Halloween is spreading. Once solely a US custom, countries all around the globe are joining in with our favourite spooky holiday. While more countries are participating in the fun, commercial side of Halloween, many have their own traditional celebrations that share an eerily similar amount of common ground with the holiday.
Whether a traditional way of celebrating the Autumn change or simply commemorating the dead, here are seven traditional cultural celebrations that are surprisingly Halloween-like.
The UK and Ireland
What we recognise as Halloween today was mostly born in Irish tradition and still closely resembles it today. Steeped in the country’s Celtic and pagan roots, the Gaelic festival of Samhain, meaning “Summer’s end”, marked the end of the harvest season. It was seen as a time when the boundaries between the Earth and the spirit world were at their thinnest and was(and still is, especially in rural areas) celebrated by lighting bonfires, carving lanterns out of turnips and eating barmbrack, a bread baked with trinkets inside and used as a game of fortune-telling.
These traditions soon made their way through the UK, particularly England and Scotland. Scotland retained the tradition of lighting bonfires on hilltops and carving turnips(or “neep lanterns”), while in England children instead carved beetroots into “punkies” and paraded through the streets, singing and knocking on doors for money.
Bonfire Night is the closest thing England has to traditional Samhain celebrations, despite only existing for a measly four hundred years. Following the failure of the famous gunpowder plot on November 5, 1605, one bonfire-based Autumn party morphed into another and Bonfire Night became a night where people burned effigies of Guy Fawkes as well as lighting their own fireworks.
While we should point out that Dia de Los Muertos is a completely distinct celebration, the Day of the Dead and Halloween do share a surprising amount in common. Stemming from South American rituals dating back almost 3,000 years, the celebration of the Day of the Dead starts at midnight on October 31st, when it’s believed that the gates of heaven open, allowing the souls of the deceased to come down to earth.
Nov 1st is reserved for the souls of children (called the “Day of the Innocents” or “Day of the Little Angles”) to return to their families, while on Nov 2nd the souls of adults make their way down. The three day long festival is chock-full of parades, sugar skulls, handmade skeletons, candied pumpkin, atole and pan de muerto(bread of the dead). During this time families clean and decorate the graves of their loved ones. Alters are lit and piled with offerings – including toys for the spirits of children and tequila or mezcal for adults. Orange marigolds adorn these alters as it’s believed that their scent and bright colour attract the souls of the dead towards offerings.
The Hungry Ghost Festival is a traditional Buddhist and Taoist festival which, while celebrated primarily in China, it’s also recognised across other parts of East Asia, like Hong Kong and Singapore.
A holiday based around food, it falls at the time of harvest in China, at the change of season from Summer to Autumn. The seventh month of the Chinese lunar calendar is known as the month of ghosts and typically falls around July or August.
It’s believed that at the start of the month the world of the dead opens to the world of the living, letting spirits of the deceased loose to wander the Earth. It’s thought that the ghosts take about two weeks to make it to Earth and that by the time they make it they must be starving and exhausted, in search of food, mischief and entertainment. People prepare weeks ahead of time for the return of their deceased family members by cleansing the house, praying for the peace of the deceased and burning joss paper, representing money, to ease their suffering.
This all culminates in a large feast for the ghosts on the 14th day of the month(15th in the South) of extravagant meals. While the food is enjoyed by living too, there are usually a few empty seats at the table so the ghosts can join. Tribute is also paid to other wandering ghosts that aren’t part of the family, so that any malevolent spirits are bribed away from causing harm to the household.
All Saint’ Day and All Souls Day are Christian holidays celebrated on the 1st and 2nd of November, respectively. Dating back as far as ninth century, the heads of church saw that pagan feasts were still popular with the people, so while linked to Christian saints and the Christian view of death, these two days still hold on to the pagan traditions surrounding the change of seasons.
All Saints Day celebrates the saints of the church, while All Souls Day centres around remembering and honouring deceased family. All Saints Day begins with early morning Mass, followed by a family lunch of seasonal foods like roast chestnuts, truffles and pumpkin, usually accompanied by Pane de Santi, or “all saints’ bread”.
The following day is one where many return to their home town to be with family. Visiting the family plot is the main activity of the day. Families decorate graves with chrysanthemums, a colourful Autumn flower associated with grief. But while this may sound sombre, the day is a celebration of life and a way to thank generations past. It’s even common practice to picnic at the grave site in some regions, as a way of sharing the meal with the dead loved ones.
Saint Andrew’s Day is another holiday and falls on November 30th. St Andrew is the patron saint of Romania, as well as other countries like Russia and Greece, and one of the 12 apostles.
There are a lot of superstitions surrounding the Feast of St Andrew in Romania, many of which people find fun to observe these days. The holiday is linked to wolves, vampires and ghosts, and it’s believed that the day marks the beginning of a period where otherworldly beings roam the earth. Garlic is used liberally on this day, both cooked into food and rubbed on window and door frames to ward off evil. Another, more positive superstition of St Andrew’s Day is that if you eat a special type of salty bread the person you dream of will be the one you marry.
In recent times, thanks to the global popularity of Dracula and the spreading influence of Halloween in the US, Many Romanians have also taken to celebrating this villainous figure. People flock from all over to Bran Castle – the home of Dracula in Bram Stoker‘s Gothic novel – to enjoy the mythology surrounding Vlad “the Impaler” Tepes.
The Awuru Odo Festival is celebrated by the Igbo people of Nigeria. Like pretty much all of the holidays on this list, the festival marks the return of departed spirits(Odo) of family and friends back to the world of the living and starts. This is thought to start sometime between September and November and only once every two years. The festival lasts up to six months, ending in April, and is full of music, masks and feasts.
Intricate preparations are made to receive the spirits. Men create shrines and refurbish masks from the previous festival, while women prepare food for visitors and the spirits themselves. The shrines are build in total secrecy, as it’s against custom for outsiders or women to see their creation.
Before the spirits leave there is a huge theatrical performance – the Odo play. Those playing the odo wear costumes appropriate to what kind of spirit they are – elderly, young, or even evil – while other performers accompanying them wear garments made of plant fibre. People perform in costume as odo to re-enact their visit and the pain of their departure.
Pangangaluluwa, the traditional celebration honouring the dead, has faded out of popularity somewhat and is now mostly practised only in the provinces. The name of the holiday derives from the root word kaluluwa, meaning “soul” “or spirit”.
On November 1st people flock in droves to cemeteries to light candles and place flowers in their respect for lost family members. Some northern parts of the country practise the centuries old tradition of lighting pieces of pinewood on fire beside the graves themselves. A priest then walks through the cemetery, blessing the tombs. The event lasts three days, during which food stands and pop-up stores surround the cemeteries as celebrators camp out.
Away from the graves carollers walk through neighbourhoods at night, draped in white blankets to represent departed souls. It’s also tradition for children to go door to door singing hymns in exchange for money, which these days is sometimes used as a way to raise money for charities.
By modern times the holiday has largely died out, with what’s left becoming more culturally associated with Halloween.