Though Halloween is widely considered an American holiday, many of the festivities that culminate around the last day of October have been ‘borrowed’ from other cultures over the years. Jack-o’-lanterns, for instance, originated in Ireland – though originally, the Irish carved turnips and not pumpkins. Bobbing for apples is better known as ‘apple dookin’’ to the Scots, who were the first people to honor that inherently unhygienic tradition. As for honoring the dead around harvest time – well, that custom dates back to the Pagan era.
Besides, the concept of Halloween is not strictly limited to U.S. culture. Though they may take place at different times of the year (and involve some customs that seem highly bizarre to Americans), similar traditions can be found all over the world.
Mexico (plus some Latin America)
Outside the English-speaking nations, arguably the most widely known Halloween-esque holiday is Mexico’s Dia de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead. This annual festival combines All Saints’ Day, a Catholic observance that takes place every year on Nov. 1, and a traditional Aztec feast in honor of the goddess Mictecacihuatl. Dia de los Muertos is a national holiday, so banks and businesses are closed and workers are given the day off. What do they do with this extra time on their hands? Well, most of them don costumes that evoke supernatural folklore (corpses and skeletons are typically the most popular choices) and bring gifts to their deceased relatives in the local cemetery. Today, the holiday is celebrated throughout Latin America.
The Welsh celebrate Nos Calan Gaeaf, or ‘the night before winter begins’, by lighting a traditional bonfire known as the coelcerth. Each family member places a white tile with his or her name around the fire. When the last flame goes out, each person grabs their respective tile and rushes out of the house; the last person out the door will die within one year’s time. Another Welsh custom says that young boys who sleep with dried ivy leaves beneath their pillow will be able to tell witches apart from everyone else; girls, on the other hand, should use a crushed rose briar.
Though it typically falls in August or September, The Chinese Ghost Festival shares many similarities with Halloween. During the fall harvest, it is said that the gates of hell are opened and undead spirits who did not pay proper tribute before their passing are free to wander among the living. Family and friends of the deceased leave food and beverages, just in case they receive any late-night visitors. They also burn fake money to appease the underworld spirits.
People in Guatemala, on the other hand, burn effigies of the Devil every Dec. 7. Not surprisingly, this festive tradition began after the Spaniards had colonized most of Central America and spread Christianity throughout the land. Originally, celebrants burned piles of garbage to symbolize the destruction of satanic forces, which ostensibly makes room for purer thoughts and motives. But today, they set fire to ornate effigies that can be twice the size of a human adult. And if this festival didn’t sound extreme enough, many of the effigies are stuffed with fireworks and doused with gasoline prior to ignition – though measures are taken to ensure the spectators remain safe.
The Polish tradition of Zaduszki is slightly subtler. Every All Saints’ Day, Poles visit the graves of all their deceased relatives and ancestors. Every person places a lit candle on each grave, remaining completely silent throughout the procession. For many, an extravagant feast that doubles as a family reunion follows the trip to the cemetery.
Some Halloween celebrations last for much longer than one day, such as the Odo Festival honored by the people of Nigeria. The festivities typically kick off in December, when the odo (deceased relatives) crawl out of the underworld. Following a series of ‘welcome home’ parties, the ghosts spend months hanging out with their living relatives; some may even take the opportunity to visit their ancestral homes or simply travel the globe. The holiday concludes with an emotional farewell ceremony, which can take place as late as August.
Vietnam’s mid-Autumn festival, Tết Trung Thu, shares some similarities to Halloween. On this day, lost (or ‘homeless’) souls depart hell for the land of the living, where they beg forgiveness for past transgressions. What makes Tết Trung Thu so unusual is that it typically falls on the same day as Vu Lan, or as it is commonly known to Buddhists throughout Vietnam, Mother’s Day.
We’ll end with Japan, one of the countries to adopt an annual Halloween tradition in recent years. Every year, Kanagawa Prefecture hosts the Kawasaki Halloween Parade. Throughout the day, the streets of Kanagawa are lined with paraders – most of them young children – decked out in full costume. And while this holds the distinction as Japan’s largest parade, it continues to grow every year; the 2011 processional featured more than 3,500 participants, up 500 from the previous year.
However and wherever you choose to go about it, have a festive (and safe) Halloween holiday!
By Brad Nehring