Halloween Traditions Around the World

Autumn has arrived in many parts of the world and with it a noticeable shift in the wind.  Days are shorter, nights are longer, and breezes are cooler.  Deep green leaves turn flaming red, orange, and yellow before drifting slowly down to Earth.  Everywhere things are preparing for winter:  animals arrange their hidden burrows, people gather their final harvests, and nature drops its colorful blooms in preparation for a long sleep under a snowy coat.  

And with autumn comes the arrival of the holiday season, and the first holiday celebration of fall is Halloween. First started by the Celts in Ireland as a festival called (Sah-win) Samhain, it was celebrated on November 1st to welcome the new year, give thanks for the harvest, and honor departed loved ones.  And over the centuries, this annual celebration has spread across the world and evolved into all sorts of wonderful celebrations and festivities.  So, let’s learn about some of these amazing events on or around “All Hallowed Eve” or “Halloween.”  

First, we travel to Austria, where locals don’t celebrate Halloween, but rather “Allerseelen” or “All Souls’ Day,” where they visit graves and light candles to honor departed loved ones.  They may also leave out bread and water at home or keep a light on to assist beloved spirits on their earthly visits home.  

In China, they celebrate (tang-she) Teng Chieh, or the “Hungry Ghost Festival.”  This event is held on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month (which rotates every year and lands between mid-August and early September).  At dusk, town folk present offerings of food and water for the spirits, display pictures of departed loved ones, and light fragrant incense.  It is hoped that by doing so, they will make wandering ghosts happy and these ghosts will then bestow blessings instead of punishment on the living.  After making these offerings, families gather for a big feast and leave an empty place at the table for a departed loved one.

In Hong Kong, another part of China, they have embraced America’s love of Halloween and turned it into a huge party.  Places like Hong Kong Disneyland and Ocean Park Hong Kong hold songfests performed by Disney villains, Halloween-themed street performances, costume parades, haunted houses, and more.   

But in France, they hardly celebrate Halloween at all.  In fact, they barely tolerate it.  They consider it a purely American event.  Instead, they honor All Saints Day on November 1st.  As you may have learned in one of our previous episodes, Pope Benedict IV created All Saints Day to honor Catholic saints instead of Celtic – and pagan – ghosts, witches, and fairies.  To this day, French citizens honor the religious aspect of Halloween by attending church services and visiting cemeteries to place flowers on loved ones’ graves.  

Germany doesn’t go overboard for Halloween but instead, they celebrate St. Martin’s Day on November 11th in honor of the Catholic Saint Martin who was a Roman soldier and later became a monk. On this day, thousands of people parade through town following a Roman soldier on a white horse.  At dusk, children fill the streets carrying lanterns and singing songs for candy, money, or treats.  Once at home, the children devour sweet rolls shaped like gingerbread men.  These treats are called “The Weckmann” and sport raisin eyes and white pipes dangling from their mouths.  November 11th is also the start of their festival season, which starts on the 11th minute past the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month and runs through the following February!

In Haiti, they celebrate Fet Gede, the “Festival of the Dead” or the “Festival of the Ancestors” which is derived from African traditions honoring the spirits of fertility and death.  On November 1st and 2nd, celebrations are held that are quite “spirited” and include lots of dancing and drumming in the streets, as well as singing and laughter.  People parade to graveyards where they joyously offer food, beeswax candles, flowers, and bottles of rum stuffed with chilis to please departed souls and bring good luck in the year ahead.  It is similar to a blending of Mardi Gras, Halloween, and Dia de Los Muertos and is a lively and colorful tradition on the island. 

Ireland is the original home of Halloween.  The Celts used to hold a celebration called “Samhain” on November 1st to welcome the new year and the start of winter.  At this time, they also celebrated the year’s harvest and honored departed loved ones.  Bonfires were lit at sundown, masks were worn, and feasts were enjoyed.  

Today, revelers in Derry light fireworks instead of bonfires and hold a huge carnival.  In Dublin, they enjoy a Halloween parade and ghost tours at Malahide Castle, the oldest inhabited castle in Ireland that is said to be haunted by five ghosts! One of their favorite Halloween treats is a dense cake called Barmbrack filled with raisins, currants, and other candied fruits. Inside these cakes, bakers hide a rag, ring, and coin.  It is believed that whoever gets the rag will join the church or have a rocky financial future, whoever gets the ring will find happiness or marry, and whoever finds the coin will enjoy a new year filled with prosperity. Of course, trick-or-treating is also a favorite pastime, too.

