The idea of Halloween can be traced back to the ancient Celts and the festival of Samhain. Two thousand years ago, November 1 marked the end of summer and the beginning of the new year. As the dark and cold of winter came on, people believed that the dead returned to the earth, and they were most active the night of the last day of the year – October 31. To honour the event, people gathered around bonfires dressed in costumes consisting of animal heads, and tried to tell each other’s fortunes.
After the Romans conquered the Celtic territories, they merged Roman (Christian) holidays with the Pagan rituals of the Celts. Samhain became All Saints Day, and the night before was known as All Hallows Eve.
The UK and Ireland
In Ireland, bonfires are often still lit in rural areas. Children dress in costumes and go trick-or-treating in their neighbourhoods. Sometimes the evening includes a party with apples on a string that must be bitten without the use of the player’s hands. Other traditions include harmless pranks played on neighbours, and ‘barnbrack’ – a cake with a treat baked inside it. If you find the treat, your fortune for the coming year can be foretold.
Scotland also has a history of Celtic rituals. Children there would venture out carrying a carved lantern to frighten away fairies. These lanterns were commonly made from turnips or beets. This tradition has evolved into the carving of pumpkins. Apple dunking or trying to capture a hanging scone coated with jam, are common party games.
In England and Wales kids also dress up and go out to collect treats. Party games include ‘bobbing for apples’, a game similar to that played in Ireland, but the apples float in a tub of water rather than being hung from the ceiling. Toffee apples or apple tarts are a common party food, and some may recall the older tradition of baking soul cakes for those that had passed.
Folks in Canada have adopted many Halloween traditions. Most homes feature a carved pumpkin outside at Holloween, and kids dress up and go from door to door to collect candy. However, these days many neighbourhoods are foregoing the trick-or-treating in favour of organized parties.
The western version of Halloween is becoming popular in most Asian countries as travel and television spread the customs east. Some countries, however, continue the more ancient tributes to the dead.
In China, ‘Yue Lan’ is seen as a chance to offer gifts to spirits, providing them with comfort – and a reason to leave. In some Buddhist temples, paper boats are burned to give freedom to the spirits of those who died but were unable to be buried.
Japanese traditional celebrations entail specially prepared foods and lanterns. Fires are lit during ‘Urabon’to invite the ancestors back into the family. Many times lanterns are lit and set adrift on rivers and lakes as part of the event.
‘Pangangaluluwa’ is still celebrated in the Philippines and is similar to the old English custom of souling. Children are required to sing in order to receive money or a small treat. Originally the children sang carols and asked for alms to pay for masses for the dead. The older customs are giving way to the simpler request of asking for candy, although the tradition of tending to the graves of the deceased is still widely practiced.
In India and Nepal, ‘Kali Puja’ is a close cousin to Halloween celebrations. Worshipers believe that evil forces rise up on this night of the new moon, and children dance and sing in their communities to honour the Goddess Kali who is victorious over evil. In exchange for foods, sweets and money, the children offer a blessing on the houses of their neighbours.
The Day of the Dead is still the prevalent holiday in much of Latin America. This is a three-day celebration of the dead and the living as the dead return to their families to receive honour and be remembered. Simple altars are constructed with flowers and candy is placed around photographs of the deceased. Relatives gather around graves to share stories and a meal with the dead. The entire event is about the joy and continuity of life, despite the association with the dead.
Most of the countries of Europe follow the trend of costumes and candy. In Romania, however, they have taken Halloween to the extreme and incorporated the legend of Dracula into the events. Witch trials are reenacted and a huge party takes place in Sighisoara, the birthplace of Vlad the Impaler.
In some of the larger cities in Poland, the candy thing is catching on, but for most people it’s a time to quietly visit the graves of the dead. All Saints Day is actually a sad event, and partying the night before just doesn’t seem appropriate.
Italian celebrations of the day are somewhat regional and include traditional costumes and food. In ancient times, fava beans were a ritual offering to the dead and the gods that protected them. Today, fava bean-shaped cookies are baked as part of the ‘Giorno dei Mort’.