A Worldwide Celebration of Halloween
- By Jenna Maxwell
Harvest, Halloween and Honoring the Dead: A Worldwide Celebration
Every autumn, as the leaves begin to change color, and the cool fall breezes begin to blow, here in the USA, we immediately start to think about Halloween. Halloween has been the longstanding favorite holiday of autumn for decades, but the history of this beloved holiday goes very far back in time. Halloween tends to be viewed by the world as an American holiday, but the truth is that Halloween has many origins and its traditions stem from celebrations that came from many different parts of the world. Halloween, harvest festivals and ceremonial holidays that honor the dead are celebrated annually in many countries around the globe. Take a trip around our lovely planet with us as we explore the many different celebrations throughout the world that have a lot in common with our version of traditional Halloween.
Austrians do not celebrate Halloween in the traditional sense, but a few old rituals remain in this country that are related to the old folklore that surrounds ancient Halloween traditions. In some Austrian homes, during the celebration of All Souls Week (Seelenwoche), which runs from October 30th to November 8th, lanterns will remain lit in order to welcome the souls of the dead back to the land of the living. In some Austrian homes, before bedtime a plate of bread and water will be left out, just in case any spiritual visitors require a snack.
In Belgium, Halloween is celebrated as the night before All Saints Day. All Saints Day occurs on November the 1st and is then followed by "The Day of the Dead" on November 2nd. Halloween costumes are popular in Belgium, particularly ghoulish characters like vampires and witches. Many large cities like Brussels will host Halloween festivals and parades, with revelers in full Halloween style regalia and costumes.
In Belgium, an old tradition states that contact with a black cat is particularly ominous around the time of Halloween. It is considered to be very bad luck to have a black cat enter ones home, boat or establishment. Because of the black cat's association with great misfortune, these animals are obviously to be avoided.
Halloween is celebrated in Canada much the same way as it is in the United States. Canadians can likely thank Scottish immigrants that made their way into Canada before 1870 for bringing their Halloween traditions along with them. These early Halloween customs evolved much in the same manner as the Halloween traditions that were brought by the Irish-Celtic immigrants that had come into the United States during Ireland's great potato famine.
Today, Halloween is extremely popular in Canada. Both adults and children enjoy participating in Halloween costume dress up as well as Halloween parties. Trick or treating is an annual ritual enjoyed by millions of Canadian children, with over 331 million dollars being spent annually on Halloween candy in Canada.
The Chinese people have their own holiday that is quite similar to Halloween. This annual celebration is known as "Teng Chieh" or the Hungry Ghost Festival. During Teng Chieh, Chinese people will leave plates of food and water out in front of photographs of their dead relatives and loved ones. Bonfires and lanterns are commonly lit on this night in order to light the way for the spirits as they make their way back home.
Buddhist worshippers will commonly make symbolic items out of special paper to burn as offerings to the dead. These offerings serve as a form of remembrance and are thought to help aid the deceased as they make their way into heaven. It is believed that the souls of the deceased that are out wandering about during this festival are those that did not have a proper funeral or burial upon their death. Thus, these spirits may be considered to be somewhat dangerous by the Chinese.
Although Halloween is gaining popularity in the Czech Republic, it is not a traditional holiday in this country. A lot of vampire lore is buried in Czech culture, however, and that does tend to fit in well with the theme of Halloween. Back in ancient days in the Czech lands, folks were known to take some very extreme measures in order to keep what might be a vampire dead in the grave. Archeological evidence from over one thousand years ago has been uncovered revealing the skeletal remains of bodies with oddly severed heads. The heads had been cut off and then turned around, so that the head faced the ground. The bodies were subsequently weighted down with numerous stones. These practices, however bizarre they may sound, were actually quite common when vampire hysteria was rampant in Europe and superstitious people would do what they felt was necessary to keep the dead, the dead.
In some places in the Czech Republic, during the "Commemoration of the All Departed" it is a tradition to visit and decorate the graves of the deceased with flowers. Family members will then set an empty chair near the fireplace in their home for each family member, whether they are living or already deceased. Czech legends state that living people can speak with the deceased during this time.
