Goblins and Ghouls and Witches oh my! It's that time of year when the ghosts of our past ancestors come back and people of all ages partake in spooky festivities and traditions all over the world.
Since it's so close to Halloween, I thought I would talk about how the holiday is celebrated around the world.
Halloween is one of the oldest holidays and dates back to Pagan times. As many people believe, it wasn't first celebrated in the US. In fact, it was first celebrated in Ireland. There is no mention of Halloween in the states until the early 19th century when about 2 million Irish emigrated to America.
It's now a holiday that is celebrated all over the world by young and old alike. In a lot of countries, there is more to the holiday than the familiar traditions of trick or treating, dressing up and scaring the bajeebus out of people with spooky stories. It's a holiday that celebrates and remembers the passing of loved ones. The wonderful thing about having so many cultures all over the world is that holidays are celebrated in different and many times, unique ways.
It's time to grab your broomstick and take a flight, discovering the Halloween traditions celebrated all over the world.
Since Ireland is the first place Halloween was celebrated, it's only fair that we start our trip here. Hopefully, that broomstick didn't give you too much trouble!
Halloween first started with Samhain, which signified the end of summer and beginning of winter. This was the time that many people believed the dead returned. Bonfires were lit to ward off evil spirits and this is a tradition that continues to this day. These bonfires were included as part of Feile na Marbh, a festival of the dead.
Now, let's look into some of the Halloween traditions that are followed by families all over the country:
Irish families will traditionally share Barnbrack, a Halloween fruitcake. Each member will receive one piece and the most exciting part is discovering what's inside. There can either be a rag which signifies financial trouble for the year, a coin signifies a financially prosperous year and a ring signifies imminent romance and happiness.
Colcannon for Dinner
Boiled potatoes, Kale and Onions are traditionally served on Halloween. Coins are wrapped in paper and hidden in the potatoes for children to find.
The Ivy Leaf
Each family member gets to put an Ivy Leaf in a cup of water and leave it overnight. If in the morning the Ivy Leaf has remained perfect it means 12 months of health for whoever put the leaf in the cup. If the leaf has developed spots or is not perfect in anyway, well…do we really want to know?
Many events are held all over the country and one of the biggest is Foyle Hallowe'en Carnival held within the medieval walls of Derry. Thousands of people attend from all over, who join in on the festivities and dress up in ghoulish costumes. This is Irelands biggest and most popular Halloween event.
In Austria, it is believed if you place a piece of bread, a glass of water, and a lamp on the table before heading to bed, you are welcoming the dead souls back to Earth.
This tradition takes place between October 30 – November 8th and is called Seleenwoche or All Souls Week. It's the time of year that the Austrians consider magical. There are church services and sometimes services will be held at gravesites where attendees will remember their family members and friends that have passed.
In Belgium, They believe it's bad luck if a Black Cat crosses their path, enters their home, or travels on their ship.
It's also common for people there to light candles in memory of their loved ones.
In China, the Halloween festival celebrated is called Teng Chieh. Food and water are placed in front of photographs of relatives and bonfires and lamps are lit to light the spirits way to earth.
Another festival that is celebrated is The Feast of the Hungry Ghosts. It is believed that the spirits who come back during this festival have died unnatural deaths, not given a proper burial for their relatives to visit or have been forgotten by their family. These ghosts wander the earth for love and affection. They are known as hungry ghosts because of their hunger for recognition.
There are other types of Hungry Ghosts and they are angrier and more powerful than the ones mentioned above. These are the spirits of people whose families have died out or who showed no concern for their welfare in the afterlife. They feel abandoned and may turn malicious and become a threat to the living.
The purpose of the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts is to satisfy the hunger of the earthbound spirits and to make them feel welcome. To appease any anger they might have and gain their gratitude.
In the ritual of the day, the spirits are offered joss sticks, food, and gifts. The gifts are made of paper and represent objects they were familiar with while on earth and are intended to make them feel at home. Money is burnt on their behalf to pay for any expenses in the afterlife. Fires are lit to light their way and as a gesture of welcome.
