Halloween is one of the most widely celebrated non-religious festivals on the planet. It’s roots are fascinating - originally known as ‘All Hallows’ Eve’, is historically recognised as the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows (or All Saints). This day begins the three days of Hallowtide, which culminates in All Souls’ Day. In the Middle Ages especially, there was a belief that the night of Halloween was when the veil between the material and the afterlife was weakest.
Many people believe that the traditions surrounding Halloween originated in the ancient Gaelic festival Samhain, which may have had older pagan roots. This makes Halloween one of the oldest and most ambiguous festivals the modern world celebrates today.
However, the act of honouring the dead is a common thread between all parts of humanity. Here, we will explore how the meaning of Halloween differs around the world, and how different people gather to celebrate.
In England, traditions surrounding halloween remain rooted in the history of the festival. Often, children will dress as scary characters, such as witches, zombies and ghosts and visit neighbouring houses in their communities to trick or treat. They also play traditional Halloween games and carve pumpkins to be placed at the doorstep lit with candles. In recent years, the festival has become increasingly commercialised and now many people celebrate more of an American tradition. The festival comes in the same week as Bonfire Night or ‘Guy Fawkes Night’, where people celebrate the failed attempt to bomb parliament in 1605.
Scottish traditions surrounding Halloween are steeped in Gaelic roots and play an important role in their culture. Scottish poet Robert Burns’ poem ‘Halloween’ (1785), describes Halloween as “a night when witches, devils, and other mischief-making beings are all abroad on their baneful midnight errands”. From the 1890s, people in disguise would carry lanterns made of turnips and visit homes to receive cakes, fruit and money. The practice of ‘guising’, children going from door-to-door in costumes for food or coins, is a traditional Halloween custom in Scotland.
In Canada, the traditions of Halloween are rooted in the Scottish tradition which was imported with the immigration of the 1800s. Today, children trick or treat accompanied by adults, as well as make charitable contributions to important causes.
The United States of America imported the festival of Halloween with migration from Ireland and Scotland between the 1600s and 1800s. However, due to Puritanism, it didn’t gain popularity until after the American Civil War. Today, many countries have adopted the traditions developed by the Americans, including trick or treating and dressing up. The Americanisation of the festival has become controversial in the United Kingdom, who celebrate far more traditionally. In the early 1900s, the festival became known as night of vandalism in the United States, however now it is better known for its celebrations for people of all ages.
Ireland’s strong Gaelic roots make Halloween a popular festival. Adults and children dress up as ghosts, ghouls, zombies, witches and goblins and light bonfires, enjoy firework displays and play games.
In Italy, All Saints’ Day is a public holiday and the festival is a time where families remember lost loved ones. In some places, the Italian tradition remains that children wake on the morning of All Saints’ to find small gifts from their ancestors. In Sardinia, there is a strong tradition of carving pumpkins to look like skulls and lighting candles inside. In Venice, these carved pumpkins are also popular and are called lumère or suche dei morti.
Sweden celebrates Halloween throughout the season of ‘Allhallowtide’. Families visit churchyards and adorn the graves of their family members with lit candles and wreaths made from pine branches. Attempts to commercialise the Swedish tradition with American customs has faced criticism in recent years, although the practice of children dressing and collecting sweets has grown in popularity.
The Spanish tradition includes eating roast chestnuts, panellets (almond balls covered in pine nuts), moniatos (roasted or baked sweet potato) and candied fruits. Historically, bell-ringers would ring bells on Halloween into the early morning to commemorate the dead. Friends and relatives would often help with this task. Usually, the festival is depicted by the figure of a castanyera. This is an old lady, dressed in peasants’ clothes, wearing a headscarf and roasting chestnuts.
Día de los Muertos, or ‘Day of the Dead’ is observed in many Latin American countries and is the traditional Aztec celebration of the dead merged with the Christian tradition brought over with Spanish colonisation.
Flower decorations, altars and sweets are an important part of this festival and make it distinct from the traditional Halloween celebrated elsewhere in the world. The festival is recognisable for its imagery of bright colours and skulls, and many towns and cities have large carnivals and dress up in masks of skulls called calacas.