In 1606, a man named Guy Fawkes had a plan to blow up the Parliament building and assassinate the King of England, James I. The plan was foiled, as Mr. Fawkes was caught red-handed, sitting right next to thirty-six containers of gunpowder. After Mr. Hawkes sinister plan failed, he was subsequently executed by torture as punishment for being a traitor to England. Englanders began celebrating the day the plan failed and called it Guy Fawkes Day. The festivities that took place focused around great bonfires in which effigies of Mr. Fawkes were often burned. Guy Fawkes Day was a day of gratitude and thanksgiving. Some historians believe that since most of England did not celebrate Halloween or All Saints Day, Guy Fawkes Day may have become a replacement holiday, taking the place of the ancient Celtic celebration of Samhain. In England, Guy Fawkes Day became a celebratory day marked with huge bonfires, fireworks, feasting and the burning of likenesses of Guy Fawkes. Children often pushed around carts with effigies of Guy Fawkes inside, requesting pennies from passerby's--this tradition has some similarities to modern day trick or treating. Today, Guy Fawkes Day celebrating is often called bonfire night and is frequently combined with other forms of Halloween celebrating because November 5 falls very closely to October 31st.
French people do not typically celebrate Halloween, although a good costume party is well received by most French folks who tend to enjoy dressing up. The French view Halloween as a largely American custom and aside from a few modern day French hipsters, the holiday isn't embraced by very many of the locals. Some French retailers do try to take advantage of the holiday, however, and in some areas, during the month of October you may see signs suggesting "une citrouille" for pumpkin carving.
Some German people celebrate a holiday commemorating all of the Saints, while also remembering the faithful yet departed. These holidays are similar in theme and origin to Halloween and are known as Allerheiligen (All Saints Day) and Allerseelen (All Souls Day). It is an old German tradition to put all knives away during this time because spirits of the departed may return to visit. This old ritual was done to ensure that no harm could befall on any of the returning spirits.
Although German children typically do not go out trick or treating, it is very common in the fall to see stores in Germany selling Halloween costumes and other Halloween related merchandise. Haunted houses and other spooky venues are also becoming more and more popular in Germany.
German citizens also celebrate a holiday known as "Walpurgisnacht" on April the 30th. German legend states that during Walpugisnacht, witches will gather on top of Mount Brocken in order to wait for spring to arrive. Like Halloween, the celebration of Walpurgis Night has pagan origins and has traditionally been celebrated with the lighting of bonfires and holding great feasts. Childish pranksters often use Walpurgisnacht in order to create mild forms of mayhem.
Halloween in the traditional sense is not celebrated in Haiti. Many Caribbean countries forbid and altogether shun Halloween because they misunderstand Halloween as a celebration of devil worship. Most likely because of the misinterpretation of what Halloween means, some Haitians can even feel afraid of Halloween and many of its traditions. Haitian people do celebrate a traditional Haitian Day of the Dead, called Ghede. During Haiti's Day of the Dead celebration, homage is paid to Baron Samedi, who is the Vondon God of Death. During Ghede, Baron Samedi is honored because the Haitian people view this god as a wise and great leader as well as one who can protect their children. Baron Samedi is also considered to be the last hope for the gravely ill.
On November 2, Haitians will spend the morning hours praying and attending church. After church, they will dress in the colors most associated with Ghede, namely white, purple and black. Sometimes the revelers will paint half of their face white, with one eye painted black. Gravesites of friends and loved ones will be visited and cleaned, with offerings of food being left for the deceased.
Ireland could arguably be considered the birthplace of what we now know as Halloween. Halloween began in the Celtic lands, 2000 years ago, as a pagan celebration that marked the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. This festival was known as Samhain. When Christianity began to spread through the European lands, rather than attempt to take away one of the people's favorite annual celebrations, Christian leaders instead tried to adapt this holiday into a Christian celebration that marked the honoring of Saints. This holiday was known as "All Saints Day" and the night before became known as "All Hallows Eve."
