Did you know that the way Halloween is celebrated differs all around the globe? In this article we will explore 13 unique Halloween traditions around the world!
It is worth noting that while modern Halloween is celebrated in many of the countries listed below, we have listed the traditional alternatives where possible. We have also included festivals that take place around the time of Halloween and festivals that share similarities with the scary season.
Before we jump into our list of Halloween traditions around the world, do you know why the spooky holiday is called Halloween?
Halloween Traditions: Etymology of the holiday (Halloween meaning)
Halloween is an abbreviation of two terms. Firstly ‘Hallowmas’ or hallow-mas is a combination of two words, Hallow which means holy or saintly and mas which literally means celebration. Considering this, Hallowmas means ‘celebration of the saints’ or all Saints day which takes place on the first of November.
All hallows eve literally means ‘the night before all saints day’ and was shortened to Halloween over time.
The three days comprising of October 31st to the second of November (All Souls Day) were historically known as ‘All Hallowtide’. Tide means a season or time, so All Hallowtide means the ‘season of saints’.
Now that you know how this festival got its name, we are ready to travel the globe in search of our favourite Halloween traditions around the world! We will cover the following countries and their respective festivals. Click on any of the following countries to jump to that section of the article!
- Ireland – Samhain
- Mexico – Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead)
- Japan – Kawasaki parade
- Italy – Ognissanti (All Saints Day)
- France – La Toussaint (All Saints Day)
- Guatemala – Barriletes Gigantes (Giant Kites)
- Haiti – Fèt Gede (The Voudo Festival of the Dead)
- China – Teng Chieh (Lantern Festival)
- The Netherlands & Belgium – Sint-Maarten (Saint Martin’s Day)
- India – Pitru Paskha (fortnight of the paternal ancestors)
- Philippines – Undas (Days of the Souls & of the Saints)
We have also included 2 bonus festivals at the end of this blog that share similarities with Halloween, can you guess what they are?
Halloween Traditions around the world
#1. Ireland – Irish Halloween Traditions – Samhain
You may be wondering who started the Halloween traditions that everyone knows and loves, such as trick-or-treating and dressing up. Modern day Halloween originated in the Celtic nations of Ireland and Scotland? The Celts celebrated Samhain, one of the four festivals of the Celtic year.
Samhain was basically the Celtic New Year’s Eve. The Celts began their days at sunset or at darkness. The first of November coincided with the end of summer and the harvest season. This period of darkness marked the beginning of the Celtic New Year. Samhain began at sunset on the 31st of October and was celebrated into the next day.
The Celts did not believe in sudden changes. Instead, life was full of transitional periods. This was evident in their views life and death, summer to winter and the old year to the new year. At these transitional periods, the veil between our world and the other world (or afterlife) became weak, allowing spirits to return to earth.
These ghostly spirits were both the souls of loved ones, and evil spirits. Deceased family members would be accommodated for by setting out an extra plate of food at the table. But there were still menacing phantoms wandering the earth, so people dressed up as spirits and lit bonfires. The idea was that the ash of the bonfire had protective powers. The Celts would put the ash on their face and dress up as spirits in the hopes of concealing themselves against evil.
When Christianity arrived in Ireland, Celtic festivals such as Samhain were too popular to simply prohibit. Instead it is believed that much of Celtic culture was adopted, transformed and replaced with suitable Christian festivals. The customs remained fairly similar, but they had a whole new religious meaning behind them.
As Irish people emigrated to the Uk and North America they brought the tradition of Samhain with them. Nowadays Halloween is a commercial holiday, but the essence of Samhain has actually been preserved quite well.
Samhain, or Irish Halloween traditions include dressing up as monsters and going from house to house trick-or-treating. In the past turnips were carved into lanterns for this journey, but once Irish immigrants arrived in the USA, pumpkins were easier to find and so were used instead.
October family traditions in Samhain include baking Barmbrack, a traditional Irish bread. Items such as a ring or a coin are placed into the bread. Whoever gets the ring will be the next person to get married and who ever gets the coin will be rich within the year.
Old-fashioned Halloween traditions are still enjoyed in Ireland today. Samhain parades take place in most major cities across the island of Ireland, including Dublin and Belfast.
#2. Mexico – Día de los Muertos
Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) is a holiday celebrated traditionally on the 1st and 2nd of November. Sometimes October 31st and the 6th of November are also celebrated depending on the region. The festival is celebrated all over Latin America as well as in other Spanish speaking and/or catholic countries. Día de los Meurtos is another version of All saints day merged with a countries traditional culture.
