Halloween is often perceived to be a predominantly American affair, along with trick or treating children and theme park horror nights. Thought to have originated in Europe, Halloween falls on 31 October each year and is marked in a variety of different ways across the globe.
While All Hallows’ Eve has been traditionally marked by Christians on October 31st, with prayers and fasting ahead of the feasting of All Saints’ Day the following day, it’s widely believed that the origins of Halloween evolved from an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain, which was then Christianised by the early Church.
A Gaelic word meaning ‘end of the summer’, Samhain was a Pagan Celtic festival marking the end of the harvest and the beginning to preparations for the coming winter. According to some scholars, the festival also honoured the ‘Lord of the dead’ and was marked by bonfires and celebrated the abundance of food after the harvest.
However, there are also those who believe that Halloween celebrations developed independently of Samhain, as a celebration of the eve of All Saints’ Day.
Ireland and the UK
Many Halloween traditions celebrated in Ireland remain much the same as they were centuries ago, with bonfires lit in rural areas and games centring around the harvest, including ‘apple bobbing’, where players attempt to bite apples floating in water and ‘snap-apple’, where players attempt to bite an apple hanging on a piece of string. Parents may also arrange treasure hunts for their children, hiding sweets and pastries for them to discover.
Historically Jack O‘Lanterns were carved from turnips in Ireland and Scotland and large beetroots in England and were intended to ward off unwanted visitors.
‘Guising’, an early form of trick or treating dates back to the Middle Ages in the UK and Ireland and saw costumed children go door to door begging for food items such as cakes in exchange for singing or prayers, often said to be on behalf of the dead. The tradition is now much closer to the US form of trick or treating, although costumes are limited to spooky characters, such as witches and skeletons.
While Halloween celebrations in the UK and Ireland may not be quite as big business for retailers as in the US, spending is growing and the evening of October 31st is now considered the second biggest party night of the year, behind New Year’s Eve, with millions of pounds spent on fancy dress, food and decorations.
Rest of Europe
On Halloween night in Austria, some people leave a light on and bread and water on the table before going to bed as it was once considered a night for dead souls to return, while a similar tradition in the Czech Republic sees chairs placed by the fireside for the spirits of dead family members. In Belgium candles are lit in memory of dead relatives.
While early American Halloween traditions closely resembled those of Ireland, with games based around the harvest, these days Halloween is big business in the US. It’s estimated consumers spend around $6.86 billion dollars each Halloween, which is around $72 per person.
In America Jack O’Lanterns are carved from pumpkins, a tradition now followed almost everywhere and trick or treating sees children in fancy dress carrying buckets to be filled with sweets. Here children are more likely to dress as their favourite TV character or superhero than a spooky witch or ghost.
While other countries including China and Japan have their own festivals to celebrate the dead, Mexico is unique in that their Day of the Dead, El Dia de los Muertos, coincides with Halloween.
A three-day celebration, which starts on 31 October and culminates with the day itself on 2 November, it’s thought to be a ancient festival, which has evolved throughout the years.
Celebrations see Mexican families remember the dead and rejoice in the continuity of life. Many construct altars in their home, which are then decorated with flowers, sweets and the deceased’s favourite foods and candles to help the departed find their way home.
On 2 November relatives gather at the graves of the those they have lost to tidy the area and adorn it with flowers before having a picnic and reminiscing.
Other traditions include the baking of ‘Bread of the Dead’ (loaves which contain sugar skulls or skeletons) and parades featuring people dressed as skeletons or carrying a casket containing a living volunteer, into which people throw fruit, flowers and sweets.