Samhain had always been a traditionally mystical and somewhat supernatural time for the Celtic people. During the time surrounding Samhain, it was believed that the veil between the living world and the afterworld became very thin, allowing the spirits of the dead to come back and intermingle with the living once again. Local villagers were very superstitious and wanted to avoid any potentially dangerous situations with any spirits that might have evil intentions. Some protective measures were taken to avoid any possible frightening situations. For example, costumes were often worn during the Samhain festivities as disguises. Frightening masks and scary costumes were hoped to confuse the returning spirits and make the living also appear to be one of the dead. Rudimentary lanterns carved with scary faces were fashioned from turnips. Once lit, these lanterns offered up light, but also were thought to ward off evil spirits as well.
Halloween in Ireland today has taken many of the old traditions of All Hallows Eve and given them a much more modern twist. Children love to dress up in Halloween costumes for Halloween and will also go trick or treating. Pumpkin carving also remains a popular Irish Halloween tradition. Snap Apple is a favorite Halloween game that is enjoyed by Irish children at Halloween time. Apples are dangled from strings and without the use of their hands; children will try to get a hold of the apple and using their mouth alone, try to get a bite out of it. The first player that gets a bite out of the apple is then declared the winner, and may even get a prize.
Barnbrack is a traditional Irish bread very similar to fruitcake that is commonly served in Ireland on Halloween. Muslin-wrapped treats are baked into the bread, each of the treats having significance to its ultimate recipient. When the bread is sliced, the treat received is said to determine one's upcoming fortune. For example, a ring may mean an imminent marriage, while receiving a piece of straw may mean great fortune is coming.
To a certain degree, Italians have adopted the Americanized version of Halloween into their culture, and why not? Halloween offers up a great excuse to dress up in costumes and have fun gatherings with friends and family, something that Italians traditionally love to do. In the past, however, Italy has been more inclined to celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day, both of which are historically closely linked to Halloween. Some religious leaders in Italy have expressed concern that some of the deep significance of these two sacred holidays may one day be overshadowed by the hoopla and fanfare of a more commercialized Halloween.
Historically it was very common in the times of Ancient Rome to have a day set aside in order to remember and honor the dead members of one's family. In the 7th century, Pope Boniface IV instituted All Saints Day as an officially marked day to remember all the saints that had died in the name of their religious beliefs. These religious leaders decided that it would be easiest for the people if they made All Saints Day a substitute holiday for the pagan celebration that was already being practiced annually. That celebration of course, was the ancient ritualistic festival known as Samhain. Samhain had also been a time to remember the dead and departed, so the eventual combining of these two holidays seemed logical at this time.
As time has passed, when it comes to Halloween celebrating, more and more American pop culture influences can be seen around Italy. Although traditions such as trick or treating have not taken a hold of the masses, to many Italians, Halloween still feels like a good time to have a party. For that reason alone, many Italians will continue to enjoy celebrating Halloween.
In the past decade or so, Halloween has become more and more popular in Japan. Once viewed as a fairly obscure American tradition, now the Japanese have taken an interest in this exciting holiday and have adopted many Halloween traditions into their culture. These days, it is not uncommon at Halloween time to see stores fully decked out in Halloween decorations offering up items for customers such as costumes and Halloween candy. Special Halloween editions of traditional Japanese treats have also been seen for sale in Japanese shops.
Although trick or treating is not a common practice in Japan, many other Halloween traditions have been fully embraced by Japanese citizens. Dressing up in costumes is very popular in Japan. Cosplay (dressing in costume for play) has always been a popular activity in Japan, thus Halloween has created another opportunity for Japanese costume fans to dress up as their favorite anime, movie or video game character. Halloween, like many popular western holidays, seems to be a perfect fit in Japan and its popularity is only gaining steam.
