas serve as a welcoming gesture for the spirits of the dead and some people even leave out pillows and blankets for the deceased to rest after their journey. Although every town may have slightly different rituals and traditions, El Día de los Muertos is recognised throughout Mexico as a time of celebration, offering people the opportunity to welcome back the souls of their loved ones for two days.
The O Bon Festival is an annual Buddhist celebration, which generally takes place in mid-August, although some Eastern regions celebrate in July. It is Japan’s version of Halloween, during which people carry out special traditions and rituals to welcome back the spirits of their ancestors. On the first day, the Japanese hang chochin lanterns outside their doors and light fires to entice their beloved deceased. Traditional kimonos and yakkatas are worn (no spooky fancy dress here) and they cook a wide range of tasty token foods, in addition to performing a variety of Nembutsu folk dances, which differ from region to region. On the last day of O Bon, the spirits are said to float back down the rivers to the oceans on toro nagashi (floating paper lanterns).
Although some people in China do celebrate Halloween on 31st October in much the same way as in the US – carving pumpkins and dressing up, for example – China’s own version of Halloween is called the Hungry Ghost festival – and takes place much earlier in the year, in mid-July, lasting for around two weeks. During the Hungry Ghost festival, which is linked to Taoism, Chinese people light paper lanterns and float them down rivers in remembrance of the dead. There are also some more sinister traditions, as it is believed that for the two weeks of the Hungry Ghost festival, the gates of the underworld stand open and spirits walk the earth searching for human hosts. When walking down the street, for example, you must say “excuse me” when changing direction, whether there is someone there or not.
In mid-August, the Koreans celebrate Chuseok, which is a cross between Halloween and Thanksgiving. There are three main rituals that should be carried out by every family before gorging on lashings of food and playing traditional games. The first of the tree is bulcho, where each family visits the cemetery and pulls out the weeds that have grown around the graves of their ancestors of four generations. This is followed by sungmyo, a time during which the family shows respect to the dead by bowing and leaving alcohol, rice and fruits on the tidied graves. Finally, the family returns to their home and sets the table in a very specific way: lighting candles, setting out cups and dishes for each person, known as charye.
Although the people of Nepal don’t celebrate Halloween as such, during the Nepalese month of Bhadra (August-September), the Gai Jatra (the Festival of Cows) takes place to commemorate the death of those who have passed away. During the festival, all families who have lost a loved one at any point during the preceding year must lead a cow in a procession through the streets of Kathmandu. If for any reason a family cannot find a cow, a young boy dressed up as a cow is also acceptable. Why a cow? In Hinduism, cows are considered to be sacred animals and it is believed that they will help the dead on their journey to heaven. The festival of Gai Jatra aims to help people to accept the inevitability of death but at the same time, prepare themselves for the afterlife. It is certainly not a sombre event! After the procession, the festival continues as participants dress up in costumes and fill the air with song and laughter.