Halloween is such a fun celebration nowadays, providing people with an opportunity to be somebody else for a night, dress up as superheroes, monsters and famous characters and let loose. In modern English society Halloween parties have replaced the culture of Masquerade Balls of the 18th century, where people dressed up and gave in to excessive alcohol consumption as well as lewd behaviour.
As pointed out to me by several citysocializer members, while we all love a good party, it’s good to be aware where our modern day celebrations came from as well. So, before we reveal the results of our big Halloween Survey next week, we decided to take a look at the origins of the celebration and some unusual customs related to it from around the world.
The relation to the natural world, with winter around the corner, trees losing their leaves and cattle being slaughtered for the winter months, gave rise to the beliefs that the dead were also finding an opportunity to come back to the human world. Depending on each culture’s view of death, people marked the occasion with different customs and celebrations. Halloween in itself has its roots in the old Celtic celebration of Samhain, a pagan festival of the dead. Bonfires were lit to guide the spirits and feasts were had, where people left space for the dead relatives who came back to sit and be with their families.
As christianity took over, All Saints Day and All Souls Day celebrations were introduced to celebrate the souls of the departed and replace the old pagan beliefs. However, while people’s faith moved away from the pagan gods, the customs survived the change and were now used within the new religious context. Over time these customs spread around the world, with people introducing their own local traditions to the celebrations and bringing in elements of the way they used to honour and remember their dead.
In Austria people would leave bread, water and a lamp on their tables at night so that the spirits would have some food when they came back.
Belgian tradition was to light candles for the dead.
Bosnia & Herzegovina
Halloween there is fairly new. The celebration is known as the Night of the Witches and children wear masks and costumes.
During the Pchum Ben celebration, people will bring sticky rice and beans wrapped in banana leaves to the temples to honour the dead.
Pumpkins and corn stalks are decorated to mark the season.
People honour their dead by leaving food and water out, lighting bonfires and lanterns to guide the spirits, as well as crafting paper boats that they later set on fire so that the spirits of people who were not given proper burial can find their way to heaven.
People decorate their homes with flowers and leave extra chairs by the fireplace for the dead relatives who will come back,
Instead of welcoming and guiding the spirits, people used to carve turnips and leave them outside their houses to scare the evil spirits away. The custom of throwing stones, vegetables and nuts in the fire to make loud noises served the same purpose and was also used for divination.
While the holiday is not particularly popular, there is a custom to put away the knives so that the spirits don’t hurt themselves.
The equivalent celebration takes place before the beginning of Lent instead and its roots lie in ancient greek customs. People used to wear animal skins, scary masks and loud bells to ward off evil spirits. Nowadays people feast and party while kids dress up and run wild in the streets with silly string, foam, vuvuzelas and plastic clubs once the sun sets.
People would burn photos of fruit or money so that the smoke would reach the spirit world and comfort the dead.
As the country where the holiday originated, Ireland has the traditional Halloween celebrations. Children go trick or treating, people host big parties and play games like apple bobbing. There is also a traditional fruitcake called Barmbrack which would contain small items (a pea, a stick, a piece of cloth, a small coin and a ring) which were used to tell the future of the person finding them in their piece.
While Halloween is getting a bit more popular recently, the Japanese equivalent is the Obon Festival, celebrated in July/August. Red lanterns and floating lanterns with candles are lit to show the dead where their families are and people clean the memorial stones to prepare for the return of their dead.
Koreans celebrate Chuseok in August by putting rice and fruit on tombs to thank their ancestors.
Mexican and Latin American people celebrate Dia de los muertos, a day to remember and celebrate their lost loved ones. The customs include decorating altars and graves with candy, flowers and candles, having picnics by the graves of their family, who are believed to come back to this world for the day, and stage elaborate parades.
The spirits of the dead are believed to come to people’s houses and take items to show their presence and kids go around the neighbourhood houses singing songs in exchange for food, money or rice cakes.
During the day of the dead people will go light candles in the cemetery
The gates of hell are believed to open for a day and spirits are allowed to come back to their families. People celebrate with parties and live music.
Halloween In Modern Times
Despite all these traditional customs that each culture has brought into the Halloween celebrations, the current trend is to go towards the American customs, that people see in the movies; trick or treating, candy and dressing up for parties. The connections with the dead and the religious background of the holiday are slowly being disconnected from it as well as any pagan or christian associations, so that the holiday can more easily fit into the modern world and appeal to more people in multicultural societies.
Playing dress up for a night can definitely be good fun, so, once you know all the historical background of the holiday, it is up to you whether you choose to embrace the origins and symbolism of the holiday or ignore it all together and just have a good time. And if you feel like going out you can always have a look at our Halloween Socials.