There’s something about Halloween that excites even the most hardened heart. When a holiday combines a nationwide street festival, frightening fun, delicious treats, and even the prospect of contact with the spiritual realm, it can’t be ignored. And as one of the most ancient holidays in the world, it has grown to be celebrated in a variety of ways by a multitude of cultures.
The first traces of Halloween can be found in the pagan festival of Samhain, pronounced “sow-in.” Samhain was celebrated annually, on the first day of November, by the ancient Celts over 2,000 years ago, and included bonfires, feasts, costumes, and offerings to the spirits.
These ancient Celts believed that Samhain was the time when the barrier between the world of the material and spiritual worlds was at its thinnest, and so they set places at their tables for the spirits of deceased loved ones, and appeased other types of godlike spirits with food and drink to stave off ghostly mischief.
Over the next centuries, the pagan rites of Samhain were absorbed into the Christian holy days, All Souls’ Day and All Saints’ Day, and evolved into a number of different celebrations as celebrants moved throughout the world, carrying their traditions with them and integrating them into other cultures.
While these variations on Halloween are many, the core still remains the same: coming at the intersection between summer and winter, this is a day when life and death connect. Let’s take a look at how a few different cultures around the world handle this Halloween theme.
Ireland was once home to the pagan festivities of Samhain, and is considered by many to be the birthplace of Halloween. Today, the Irish celebrate by combining contemporary Halloween with ancient customs.
You’ll find many familiar Halloween practices in Ireland on October 31st, most notably costumed children, trick-or-treating, fireworks displays, and games.
But here, you’ll also find older modes of celebration, such as the Spirits of Meath Halloween Festival, which is held in County Meath, a possible birthplace of Samhain.
In festivals like these, there are bonfires, traditional food, and an emphasis on the “trick” in trick-or-treating, wherein kids knock on doors and dash away before the owner can catch them.
In China, you’ll find the hungry ghost festival, which is celebrated throughout both China and Hong Kong for an entire month, beginning on the fifteenth day of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. While this is celebrated a month or two before Halloween occurs in the Western world, the themes are much the same.
During this month, Chinese tradition holds that ghosts and spirits, including those of deceased ancestors may exit hell and enter the world of the living. These are the spirits of those who were never given the proper rituals after death, and so families make offerings of food and drink, as well as burning paper offerings.
Feasts are held, and food is laid out for these spirits on offering tables to ward off bad luck for the year, and lotus-shaped lanterns are floated on rivers that head out into the sea. This symbolizes the guidance of lost souls into the afterlife.
In Germany, Halloween is observed as All Saints’ Day, which is the Christian holiday that the Catholic Church likely set in place to replace the pagan celebrations of Samhain, blending pagan and Christian celebrations.
This day is spent attending church, giving honor and respect to martyred saints, as well as deceased friends and family members. Interestingly, Germans hide knives on this day so that wandering spirits won’t be accidently harmed by the movements of a blade.
There is no nation, perhaps, that puts on a bigger Halloween party than Mexico with its Dia de los Muertes—Day of the Dead—festival.
This event is celebrated from October 31st to November 2nd, and is actually rooted in All Souls’ Day rather than more contemporary and secular Halloween festivities.
Make no mistake—this is a massive event. Revelers don colorful costumes, participating in parades and street parties. All of this is designed to honor the dead who are believed to return to their ancestral homes during this time, and many families build altars to honor these spirits, decorating it with candy, photos, and flowers, as well as the deceased’s favorite foods and drinks.
Relatives also take this time to clean up their departed relatives’ grave sites, adorning them with flowers and streamers.
In parades, people often dress as skeletons, painting their faces to look like bone, and fruit is tossed to the surrounding crowds. Special bread is prepared, known as “Bread of the Dead,” and within these loaves are placed skeletons made from sugar.
Mexico celebrates Halloween as a festival of both life and death, honoring each with fervor.
South Koreans celebrate Chuseok, which translates to “Autumn eve.” This holiday is a harvest festival celebrated on the 15th day of the 8th month of the lunar calendar, and falls around the autumn equinox.
In an ancient memorial rite that has been performed in Korea for thousands of years, Koreans place food on a table in a special arrangement in an offering to their deceased ancestors, whom they believe are still alive, and will protect their descendants. Rice and soup are placed at the north end of the table, fruits and vegetables at the south, and at the west and middle lie meat dishes. On the eastern side of the table is placed rice cake and drinks.
As we’ve seen in many other traditions, Chuseok is all about honoring and sustaining the dead as they pass into the world of the living.
A Common Thread
Nearly every nation in the world celebrates their dead in the transitional time between summer and winter. No matter if you believe that this is because of a real spiritual quality of this time, or simply because the end of the green season brings about thoughts of mortality and the coming of a perilous winter, this is a significant time for many.
This Halloween, take some time from the commercialization to remember your ancestors and departed loved ones. While they remain in your heart and memory, they still have life, and your relationship to them remains real. And that realization is what this holiday is really all about.