With Autumn solstice passed, the beautiful autumnal colours painting a palette of reds, oranges and yellows across our landscape, and the nights drawing nigh, one of the world’s oldest annual holidays is about to rear its ghostly head once again on October 31st, the night of Halloween, otherwise known as All Hallows’ Eve, or All Saints’ Eve in some cultures. When we think of Halloween, we often think its origins are American, but in fact, this holiday actually dates back about 2,000 years to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. History tells of the Irish Celts celebrating their new year on November 1st, which meant that October 31st was seen as the end of summer and harvesting, with winter’s hand starting to leave its cold and icy print. This crossing of seasons led the Celts to believe that there was an obscurity between the living and the dead, leading to the emergence of ghosts of the deceased who made their grand shadowy appearance on this final October night, hence the supernatural theme of Halloween making its lasting and eerie imprint.
As this tradition became embedded in cultures across the world, different countries practised their own Halloween customs, resulting in the diverse and unique traditions that exist today. Read on if you dare and let the spooky tales of Halloween traditions bring this spectral holiday into the light!
It seems apt to introduce this ancient holiday with America, as this is the country in which most people have believed Halloween originated, as well as the fact that both the U.S. and Canada reign the highest in the holiday’s global popularity stakes. About 65% of the population embrace Halloween by decorating their homes and offices, putting almost as much effort into this as they do Christmas, as well as ‘candy’ sales skyrocketing to more than any other time of year! As tradition dictates, only those windows that show off a ‘Jack O’Lantern’, a carved pumpkin with a ghoulish face lit from inside by a candle, invite hordes of trick-or-treaters to their doors to dish out oodles of candy and treats. Apparently this custom derives from the fact that if you weren’t kind to your ancestors, tricks galore would be played!
Since this holiday has Celtic origins, it is no wonder Halloween became popular in Canada in the 1800s with the arrival of Scottish and Irish immigrants. Akin to the U.S., Jack O’Lanterns are carved and put in windows to invite the young to come and trick-or-treat, as well as holding Halloween costume parties and decorating homes with corn stalks and pumpkins.
Halloween in the UK is almost on a par with the American and Canadian celebrations, the population adopting the same scary costume parties, dressing up for trick-or-treat, whether you’re an adult or a child, and carving pumpkins to put in the windows. Apparently the ‘trick-or-treat’ custom was originally known as ‘Mischief Night’ in England and instead of pumpkins, ghostly designs were carved into large beets, formerly known as ‘punkies’.
If Halloween traditions originate from the Celts and in particular Ireland, perhaps many of the customs that found root in America and Canada are courtesy of the Irish and Scottish immigrants. It is therefore understandable why so many Halloween traditions bare huge similarities between these countries. However, Ireland does have a few unique tricks up its sleeve in the form of ‘knock-a-dolly’, a trick played by children which would involve them knocking on their neighbours’ doors and disappearing when the doors were answered. Children also play the traditional Irish card game, which requires a bunch of face down cards covering candies or coins for the child to pick one and reveal their prize. Similar to finding a coin baked in a traditional Christmas cake, the Irish traditionally eat Barnbrack on Halloween; a fruitcake hiding a treat inside that supposedly foretells the future of whoever receives it, depending on the treat itself.
It appears that Germany arrived late to the Halloween scene beginning its celebration of this holiday in the 1990s. One notable Halloween event happens in the grounds of Burg Frankenstein near Darmstadt, where visitors receive the full chilling treatment of flickering lights, creepy music, shadowy ghosts and ghouls and scary creatures for a truly spooky haunted house experience. However not all Germans are wholly sold on the tradition, especially resentful of the trick-or-treat game, or the procession of children parading the streets on ‘Martinstag’, singing songs and reciting poems in the hope of receiving a treat. Despite the mixed views on celebrating Halloween in Germany, folklore sees people hiding their knives on Halloween night due to the belief that these implements might harm any returning spirits.
If you’re a fan of the pumpkin, then Austria is the place to celebrate Halloween with its Pumpkin Festival (Kürbisfest im Retzer Land), which graces the streets of Retz near Vienna during the last week of October. Today this festival is not unique to Retz, but has spread its pumpkin seeds to the region around Retz, where it takes the name of Bluza according to this region’s dialect. A particular Austrian tradition, bearing a resemblance to leaving Father Christmas and his reindeer a treat on Christmas Eve, involves some bread, water and a lighted lamp being left out on Halloween night before going to bed, a belief that was thought to welcome dead souls back to earth.
Similar to Halloween, they also celebrate Martini a few weeks later on 11th November, which equally favours costumes and lantern processions for children. And no, it has absolutely nothing to do with James Bond’s sophisticated tipple. Rather it takes a more saintly stance in the form of St Martin’s Day (Martinitag)!
Although the Anglo-Saxon way of celebrating Halloween on 31st October has spread its spectral wings across the globe and enveloped many Italians, Italy’s main holiday still remains All Saints’ Day on the 1st November, followed by All Souls’ Day on 2nd November. Customs in Italy reveal themselves in the form of bean-shaped cakes, known as Beans of the Dead, whilst southern Italian families cook up a special feast for the souls of the departed, followed by prayers in church for these souls. Meanwhile if their offerings have not been eaten, this signifies that the spirits disapprove of their home, thus casting evil over their house during the coming year.
Like Italy, the young seem to have embraced the trick-or-treat and costume party Halloween customs from across the globe, but hold fast their celebration of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day as the real celebration. Instead of a scary graveyard scene that many people associate with this time of year, the spectacle offers an experience that is far more magical and beautiful, with thousands of candles and flowers laid out to celebrate the lives of those dearly departed. Alongside this tradition, the Polish also welcome the visiting spirits and souls by leaving their doors and windows open for them.
‘El Día de los Muertos’ (Day of the Dead) is a joyous Halloween celebration in Mexico, which doesn’t involve the scary traditions of many other countries, but instead celebrates and remembers deceased family and friends. With the belief that their souls return home on Halloween, altars are constructed in the home and decorated with photographs, flowers, sweets and favourite dishes and drinks of the deceased to honour their lives. The burning candles and incense are meant as a way for the departed to find their way home.
Westerners introduced the Halloween tradition to China resulting in some areas decorating their homes with Halloween décor, but really the main celebration of Halloween is similar to that of Mexico in that a Halloween festival called ‘Teng Chieh’ is held, whereby food and water is placed in front of photographs of dead family members and lanterns are lit to help guide their spirits home on this particular night.
For the Japanese, the Halloween custom was introduced to them through the birth of Tokyo Disneyland and Universal Studios, which promoted Halloween as an exciting event that has since gained popularity. However, the Japanese also celebrate this time of year like China and Mexico, by means of the ‘Obon festival’, also known as ‘Matsuri’ and ‘Urabon’. Ancestors are honoured and shown the way home by preparing special foods and lighting bright red lanterns, which are hung everywhere, as well as setting them afloat on rivers and seas.
And now this ghostly narrative in all its mysterious splendour must draw to a close as the autumn nights close in, but dare to delve deeper into other cultures’ Halloween traditions missed from this tale and see for yourself the melting pot of quirky and intriguing apparitions!
By Madeline Prusmann, Project Manager, October 2017