Halloween traditions in Mexico are overshadowed by the celebrations of the day of the dead. It is associated with Halloween, All Saint’s Day and All Souls Day due to its date, name and history, but the Day of the Dead is actually much less solemn and is celebrated as a holiday of joy and fun rather than mourning.
There are many parallels that can be drawn from Halloween traditions and the Day of the Dead celebrations, such as dressing up. Women typically dress up as la Catrina or the ‘elegant skull’.
In this holiday, families gather to pay respects and remember their loved ones who have died. People are remembered in a fond, humorous tone as celebrants reminisce about funny events and anecdotes involving the departed. This draws parallels with the Irish wake which also attempts to celebrate the life and joy of the deceased.
The Day of the Dead traditions include visiting the graves of the departed with calavera’s (a decorative skull, which is sometimes edible) and cempazúchtil (Aztec marigold flowers). Celebrants of the holiday build an ofrenda (a home alter). The deceased’s favourite foods and beverages are left on the ofrenda which has been decorated with pictures of them.
The holiday also focuses on the living, as friends gift each other candy sugar skulls and pan de muerto (a type of bread). People write each other mock epitahs as a joke tradition.
#3. Japan – Kawasaki parade
In the late 90’s Japan was properly introduced to Halloween when Disneyland hosted its first spooky event in the country. Since then it has become a popular event with young people who love to dress up as gruesome monsters and pop culture characters.
While Halloween traditions such as trick-or-treating aren’t as popular in Japan, creativity in the form of costumes has been taken to the next level. Dressing up is definitely the main focus of Halloween in Japan, as classic horror costumes and iconic characters are found roaming street parades, parties and even Halloween trains which are full of zombies, vampires and a few very confused commuters!
The trick element of trick-or-treating is generally frowned upon in Japan, but you will see plenty of Jack-o-lanterns and candy in the cities.
The Kawaski parade is one of the most popular Japanese Halloween parades. It even has an international competition where anyone can vote, but be warned the quality of costumes is much higher than you may be used to with professional-level special effects makeup ! Above are some cosplays of famous paintings at Kawasaki Halloween parade.
#4. Italy – Ognissanti (All Saints Day) – Italian Halloween traditions
On the first of November, Ognissanti or All Saint’s Day is celebrated in Italy. Saints and martyrs of the Christian religion are honoured on this day.
In the Christian calendar every day is dedicated to a saint or martyr in the religion and Ognissanti celebrates all of them. As we have already mentioned, there is a belief that the date of the festival is no coincidence and is actually related to the Celtic feast of Samhain.
One tradition in Sicily is that during Ognissanti, the dead bring sweets and gifts to children who have behaved well. Other regional traditions include children going from house to house offering prayers addressed to the deceased relatives of the donor, in return for a sweet ‘soul bread’. They often dress up in a cardboard box in the shape of a coffin.
In Rome people used to eat a meal near the grave of a dead person to keep the deceased company. A more familiar tradition is the carving of pumpkins into lanterns. People used to leave a lighted candle, a basin of water and a piece of bread at the window of their house for the passing dead souls. All of these Italian customs have similar Halloween traditions, though they are not necessarily of the same origin.
Finally church bells rang to call the souls of the dead and a table was left for them to eat at.
There are many traditional Italian foods eaten at Ognissanti, including:
- Ossa dei morti (‘dead’s bones’) – cookies with almonds and hazelnuts
- Colva – made of wheat, pomegranate, chocolate and walnuts
- Lu scacciu – a mixture of dried fruits and toasted chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, hazelnuts, peanuts and pistachios.
- Ossa ri muortu (‘dead man’s bones’) – small sweets made of honey dough, covered with white icing with a texture as hard as bones
#5. France – La Toussaint – French Halloween traditions
‘Toussaint’ or All Saint’s Day is also celebrated in France on the first of November, with the second celebrating All souls day or ‘la Commémoration des fidèles défunts’.
The tradition in France during La Toussaint is usually comprised of decorating graves of loved ones with heather, chrysanthemum and immortal wreaths.
The origin of ‘potato holidays’ in France is related to la Toussaint. students missed a lot of school during this time of year due to the fact that the Toussaint period was also the potato harvest time. To avoid children missing a significant amount of classes, schools introduced these potato holidays, lasting two weeks from the 23rd of October to the 3rd of November. The holidays are still enjoyed today even in regions with no potato farms!
Candles are also lit in France to symbolise happiness in the afterlife, which is a common custom around the world. Both Halloween traditions and La Toussaint festivities are celebrate the end of the harvest which is an interesting similarity.
