Halloween in America is a night of costume parties, candy, haunted houses, spooky tales, and—if you’re lucky—more treats than tricks. Yet the Halloween we know today didn’t come to be until the second half of the 19th century when Irish immigrants, fleeing the potato famine, arrived on American shores. They brought with them a well of rich tradition that would catch on and, blending with Native American and European customs, eventually create a new American version of the spooky holiday.
Today, children and adults alike look forward to Halloween—but 2020 is no ordinary year. Many families are opting to stay home. While this break in routine may feel disconcerting, it’s a perfect time to shake things up. Here, we take a look at how several cultures from around the world have celebrated Halloween over the centuries.
And where better to start than the place it all began…
Ireland is considered the birthplace of Halloween, thanks to ancient Celtic spiritual traditions. Samhain (a Gaelic word pronounced “sow-win,” meaning “the end of summer”) was a pagan religious festival that took place from October 1 to November 1. Samhain celebrated the annual harvest and represented the midway point between the fall equinox and the winter solstice. It was a day known as the start of the dark half of the year.
Many ancient Celts believed the veil between the spiritual and physical world was at its thinnest during Samhain. People lit fires for protection and left offerings on the village outskirts to appease any ancestors, monsters, or fairies who might pass through. They also spent the evening telling fortunes and wearing costumes to scare off ghosts.
Once the harvest was complete, a sacred communal bonfire was lit. Families would then transport flames from the holy fire to relight their home hearths.
Such bonfires remained a widespread practice well into the middle ages as a way to ward off evil spirits, witches, and any nefarious creature that went bump in the night. Over time, the Irish began carving turnips or gourds—the original jack-olanterns— and placing lit coals inside.
If most of this sounds familiar, it’s because so many American customs stemmed from the Irish. So go ahead and dress up, try your hand at turnip carving, and stoke up the fireplace—you never know when a pesky spirit might need warding off.
Catholics in Austria recognize October 30 to November 8 as All Souls’ Week, with November 2 being All Souls Day. The holiday is considered a time to assist those in purgatory by offering up heartfelt prayers and giving alms.
Celebrants believe it is also a night when the dead can return to earth. Those observing such traditions may light lamps and set out bread and water overnight for the dead. They also honor deceased loved ones by adorning their graves with flowers and candles or by pouring milk or holy water over the tombstones. Others prepare a meal in memory of a passed relative.
Spain and Mexico
Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is celebrated from October 31 to November 2. It is considered a joyous period used to celebrate life and to honor deceased loved ones.
Families observing the Day of the Dead create colorful home altars (called ofrendas), complete with candles, flowers, food, drink, tequila, and other gifts to offer to spirits during the festivities. Some also dress up as their ancestors by donning face paint and pinning flowers in their hair.
Families may also participate in the time-honored tradition of making sugar skulls (calaveras in Spanish). These decorative and sometimes edible skulls are handmade with clay or sugar to represent those who have passed on. Sugar skulls are then placed on the altars or may be gifted to children.
China and Hong Kong
In certain East Asian countries, people celebrate the Hungry Ghost Month. Also known as the Zhongyuan Jie (Midyear Festival), or Yulan Festival, the observance stems from ancient Taoist and Buddhist traditions. The month-long holiday is punctuated by Ghost Day, which is on the 15th day of the seventh lunar month in the Chinese calendar.
Many believe that the gates of the spiritual realm open on the first day of the Hungry Ghost Month, allowing the dead to wander the land. Celebrants use this window to honor their ancestors and absolve their sufferings. They also feed the hungry ghosts who come to roam.
Special ceremonies are performed, such as burning incense in front of doors, throwing rice, putting out the family’s ancestral tablets, and preparing food for the spirits at large around their dinner tables. Families may also set aside time to speak to dead relatives to report their behavior in hopes of receiving a blessing.
While there many beliefs and traditions surrounding Hungry Ghost Month, many close out the festivities by floating water lanterns down the river to help guide spirits back to the other side.
When it comes to Halloween-time tradition, there exists a common thread throughout many cultures. Did you catch it? No, it isn’t ghosts.
It’s family. It’s also the celebration of life and remembering the dead. So while some of our modern traditions are on hold this year, it’s a great time to get back to old roots, turn on a scary movie, and enjoy the magic of Halloween from home.
Carrie Manner is a freelance writer living in Mountain Iron. Her work has appeared in various print and online publications. When she’s not immersed in home projects or writing fiction, she can be found reading, kayaking, biking, or enjoying nature.