In Britain, it is common to welcome the friendly spirits by making soul cakes for them. Children who trick or treat are sometimes given soul cakes as well.
Some parts of England, Halloween night was known as Mischief Night. It was a night for people to cause trouble. People would take doors off hinges, throw them into ponds or take them far away.
Black cats are usually considered superstitious in most parts of the world but in England, they are considered good luck, while white cats are considered bad luck.
Another tradition is making “punkies” out of beets. It's similar to carving a pumpkin except a face is carved into a beet. The children then light the “punkies” and hold them out in front of them and knock on their neighbor's doors asking for money and singing the Punkie Night Song.
Halloween was nicknamed Nutcracker Night or Snap Apple Night. It got its nickname because it was a time for families to sit around the fire eating nuts and apples and playing games. It was a night of great fun for everyone involved.
In France, they celebrate All Saints Day and All Souls Day. They don't celebrate Halloween.
Historically, French bellmen would walk through the streets warning people of the arrival of the spirits. Once people heard this, they would rush to bed and close their eyes.
Today, French children go door to door begging for flowers which are used to decorate graveyards and churches.
In Japan, the O-Bon Festival is celebrated. The festival comes from a legend about a monk who one day while meditating, sees his dead mother hanging upside down. She visited him from the Buddhist equivalent of hell. She was punished for eating meat during her life and refused to feel remorse. The Buddhist was holy enough to enter hell and buy his mothers passage to heaven.
Traditionally, Families place food and water in front of photographs of dead relatives and bonfires and lanterns are lit to light the spirits way back to earth. O-Bon lasts for threes days.
On the first day, people decorate the graves of their loved ones with fruit, cakes, and lanterns.
On the second day, Alters, also called Tamadana, are assembled at the home. Atop rush mats, People will have their ancestors plaques, delicious vegetarian dishes, and cucumbers carved into horses that the spirits are welcome to ride.
On the third day, communities will gather for a Bon-Odori, a traditional and hypnotic slow dance that moves in circles or lines. In the evening, tiny lanterns are set adrift in the river or the sea. These are called omiyage and are meant to light the spirits way back to the “other shore”.
In Mexico, Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated! People will have picnics in graveyards next to the graves of family members as a way to remember and celebrate their life. Bread will be baked in the shape of a skull, crossbone or casket. There will be bonfires, firecrackers and lanterns will be hung on trees to guide the spirits home.
People will assemble alters called ofrendas filled with departed loved one's favorite foods, drinks, their photos, and other items associated with them, as well as candles and marigolds, a flower historically associated with death.
The day before Dia De Los Muertos is Los Angelitos. This day is devoted to all the deceased children. Unlike day of the dead which all the adult ghosts arrive in full force, the little ghosts get a head start. To help the small ghosts find their way home, their parent will set off firecrackers. Some parts of the country will scatter a path of flower petals from the graveyard to their home.
On October 27th, a few days before Dia De Los Muertos, Fiesta Des Las Santas Animas is celebrated. Families will visit the graves of loved ones and decorate them with pine needles and flowers. The families put together a temporary alter stocking them with candles, food, and drinks. Every person in the family then takes time to talk to the spirit. Offering it food and assuring it that it's loved. This ceremony goes on for several days since families will have more than one grave to visit.
In Hong Kong, Yul Lan is celebrated. Ghosts and Spirits roam the earth for 24 hours and people will burn pictures of fruit or money. This tradition is supposed to reach the spirits in the afterlife and comfort them on this day.
In Poland, doors and windows are left open to welcome the wandering ghosts and spirits.
All Saints Day and All Souls Day are also celebrated. People will visit graves of loved ones and beautify them by adding wreaths, lanterns and sometimes sprinkling them with holy water.
In Rome, a tradition called Lemuria is held for homeowners to rid their homes of lemures. Someone would walk through the house barefoot at midnight, going from room to room with a mouthful of dried black beans. He will spit them out one by one while saying a chant nine times: “With these, I redeem myself and mine.” The idea is that the spirits will follow him around the house eating the beans he has spat out. After the whole house has been walked through, brass pans will be banged loudly to create as much noise as possible to rid the lemures good-bye.
