Halloween, or All-Hallows Eve, is derived from Celtic festivals and medieval pagan celebrations that first originated in Britain. However, over the years Halloween has changed from a religious and social rite to a family-friendly, seasonal holiday. Halloween as we recognise it today is a greatly commercialised version of what it used to be, with costume, parties, decorations and candy.
Halloween first began to change form into the Westernised version commonly practised in many countries over the world in 18th century North America. In the US and other countries that have adopted the modern Halloween, the 31st consists of children dressing up in scary costumes (such as ghosts, monsters and vampires) as they go house to house trick-or-treating. Other activities include pumpkin carvings, watching horror movies, visiting haunted houses and other party games such as apple-bobbing. Apple-bobbing comes from the Irish traditional game of snap apple- hanging an apple from a string as party goers attempt to bite it.
Much of our Halloween activities originate from Gaelic roots-practices throughout Ireland. Folk customs included several rituals including telling people’s futures through divination rituals (such as scrying with special bonfires lit for their protective and cleansing powers).
Many countries have their own unique ways of celebrating the fundamentally religous holiday, that are traditionally engrained in their national cultural customs.
Many countries have their own unique ways of celebrating the fundamentally religious holiday, that are traditionally engrained in their national cultural customs. Perhaps the most famous example being ‘Día de Muertos’ (Day of the Dead), a Mexican holiday celebrated throughout South America and Hispanic regions such as Spain. The multi-day celebration begins on the 31st October and ends on the 2nd November- each day focusing on mourning and praying for dead friends and family. The 3 different days are dedicated to different people who have died: the 1st November is ‘Day of the Innocents’, to honour deceased children, the 2nd ‘Day of the Dead’ honours deceased adults, and the final day is a celebration for all which includes decorating the graves of loved ones. During the fiesta, the traditionally bright yellow marigold flower of the dead adorns graves and tombs, and sugar skulls, tissue decorations and cardboard skeletons are used to embellish houses and graveyards. The festival is a fun celebration to remember the happy memories with deceased loved ones, and to share jokes and anecdotes about their lives.
In Japan, the festival ‘Obon’ is considered similar to Halloween due to the focus on honouring the spirits of one’s ancestors. This is expressed by cleaning their graves in the hope that their spirits will visit their household alters. It is a three-day celebration in the middle of summer, and consequently it is traditional that people wear light cotton kimonos or yukata. ‘Bon Odori’ is a traditional dance performed during Obon, or ‘Bon’ as it is often known. It is a folk dance to welcome the spirits of the dead. The celebration varies from region to region, with each region having different music and local dance, so the celebration will look different depending on where in the country you go. The dance typically involves people lined up around a high circular wooden scaffold, as they dance in various directions around it.
The Ghost Festival is a traditional Taoist and Buddhist festival held in Asian countries. Although it falls in late summer, it is often compared to Western Halloween because it signifies the opening of the gates of Hell and it allows all ghosts to receive food and drink. Family members offer send prayers to dead relatives and burn items are made from Joss paper (such as cars and houses) to appease spirits and give them valuable things in the after-life. Tributes are paid to wandering ghosts of other families to prevent them from intruding on people’s lives and causing misfortune. A large feast is held for the lost ghosts as people bring offerings of food and drink and place it upon a table to ward off bad luck. Finally, Chinese lanterns in the shape of lotus flowers are made, lit and put to float on rivers and seas and act as a symbolic guide to lost souls and ancestors through the afterlife.
During Halloween, residents in the Philippines traditionally return to their hometowns to buy flowers and candles in preparation for the Christian celebration of All Saints Day. In recent centuries during Halloween in Scotland and Ireland, special foods such as colcannon (mash potato and cabbage) and cranachan (traditional Scottish dessert made with fruit and cream) would have hidden items within them and served out at random. Finding a coin means the person will become wealthy whilst a ring signifies they will become married. Exhibiting the diverse culture behind one of our favourite childhood customs, it appears that the world’s fascination with all things ghoulish will only continue to increase in popularity.