It is almost that time again to don the costumes, light the bonfires, carve the pumpkins and put in your special coloured contact lenses for halloween. Yet whilst you do some last minute shopping for a great outfit, have you really considered what the event is all about? How many people know the history of halloween and where it came from. Far from being an American tradition you maybe surprised to know where halloween did come from and its history across the globe. In this post I’ll have a quick look at what countries celebrate halloween around the world.
Where did Halloween come from?
Whilst many people see Halloween very strongly celebrated in North America it would be wrong to think that is where Halloween originally came from. It is in fact common belief that Irish settlers brought this tradition to the North American continent in the last few hundreds of years. In fact, the event is still widely celebrated in Ireland itself.
What is the meaning of Halloween?
So what does halloween really mean? Well, halloween is believed to be a Celtic tradition going back hundreds of years, to at least the Middle Ages. The celebration is more correctly known as All Hallows’ Eve. (Hallows’ Eve became a single word of Halloween over time).
It is believed to have sprung from the Samhain festival. This was a time at the end of the harvest when people began preparing for the winter months. The Gaels believed that on 31st October the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped. Such an occasion created fear that the dead may come back to life and spread disease and ruin the crop.
It has always been an occasion for 31st October since it is on the eve of All Hallows’ Day, also known as All Saints’ Day which is on 1st November. This is followed on 2nd November by All Souls’ Day. In fact the three days between 31st October – 2nd November is sometimes referred to as Hallowtide.
So what countries celebrate Halloween around the world?
Australia and New Zealand
The lands “down under” don’t have a strong connection with the Halloween festival. It has often been attributed as an American invasion; leading to much debate over its Christian and Celtic connections. Celebrations have however been growing in popularity in recent times and kids love the novelty of dressing up in fancy Halloween costumes.
Halloween traditions have a little bit of a Santa Claus feel to them. Don’t be overly surprised to see locals leaving some bread and water out overnight to feed returning dead souls.
China, like many modern day festivals Halloween is an opportunity to commercialise to a target audience. This is generally towards foreign visitors and workers, often US citizens and Canadians but others too. In fact the Hong Kong Disneyland has an annual “Halloween Bash” to celebrate. There is also a practise of burning images of fruit and money, the thought being that the images would reach the spirits and bring them comfort.
People celebrate often by way of private parties. Whilst trick or treating can take place it is not too common due to many people residing in high rise apartment blocks.
On a more traditional approach, the local festival is otherwise known as Teng Chieh. As photos of former family members are accompanied by water and food.
Buddhism is widespread in China. Within Buddhist temples paper boats are burned in the evening, symbolising remembrance of the deceased and freeing their spirits.
On the evening of Halloween chairs are placed beside the fire. There is a chair for each living family member plus one for each family member’s spirit.
As someone who grew up in England in the 20th Century I know that maybe a decade or so ago, Halloween was not a festival of great note in modern culture. Whilst Christians give special prayers on All Saints and All Souls Days, the main unifying event tends to be 5th November. This is often referred to as Bonfire Night or Guy Fawkes Night. A big celebration is held with fireworks and a bonfire. The bonfire is donned with a “Guy” – an effigy of Guy Fawkes. This is a dummy or scarecrow like doll placed a top of the bonfire to be burnt. Prior to the lighting of the bonfire, you might see children on the streets carrying this doll like character asking “penny for the guy?” (- note it is for the guy, not The Guy Who Flies).
The tradition dates back to an event in 1605, when the catholic, Guy Fawkes was caught attempting to blow up the Houses of Parliament. His punishment was to be burned to death.
Guy Fawkes was caught on 4th November and this has traditionally become Mischief Night in the UK. Beware of teenagers on the streets up to no good on that evening.
In more recent times Bonfire Night remains the main event but the commercialisation of Halloween has grown. Pumpkins are carved and you’ll often find costume parties. Trick or treating is very popular, mostly by groups of young children (looking for sweets and treats) who are accompanied by parents.
Halloween also fell out of favour in the early 16th Century due to religious/political reasons. Martin Luther led the reformation of the Catholic Church in England which ultimately created the Protestant Church. All Saints’ Day was no longer celebrated since the Protestants didn’t believe in saints. Further, the anti-catholic movement was aided when originally the effigy on the bonfires was one of the Pope rather than Guy Fawkes.