Large parades and events celebrating Halloween can be found in many large cities in Japan. The Kawasaki Halloween Parade is held annually at the Kunagawa Prefecture just outside of Toyko. The Yamate Seuiyoukan Halloween Walk is another annual event that celebrates Halloween with costumes, face painting and lots and lots of candy! Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo Universal Studios have likely done a lot to perpetuate the love of Halloween in Japan. At these two very popular venues, annual Halloween parades, attractions and a wide variety of festivities are the norm.
Japan also has its own unique and very special holiday that has been set aside to remember and honor their dead. This celebration is known as the Obon festival. The Obon festival is a 500-year-old Buddhist custom that is dedicated to remembering the spirits of one's ancestors. Gravesites of the deceased will be cleaned and decorated. The climax of the event is the release of floating lanterns on the rivers and seas. This gesture is symbolic of the spirits returning to the land of the dead.
Korea does not celebrate Halloween, but Korea does have an ancient holiday as part of its culture that is very similar to Halloween. Chuseok is not only marked by the harvest but is also a celebration that is set aside in order to remember the dead. The harvest festival known as Chuseok is a very old part of Korean culture, having been celebrated since about 57 BC. The festival always takes place around the time of the autumn equinox or on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar.
Chuseok likely celebrates the day when an ancient civilization known as Silla won a great victory over a rival kingdom known as Baekjo. It is thought that great competitions occurred in the areas of weaving cloth, archery, and martial arts.
Chuseok also was a time to make harvest offerings to ones dead ancestors. Even in modern day South Korea, families will sojourn to their homelands in order to pay homage at the gravesites of their loved ones for Chuseok. Graves will be visited and cleaned while offerings of food and harvest bounty will be left at the tombs.
Chuseok is a very old festival and existed long before Korea was divided into the North and the South. Today, South Koreans can enjoy celebrating Chuseok with family gatherings and many other festivities. In the North, due to poor infrastructure and harsher living conditions, traveling for gatherings and gravesite visits is not usually possible.
Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) has been a part of Latin American culture for centuries. Latin Americans use the Day of the Dead celebration in order to honor their friends and loved ones that have passed on. It is believed that the gates of heaven will open during this time of the year and that the living will be able to reconnect with those that have passed on.
In Mexico, the Day of the Dead is a significant religious celebration that is also a public holiday. During Dia de los Muertos, altars called ofrendas will be set up in homes. These altars will be decorated with photographs of the deceased along with candles, flowers (typically marigolds) and sugar skulls. A sugar skull is a brightly decorated skull-shaped candy or sculpture. Oftentimes, favorite foods and beverages of the deceased will also be left at the altar.
Brazilians will celebrate Dia de Finados on November 2nd by visiting the gravesites of loved ones and going to church. In Spain, many festivals and parades will be held to celebrate the Day of the Dead.
In Bolivia, the Day of the Dead is sometimes referred to as "The Day of the Skulls" or Dia de los Natitas. Family members save skulls of the deceased as it is thought that these skulls can watch over and protect the remaining living members of the household. During the Day of the Skulls celebration, these skulls will be dressed up, decorated with flowers and left offerings of food and beverage. Sometimes the skulls will be taken on a pilgrimage to La Paz where they will then receive a special blessing.
In Guatemala, the Day of the Dead is marked with the flying of giant kites. Family members will also sojourn to the gravesides of friends and family members.
Nigerians have a unique festival similar to Halloween called the Odo Festival. The event is so elaborate it is held only once every two years. During the Odo Festival, it is thought that the spirits of the dead will return to the land of the living and stay for approximately six months. Nigerians welcome these spirits back from the spirit world with great joy, as it is believed that these spirits serve an integral purpose in their communities.
During the festival of Odo, theatrical players will wear elaborate costumes and large masks as they reenact the lives of the deceased. These masks are often so huge that they require several people just to carry them. The women of the tribe usually do not take place in the role-playing but they do serve a large role in food preparation and other parts of the festivities. Music is a big part of the festival of Odo. Rattles, xylophones, drums and other rhythm instruments will add to the celebratory mood of the festivities.