Another tradition held by the Romans is Feralia. It's similar to Day of the Dead. Roman families go to graveyards visiting Ancestors, to bring offerings. They believe that their ancestors hover around the graves, so they take food and drinks so they don't get upset.
Once the ancestors are happily fed and honored the ceremony Caristia starts. this is a day to extend loving family reunions.
It is a day of love and forgiveness. Fighting is forbidden, feuds forgotten and sibling rivalries set aside.
In Scotland, it is common for people to carve faces into hollowed-out turnips, rutabagas, and potatoes. A candle would then be placed inside.
Another tradition that some children still follow is dressing up and disguising themselves as spirits, blackening their faces and dressing in old clothes. This is so they could wander out safely without being detected by evil spirits. In order for a child to get any sweets, they have to perform a trick by reciting a song or poem.
Children's parties are an important part of Scottish Halloween Traditions. Many games are played one of which is called Apple Dooking where children tie their hands behind their back while dunking their head into a basin, trying to bite an apple. Another traditional game is called Treacle Scones. Hands are tied yet again and children have to bite treacle scones that are hung by a rope. The messy faces are usually then washed in the apple basin.
Today, in Edinburgh the Samhain Fire Festival is celebrated on Halloween night. There are many performances including drumming, acrobatics, fire dancing, and a battle between unearthly spirits.
In Estonia, it is believed that people who wander into village churches on All Saints Day will find the pews filled with ghosts who sit and kneel engrossed while a ghostly priest conducts mass at the altar.
In Guatemala, men will dress up as the devil playfully chasing children through the streets.
People celebrate an event called Burning of the Devil where bonfires will be lit in front of homes and people toss garbage and other debris into them.
In Holland, St Martins Day is celebrated. As the tale goes, It was a dark and stormy night and Martin was walking home one evening. He came across a homeless man. Martin felt sorry for the man and offered him half his cloak, half his bread and his home to sleep for the night. This is why Martin is called St Martin. He is known for his kindness to this stranger, which is why he is celebrated.
On this night, children can be heard singing songs in the street and reciting poems. They hold small lanterns, hollowed-out sugar beets, or turnips on sticks in front of them while they knock on doors(similar to trick or treating) hoping to receive candies in exchange for a song or poem.
In Nigeria, the Odo Festival is celebrated to mark the return of the dead. The festival is observed with ritual celebrations and festivities. to the spirits returning from the afterlife. The spirits stay for 6 or more months. Their departure is very emotional because they will not return for two years.
In Sicily, children go to bed, knowing that the dead will rise from their graves to deliver cookies and candy. Parents will buy Martorana. which is a colorful marzipan formed into the shapes of fruit and animals. Some kids will even receive toys. It is believed that the spirits of relatives come into the home at night and hide toys and candies for the children to find when they wake up.
Some of the traditional desserts people have are, “bones of the dead” which are bone shaped biscotti and Fave De Morti which are cookies in the shape of fava beans, a legume historically associated with rites of the dead.
In Vietnam, Vu-Lan is celebrated. When a person dies it is believed their soul goes to hell where they are judged and depending on their behavior on earth they either go to heaven or stay in hell. Souls can be released from hell through prayer from the living. On Halloween night, hells gates are open and the souls fly out returning to their families alter.
Families put together a meal for their ancestors and incense sticks and votive papers are burned. This takes place in big rooms or outdoors so there is plenty of room for the souls who have no relatives or whose relatives have forgotten about them.
In Wales, people will build fires on the Vigil of Samhain. Each family member will write their name on a white stone and throw it into the burning fire. Then everyone will proceed to march around the fire, praying for good fortune. The next morning every member of the family will sift through the ashes trying to find their stone. If any stone is missing it means the spirits will call upon that person in the coming year.
I hope you enjoyed learning about the many unique Halloween traditions that happen all over the world. Wherever you are in the world and whatever traditions you partake in, I hope you have a happy and spooky Halloween. Converse with spirits, carve a pumpkin or turnip, dress up in a ghoulish costume and have fun! You may even want to start your own traditions.
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