The transition of summer to winter has always been marked by some event, somewhere in the world. Many of the holidays that can be connected to the celebration of Halloween are in some ways Christian, but many are not.
According to Sue Ellen Thompson and Barbara W. Clarkson who compiled the very informative Holidays, Festivals and Celebrations of the World Dictionary in 1994, “Long before Christianity, the pagans had their Festival of the Dead”. In the tenth century however, the French Saint Odilo proposed that this day be set aside to honor souls trapped in purgatory. The day chosen for the annual affair was the second of November, to directly follow All Hallow’s Day, also known as All Saints’ Day. This was a celebration of all Christian saints. It was created in the seventh century when Rome converted to Catholicism, but was originally celebrated on the first of May. Thompson and Clarkson maintain the switch to November first may have been an attempt to replace the Celtic Pagan Festival of Samhain, which had long been celebrated on this day. The origins of Halloween can thus effectively be traced back to its Celtic origins in this festival.
Today, Western, European, South American and Asian cultures have all developed specific traditions to mark what we call Halloween. Each pertains to cultural roots that dictate how we should honor the dead, appease the dead, secure a healthy crop, and mark the season. Here are 10 captivating traditions of the sort from around the world.
10. Mexico: Grave-site Picnics
From the 31st of October to the 2nd of November, Mexico observes the Days of the Dead, a joyous holiday to remember the dead. During this time, altars of flowers and candy are constructed in homes worshiping deceased loved ones. The favorite foods of late family members are also put out, along with basins and towels so they can wash up before enjoying the feast. On the final day, the celebrations come to a close with a grave-site picnic at the burial site of loved ones. The cemeteries seem to come to life with lights, flowers and visitors.
9. Austria: Welcoming Home The Dead
In Austria, people leave out bread and water by a lighted lamp for their late family members, who are believed to visit on Halloween. The bread and water is a way to let the spirits know they are welcome. The tradition is not so unlike the North American one of leaving out some cookies and milk for Santa, as a welcome into the home on Christmas eve night.
8. Czechoslovakia: Chairs By The Fire
November 2nd is referred to as Commemoration of All the Departed in Czechoslovakia. In honor of those who have passed, grave-sites are lighted up with candles and flowers. Another tradition Czechs hold is the placing of chairs around a fire — one for each living family member and one for each of their spirits. It is a way to commemorate each life.
7. Japan: Obon Festival
The way we celebrate Halloween in the western world has recently been embraced in Japan, however, the culture has long had their own celebration of the dead. The Festival of the Dead (including The Obon festival, known also as the Festival of Lanterns, and the Ghost festival) is a buddhist tradition observed in August. Much like Halloween in other parts of the world, the celebrations are all about honoring the dead. Family members get together to decorate the gravestones of deceased loved ones, and in keeping with the idea that the dead may cross over during this time, the pathways to gravestones are swept clean. The Obon festival consists of bright red lanterns being hung all over, especially grave-sites.
6. Germany: Hiding The Knives
From October 30th – November 8th, Germans have a tradition of putting all knives safely away to avoid harm to or from returned spirits. The ritual is connected to All Saints Day, which is November 1st. It is a Catholic holiday, dedicated to honoring the memory of the saints, and late family members.
5. Cambodia: P’chum Ben
Sweet sticky rice and beans wrapped in banana leaves are brought to temples during P’chum Ben, a Festival of the Dead in Cambodia. At the temple, there is music and speeches given by monks. The celebrations and offerings are meant to appease the roaming ghosts of their ancestors.
4. Italy: A Feast For The Dead
In southern Italy, after preparing a feast of their passed on loved ones favorite dishes, families leave their home to attend church. While away, the doors are left unlocked so that the spirits might enjoy their meal. During this time of year, Italy also holds the custom of preparing bean-shaped cakes which they refer to as “beans of the dead”.
3. Romania: Re-enactments Of The Witch Trials
Home of Vlad the Impaler, Romania arguably has the most material to work with when it comes to Halloween. Of course, the story of Dracula is said to be based on this Romanian prince, and although mixing fiction and history this way can be problematic, Halloween seems like a good enough time to have fun with the concept. Aside from a huge party that is thrown each year in Sighisoara, Transylvania (the citadel in which Vlad the Impaler was born) a Halloween custom also includes re-enacting the witch trials, which were held in Transylvania.
2. Singapore: Chinese Opera
Throughout the month, Chinese opera is performed, and the belief that the gates of Hell will open for spirits runs wild. Universal Studios Singapore takes full advantage of this, putting on Halloween Horror Nights where spooky horror themed opera is the name of the game.
1. Philippines: Carolling for the Souls in Purgatory
In North America we are accustomed to Christmas carolling, but in the Philippines, groups of people going door-to-door to sing songs of purgatory — now that screams Halloween. This is how they celebrate All Saints Day, and the tradition is known as Pangangaluluwa. Carolling for food and money though is also a local version of souling, a popular English tradition from long ago. More often these days, trick-or-treating is becoming normalized, slowly but surely replacing Pangangaluluwa.