Halloween in France is something that was initially rejected, before become popular among young people mainly due to its macabre nature and the rebellious image associated with celebrating it. However it ultimately never surpassed the celebration of la Toussaint as it was seen as a commercial venture rather than a holiday with genuine meaning. While this is true in some cases, Halloween traditions have a real impact on culture in many places.
#6. Guatemala – Barriletes Gigantes
The giant kites festival or Barriletes Gigantes occurs on the first of November and is part of the Day of the Dead celebrations. The dead are honoured through flowing giant kites in cemeteries across Sumpago and Santiago Sacatepequez.
3000 years ago, it was believed that the kites were a gateway for communication with the dead, however now they are seen as symbols of peace and compassion for the living who may be struggling.
The kites represent people’s ancestors, but they also raise awareness for social issues. People visit the tombs of their ancestors and place floral offerings while praying.
Guatemala also celebrates the day of the dead during this time.
Traditional Guatemalan food enjoyed during this time includes Fiambre, a salad that contains over 50 ingredients. This dish varies from family to family and is shared with other neighbours and relatives. Fiambre has many common ingredients which include, types of sausage, cold cut meats, cheeses, olives, vegetables, pickled baby corn, beets and pacaya flower. Types of Fiambre include:
- Fiambre Rojo – Red Fiambre, with beets
- Fiambre Blanco – White Fiambre, without beets
- Fiambre Desarmado / Divorciado -Deconstructed Fiambro, ingredients are served separately
- Fiambre Verde – Green Fiambre/Vegetarian Fiambre
An extra plate is left for the souls of the deceased. The salad has various origins, it is most likely eaten as it is easy to bring and make at the cemetery. By night-time a joyous party is held at the cemetery.
Even though they have their own origins, there are definitely similarities between Halloween traditions and the celebration of Barriletes Gigantes and the Day of the Dead in Guatemala.
#7. Haiti – Fèt Gede
Fèt Gede is the Haitian Day of the Dead which is an annual tradition that sees practitioners of vodou parade through the streets, possessed by the spirits of the dead (gede)
Fèt Gede takes place on the first and second of November and is a way to respect loved ones who have passed on. Each religion celebrates Fèt Gede differently. Christian religions meet at church for a mass dedicated to the deceased, but the most interesting version in my opinion is one of the country’s state religion’s Vodou, which celebrates Fèt Gede in a much more festive way.
Fèt Gede traces its origins to African ancestral traditions, and the Gede shows are famously loud and extravagant. They can be seen nearly everywhere across Haiti as Vodou practitioners dress elaborately for the occasion. They dress up to represent Iwa or Ioa, a subset of spirits called ‘gede’ which means ‘the dead’.
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The religious syncretism between Vodou and Christianity make it hard to estimate the number of practiconers, but it is believed as much as 50% of Haitians practice Vodou in some form, according to visit Haiti. Vodouwizan’s or practitioner’s of Vodou each have their own gede, who is the reincarnation of a close relative or friend that has come from the afterlife to live in the body of the voudowizan who called them. This transforms the spirit into a Iwa by process of a ritual calling upon the spirit.
You can read more about Fèt Gede, the Haitian Day of the Dead, by reading Visit Haiti’s dedicated blog!
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#8. China – Teng Chieh
This is not technically a Halloween festival; it takes place at the end of the seventh lunar month (August), but I do feel as though it deserves a spot on our list as it shares enough similarities with other festivals on this list that celebrate death.
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The Ghost festival or Hungry Ghost festival is a traditional Taoist, Buddhist and Chinese Folk Religion festival which takes place on the 15th night (Ghost Day) of the seventh month (Ghost month) in many East Asian countries including China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Korea, Japan, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.
Ghost day is the time of year in which ghosts and spirits (including those of deceased loved ones) come out from the lower realm. Rituals of veneration are preformed. Ghost day traditions include burning paper offerings including money, which is thought to be received by the dead. Other traditions include releasing paper lanterns in rivers and lakes to guide the spirits of ancestors home.
It is not a spooky festival like many others on this list, instead it is a time to remember loved ones and bring people closer together. While other Halloween traditions are now more about jovial celebration, the Hungry Ghost festival focuses on respecting the dead and easing the pain of loss.
In many cultures butterflies and moths are believed to be the souls of ancestors who are returning for a visit. Other traditions include giving each other oranges, as the fruit symbolises good luck and wealth.