Just like in France, Italians celebrate “All Saints’ Day” or “La Festa di Ognissanti” on November 1st.  They spend the holiday enjoying time with family and exchanging presents.  On November 2nd, the citizens celebrate “All Souls’ Day” in honor of departed loved ones. They attend mass, leave chrysanthemums on graves, and hold a big feast.  They believe they are not only eating with their living family members on this day but also with departed loved ones. Special cookies called “Fave dei Morti” or “beans of the dead” are baked. And why the reference to beans, you may ask?  Well, in ancient Rome, beans were used during funeral services because it was believed they housed the spirits of the departed. 

In Japan, Halloween has only been celebrated since the year 2000 and was started at Tokyo Disneyland.  The Japanese don’t follow customs such as pumpkin carving or trick-or-treating, but rather hold huge parades and participate in cosplay, flash mobs, zombie runs, and street parties – or even big bashes on commuter trains!  

Throughout Latin America and Spain, locals hold celebrations for three days from October 31st through November 2nd and these may contain Aztec, Mayan, Incan, and Catholic traditions. Many believe the dead return home on Halloween night, so they erect colorful alters and decorate graves with candies, flowers, plants, food, and drink. 

On November 1st, they celebrate “All Saints’ Day.”  Covered “sitting rooms” are attached to family graves, where they honor their loved ones by bringing their favorite foods and music.  They may decorate alters, graves, or costumes with the orange-colored “Mexican Marigolds,” a pre-Columbus tradition performed by ancient tribes.  In some regions, they fly huge kites with attached messages as a way of communicating with the spirits or guiding them back to their earthly homes.  

November 2nd is known as “Dia de Los Muertos,” “Day of the Dead,” or “All Souls’ Day,” and lively events are held in a colorful celebration of life.  Parades and painted skeleton faces – called “Catrinas” or “Sugar Skulls” – are common, as are treats called “Tanta Wawas de Pan,” or “Bread Babies.”  These are sweet rolls baked in the form of infants, horses, stars, suns, and moons to signify life, death, and Mother Earth.  Candles are lit and incense are burned, all to welcome spirits back home.  

Halloween is not a huge event in The Netherlands besides trick-or-treating, but on November 11th, the Dutch celebrate the festival of “Sint-Maarten” in honor of the Catholic saint of the same name.  In the past, this day used to be considered a “beggar’s holiday” because St. Martin was known for his generosity towards the poor. These days, masses are attended and Dutch children carry lanterns through the streets, knocking on doors, and singing songs for candy.  Though less popular today, some revelers might light bonfires like the original Celts or conduct processions through town in honor of the saint. 

In the Philippines, citizens hold a three-day event called Pangangaluluwa, which starts on October 31st with a marathon of movies and TV shows.  On November 1st and 2nd, like in other countries, they visit graves with family members to honor departed loved ones.  The children also go door-to-door dressed up in costumes, but instead of asking for treats, they sing songs and ask for prayers for wandering souls.    

“The Day of the Witches” or “Dia das Bruxas” is celebrated in Portugal at Halloween time.  Families visit graves and leave flowers and candles for their ancestors, while children celebrate by trick-or-treating for bread, nuts, and fruits instead of candy. 

“The Night of the Pumpkins” or “Noite dos Calacús” is celebrated in Galicia, Spain.  On this night, people dress up in costumes, light bonfires, and tell ghost stories.  They also follow an old Celtic tradition of brewing an alcoholic drink of distilled wine, herbs, coffee and coffee beans, sugar, lemon peel, and cinnamon in a hollowed-out pumpkin.  While they are making the drink, they recite an incantation – possibly to bestow special powers on the drink and drinkers – or to ward off evil spirits. The liquid is then set alight and burns a bright blue color like a steaming cauldron. 

Finally, in Transylvania, Romania, a huge party is held at Bran Castle, possibly the inspiration for the home of the fictional character Count Dracula, and festivities include costumed revelers, howling wolf sounds, and red-colored drinks. 

Aren’t all these traditions amazing?  They honor everything from the new year, the arrival of winter, and the fall harvest to saints, souls, and spirits.  The overriding theme in many countries is remembering our ancestors and those who have passed.  These festivities are rarely somber affairs, but rather loving tributes and celebrations of life.  Whether we honor the harvest by bobbing for apples and begging for treats, scare away spirits with bonfires and fireworks, or remember loved ones with food and drink, we are more similar across the world than we are different at this time of year.

However you celebrate, we wish you a happy holiday season ahead.  If you would like to share your favorite Halloween events, foods, or memories, click the link in the show notes and send me your comments; I’d love to hear from you.