Halloween origins and overseas traditions

The 31st October is creeping closer, and if you’re living in another country or planning on moving abroad, you might want to do your research on how your new home celebrates All Hallows' Eve. Here’s some insight on Halloween origins and overseas traditions.

Halloween (Hallowe'en) origins

The celebration as we know it seems to have come from the ancient Gaelic festival of Samhain, which marked the final days of the light half of the year and welcomed in the dark half. It had strong harvest links, where people would gather the last remaining crops and food and store it for the coming months. The pagan Celts felt that Hallowe’en also allowed the barriers between our world and the next to be permeated, which allowed spirits to come through. It’s suggested that the traditional idea of dressing up as ghouls was to scare away other ghosts.

The term Hallowe’en is an abbreviation of All Hallows’ Evening, an old term for the Christian All Saints’ Day. Christian Popes Gregory III and Gregory IV decided to move the All Saints feast from May to November 1st, in an attempt to finish the pagan Samhain festivities. The Irish began the pumpkin carving tradition when a penny-pinching old man known as Stingy Jack, tricked the devil. His punishment for playing the trick was to walk the earth with a candle in a hollowed-out turnip to light his path. Now pumpkins are the carvers’ choice as they’re easier to carve and have better availability.

Lots of cultures celebrate Halloween differently, here are some of our favourite overseas traditions:

Austria

Austria doesn’t serve up sweets for their trick or treaters. Instead, residents leave water, bread, and a lit lamp on their table before going to sleep for the night. The belief goes that the offering welcomes back dead souls to earth. All Saints Week is also celebrated (Seleenwoche), which takes place between 30th October and 2nd of November. There are masses throughout the week which ends with the requiem mass held to remember loved ones that have passed. During All Saints Week, families decorate graves with lanterns and wreaths.

Mexico

You may already know of Mexico’s tradition as popular culture has seen an influx of references to Mexico’s Day of the Dead, also known as El Dia de los Muertos. The festivities begin on the 31st October and finish on 2nd November and takes a celebratory approach. Families picnic by the graves of loved ones and celebrate their time on earth, before going home to prepare altars. The altars are dressed with confectionary, floral displays, water, photos, and some of their loved one’s favourite foods and drinks. The last day is spent picnicking by their graves and maintaining the area in which they rest.

USA

If any country knows how to celebrate Halloween, it’s the USA. Costume parties, trick or treating, and pumpkin carving are all present, but on a large scale. Houses are elaborately decorated, costumes are impressive, and tales of witches and ghouls are shared. Halloween costumes also vary, with some Americans opting for a cute outfit rather than a traditional scary one. Trick or treating is said to originate from an idea that those faced with the question needed to show kindness to dead ancestors to eliminate the chance they’d play tricks on them. Now it’s evolved into a way of asking for sweets.  

Japan

Japan celebrates Halloween differently with an Obon Festival, which can also be called Matsuri or Urabon. The festival is devoted to the spirits of ancestors, and usually, employees are allowed to take long holidays from work. This festival takes place a little earlier in the year on August 15th, and you’ll see lanterns hung with candles in them – these are also placed on rivers to float into the sea. Fires are lit to welcome and guide spirits back to their homes, which are followed by send-off fires when the festivities draw to a close.

Philippines

In the Philippines, they also celebrate the dead in a tradition known as Pangangaluluwa on November 1st. People visit different houses singing songs about souls stuck in purgatory, and ask for food, money, and prayers in return. The singers are said to represent the trapped souls, who are asking for prayers from the living to help them escape limbo and be accepted into heaven.

France

If you’re used to a big Halloween celebration, you may find yourself adapting to a quieter event if you’re living in France. It’s a relatively new holiday for the French, with celebrating beginning in the 90s, and is considered a very much American tradition and even a threat to traditional French holidays. Halloween falls just one day before the widely celebrated national La Toussaint holiday on November 1st, where banks and businesses close to allow people to honour their lost loved ones with flowers on graves and church events. If children do celebrate Halloween by trick or treating, they instead ask either 'Des bonbons ou un sort?' which translates into ‘Candies or a spell?’, or 'Bêtises ou friandises?' which means ‘Mischief or sweets?’.

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