Traditional food made during the festival includes:
- Png kuek (or peng kway). Teochew png kueh is a dumpling filled with stir-fried rice, peanuts, garlic and shallots. The dumpling in the dish is died pink as a symbol of good luck and it is left for ancestors.
#9. The Netherlands & Belgium – Sint-Maarten
Sint-Maarten or St. Martin’s Day is known by many terms such as the Feast of Saint Martin, Martinstag or Martinmas, as well as Old Halloween and Old Hallowmas Eve. Celebrated on the 11th of November each year in the Netherlands and Belgium.
Saint Martin of Tours was a roman soldier who was baptised as an adult and became a bishop in a French town. The most famous of his saintly acts was cutting his cloak in half to share with a beggar during a snow storm. The story goes that he dreamed of Jesus that night, wearing a half cloak and thanking him for giving him his cloak.
Martinmas traditions include:
- A meat-permitted feast which celebrates the end of the agrarian year.
The celebration of the end of harvest is similar to other Western European celebrations, including Samhain. Both celebrations marked the beginning of Winter which was important in any agrarian society. In terms of tradition, Martinmas is arguably more similar to the American celebration of Thanksgiving with the usual trick-or-treating expected during Halloween (minus the scary costumes and tricks, as children usually go from door to door with lanterns singing song).
Why is Saint Martin’s Day called old Halloween?
An animal is traditionally sacrificed and eaten for Saint Martin’s day, usually a goose. According to the Irish times ‘The sacrifice and shedding of blood on this day was part of the festival of Samhain, but this changed in the medieval period to the new date of November 11th, hence the term Old Halloween‘.
The Christian story goes that when Saint Martin was called to be a bishop he ran away and hid in fear. It was a noisy goose who alerted the clergy to his presence and so as tradition a goose is killed and eaten because of its betrayal of Saint Martin. It was believed the blood of the goose had protective properties from disease and other worldly spirits.
It is interesting to see how Halloween traditions can be completely transformed. This custom no longer exists in Ireland during Halloween, but is part of Saint Martin’s day.
#10. India – Pitru Paskha
Pitru Paskha is a 16 day lunar festival in the Hindu calendar that celebrates the dead. The date of this festival differs, depending on the sighting of the full moon which can either be in September or October.
The similarities between Pitru Paskha and Halloween Traditions of Samhain involve feeding the ancestors of ghosts, lighting fires or candles and trying to appease spirits.
During Pitru Paskha, the oldest son of the family is expected to perform rituals to keep souls at peace. Shraddha, the act of offering food and prayers to ancestors is performed and usually takes place by a river, guided by a priest. Candles are lit and placed on the river and birds are fed. Birds are believed to be the spirit of the dead and messengers of the god of death, Yama.
If you would like to find out more about India, be sure to check out our ultimate travel guide to Mumbai, where we list all of the best things to do during your stay!
#11. Philippines – Undas – Filipino Halloween traditions
Undas takes place on the 1st of November as it is the version of all Saints day and all souls day in the Philipines. All of the usual Christian celebrations take place on this day, such as feasting and visiting graves of loved ones, but Filipino people have their own trick or treat tradition that goes far back in history.
Pangangaluwa derives from an old word which means ‘spirit double’ and it is Philippines’ version of trick-or-treating. It is custom to wear a white sheet and go from door to door asking for a treat in the form of the spirit of one’s ancestors. A trick can be performed if the ‘spirit’ does not receive any treats
Other festivals that share similarities with Halloween
#12. Greece – Apokries
Halloween is not traditionally celebrated in Greece. However, Apokries is sometimes compared to Halloween because it involves dressing up in costume. It actually takes place on the day before lent and so it is more comparable to Mardi Gras or Shrove Tuesday. Apokries is a carnival and the first celebration of the year so it does share similarities with festivals on this list.
#13. Nepal – Gai Jatra
Gai Jatra is celebrated on the first of September. It literally means ‘cow carnival’ and children dress up as cows for the event. The festival was made by King Pratap Malla after his son died an untimely death. It was a way to cheer up his queen and to help his family grieve together with the community. It is believed that performing rituals during the festival helps guide the souls of the departed to heaven.
It shares similarities with other events in this list mainly because it is a festival that strives to help people grieve and celebrate the lives of loved ones who are no longer with us.
It may surprise you that many Halloween festivals and their similar counterparts are actually more uplifting than macabre. These festivals are really a way to bring people together to remember loved ones and honour their death.
Why do we celebrate Halloween? The answer to this question is different for every culture, but every festival shares a common theme of bringing people closer together and maybe that is a worthwhile reason to celebrate the seemingly morbid.
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