One of the most important holidays to the Filipino people is All Saints Day, followed subsequently by All Souls Day. Although Halloween isn't a big part of Filipino culture, an old custom called Pangangaluluwa, bears a striking similarity to the old English custom of souling. Souling may likely be the predecessor to trick or treating, one of Halloween's most beloved pastimes. During the tradition of Pangangaluluwa, groups of Filipino children would go door to door and offer up songs in exchange for money or food. Songs describing Purgatory and asking for alms for the dead were often sung. Homeowners would then reward the singers with rice cakes or other small treats. Although nowadays this old tradition has lost much of its popularity, the celebration of All Saints Day and All Souls Day continues to be very strong in the Philippines.
During the celebration of these important holidays, the streets of the Philippines are busy with people traveling to the gravesites of their loved ones. The graves will be cleaned and decorated with flowers, candles, and other offerings. The event is traditionally very family-oriented as during this annual event family members will reunite and gather together to pray for their deceased and to remember the loved ones who have passed on.
Western influences have changed the face of Halloween in the country of Singapore. Although not a traditional holiday for the people of Singapore, nowadays at Halloween time many shops can be seen selling Halloween themed wares and costumes. More and more major Halloween events are scheduled every year as the people of this country have embraced the fun and excitement of Halloween.
Many traditional Singaporeans still celebrate the Chinese holiday known as "Zhong Yuan Jie/Yu Lan Jie" or the Hungry Ghosts festival. Traditional Chinese lore teaches that during the Hungry Ghosts festival, spirits of the dead will return to the land of the living to visit their relatives.
Romania has a unique connection to Halloween, as this country is very rich in vampire lore. Romania is the country where the infamous city of Transylvania is located. Every year, Transylvania becomes an obvious popular tourist attraction for Halloween revelers and thrill seekers to visit. Transylvania was the home to the historic figure Vlad Dracula, (also known as Vlad the Impaler) who inspired Bram Stoker's novel "Dracula." Back in the 15th Century, good old Vlad was rumored to have skewered on spikes or hung over 80,000 of his enemies, a fact that has gotten him quite a bit of notoriety. At Halloween time, Transylvania becomes a great spot for visiting the ruins of old castles and for vampire inspired re-enactments, story telling, not to mention costume parties. At Halloween time, tourists can find special tours that are dedicated to old castles, vampires and other "spookier" parts of historic Romania. Much of this part of Romania is idyllic and remains as it was many centuries ago. Visitors often feel as if they have gone back in time while visiting Transylvania. If you are looking for that perfect, on-location spot to celebrate your Halloween, Transylvania just might be the place to do it.
Although Halloween is considered to be an American holiday by most Swedish folks, the tradition of All Saints Day or Alla Helgons Dag is still celebrated throughout Sweden. During Alla Helgons Dag, family members will light candles and leave flowers at the graves of their loved ones as a form of remembrance.
The Swedes do not trick or treat, carve pumpkins or get into any of the most traditional parts of Halloween. Costume parties, however, are catching on and gaining popularity in Sweden, as younger generations are quick to recognize that dressing up in a costume and partying with friends is a great way to have fun!
United States of America
We've traveled the globe exploring the world's Halloween traditions, only to end up here at home in the USA once again. Although the United States' Halloween traditions can be traced to countries far and wide, for some reason, Halloween is often viewed as a very American holiday. Perhaps this is because when it comes to celebrating Halloween, people in the United States know how to do it on a very grand scale. Halloween has reached a new echelon when it comes to popularity with Americans. Over 7.4 billion dollars was spent in 2014 on Halloween decorations, costumes, and candy. When it comes to favorite holidays, many folks will say that Halloween is very high up on their list. Over 67% of Americans will be celebrating Halloween, whether it is by trick-or-treating or going to a costume party. Halloween has become a holiday that is no longer considered just for kids to enjoy. These days, grown ups will be getting dressed up in costumes and heading out to Halloween parties just as much as the younger set. Halloween is spooky fun for just about everyone!
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