Until quite recently the French were very resistant to any Halloween celebrations as they incorrectly attributed it to be an American tradition. In the last couple of decades the nation is slowly warming to the celebration and you may begin to notice a costume and a pumpkin or two.
Halloween was often subject to criticism by the Lutheran Church in times gone by and has hampered any long term Germanic tradition. In the last couple of decades the popularity has grown and close to a quarter of the population now take part one way or another. The former American zone of Berlin is a hot spot for Trick or Treaters.
You may also notice that all the knives in a household are put away into a safe place. This is a superstition to avoid the knives accidentally harming any returning spirits.
Considered by many as an originator of Halloween, celebrations are prominent across the country. Large gatherings take place for parties where people dress up. You’ll notice a lot of bonfires and maybe some fireworks or two whilst kids go trick or treating.
Long held traditional party games take place such as various forms of eating an apple. Even from my childhood I remember that you had to eat an apple hands free, either it was floating in a bowl of water (bobbing for an apple) or hanging on a piece of string. Believe me it is not easy but it is possible.
Even the lunchtime meal of Halloween has its own name, Colcannon. And there are some traditional Halloween foods to be eaten.
The 31st October celebration has grown in popularity in recent years, so much so that you might witness a zombie parade or two in heavily populated areas such as Kobe or Osaka. Hanging lanterns are not that unusual either.
A more traditional event is known as Obon or Bon-Odori which takes part earlier in the year. This Buddhist tradition seeks to honour the spirits and can take place over 3 days. Traditional Obon dances are performed and lanterns set to float down rivers.
As a strongly Christian nation, the feast of All Saints on 1st November is the main Halloween celebration. Traditionally instead of trick or treating a kind of carol singing takes place. This is locally known as Pangangaluluwa where people go from house to house and sing carols for the souls of those in purgatory. A request is made for alms to pay for masses in remembrance of the deceased. As well as money, children can receive rice cakes (suman).
A fun approach to costumes is not that unusual either. Don’t be too surprised to notice certain items of clothing disappear one night only to appear in the garden or outside the house the following morning.
In recent times the ghoulish celebration has become popular amongst small sections of Russian society. It is generally a fun event for the youth of the country however anti-Western political pressure is trying to stop future celebrations.
Italian traditions die hard and that is certainly the case in some parts of Sardinia. Celebrations are held on All Souls Day (2nd November) as torches are carried through the streets whilst carved pumpkins decorate house windows.
Whilst bordering England, the country of Scotland is still rich in its own Celtic traditions. The celebration of All-Hallows-Eve can be traced to the 16th century. Notable Scots have referred to this period including the poet Rabbie Burns who referred to is as “thought to be a night when witches, devils, and other mischief-making beings are all abroad on their baneful midnight errands.”
A rang of folklore traditions and divination practises exist and like the Irish, some involve apples. Children going from property to property in costume is an established tradition. The giving of food (and sometimes money) was seen as a practice to ward off evil spirits from amongst them.
The small nation of Singapore’s population is predominantly of Chinese and Malay origin. Hence old Chinese traditions are still strong parts of their culture including the Hungry Ghosts Festival (a kind of Chinese Halloween). This is where the ghosts of deceased family members return to visit their surviving relations.
Western influences however shouldn’t be underestimated in Singapore. Major Halloween celebrations take place around the city, including a near month long set of events at Universal Studios with Halloween Horror Nights, under the horrors of the Blood Moon!
In Spain and many Spanish speaking countries the festival is known as “El Día de los Muertos” (the Day of the Dead) and is spread over the 3 days of 31st October – 2nd November. Families will create an altar/shrine in their own home which is decorated with flowers, photographs, water and food. Cleanliness is also encouraged as a wash basin and towel is left out for returning spirits to wash their hands prior to eating. Candles and incense are also burnt to guide the spirits home.
On the 2nd of November families will visit gravesides to picnic and honour the dead.
So now that is decided there is only one last thing to think about, what will you wear this Halloween?