As each year passes, it seems there’s an even greater fascination in all things Halloween. It is estimated that Halloween spending in the US has reached a staggering $9 billion each year. A phenomenal amount to invest in ghoulish costumes, decorations and sweet treats for one night only.
Most known for its ‘trick or treat’ element, Halloween, also called All Hallows’ Eve, or All Saints’ Eve in some cultures, is a holiday that dates back some 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. The Celts associated this passing of the seasons with an obscurity between the living and the dead, and leading to the emergence of ghosts of the deceased making an unearthly appearance on this final October night.
For many countries, Halloween is not celebrated as a Scare-fest but more as a spiritual ceremony of great sentiment. Here Peak Translations looks at how different countries mark this time of year.
It seems apt to introduce this ancient holiday with America, as this is the country most associated with Halloween rituals. About 70% of the population embrace Halloween by decorating their homes and offices, putting almost as much effort into this as they do Christmas. ‘Candy’ sales too skyrocket 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 for the promise 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, with adults and children alike adopting the same scary costume parties 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’.
Oíche Shamhna Shona Daoibh
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, only beginning its celebrations 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) gracing the streets of Retz near Vienna during the last week of October. Today the festival is no longer unique to Retz. 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, 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)!
Felice Vigilia d’Ognissanti
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.
(No greeting as with other countries, as not seen as appropriate)
‘El Día de los Muertos’ (Day of the Dead) is a joyous Halloween celebration in Mexico, celebrated between 31st October and 2nd November, 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. On 1st November Día de los Inocentes or Día de los Angelitos is celebrated to honour deceased children and infants, whereas the 2nd November honours those adults who have passed, Día de los Difuntos.
万圣节快乐 (Wàn shèng jié kuài lè)
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 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 countries like Mexico and in South East Asia, 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.
From the quirky to the intriguing, there’s more to Halloween celebrations across the globe than meets the eye…
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