Halloween for many of us symbolises carving pumpkins, watching horror films, dressing up in your scariest outfit (or simply donning a pair of mouse ears) and seeing children scurry from door to door for as many hyperactive-inducing sweets as possible, aka trick-or-treating. Although the tradition of collecting food on Halloween dates back as far as the 16th century in the UK and Ireland, this westernised notion of the celebration seems to have truly taken off in North America over the course of the 20th century and can be seen influencing cultures much further afield. However, Halloween isn’t celebrated in the same way all over the world; many don’t even celebrate Halloween at all and have their own traditions along the same line! So please read on, for perhaps a more rounded view of the goings on at this mystical time of year.
The origins of Halloween
Considered by some to be where modern Halloween’s roots stem from, Ireland is the first stop on our ghost train. The Gaelic festival of Samhain, which marks the end of the harvest season or the lighter half of the year, is believed to have Celtic pagan origins and was said to be a period where spirits could pass through into our world. Even thousands of years ago, deceased family members were honoured and remembered, harmful spirits were warded off, and people disguised themselves as such to avoid encountering any misdemeanours. Today in Ireland, Halloween is celebrated with games, bonfires and traditional foods such as barmbrack - a bread containing sultanas and raisins, full of various objects baked into the loaf (coins, rings, buttons, etc.), and used as a type of fortune-telling game.
Honouring the departed
A common theme throughout the autumnal celebrations of the world, is the commemoration of those we have lost. In many countries like Italy, Austria and China, people are known to leave out food for deceased loved ones. Candles are lit in their memory, for example in Belgium, and in the Czech Republic, November 2nd marks a day for decorating the graves of family members with flowers, and placing extra chairs by the fireside for their souls. Korea’s Chuseok sees families practice the custom of Seongmyo, by removing weeds from graves and paying respect through memorial services.
One of the most famous cultural celebrations this time of year, is Mexico’s Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), honouring those who have passed away. October 31st is believed to be the night that the souls of all departed children come to the living world to be reunited with their families the next day. The souls of deceased adults then follow on the 2nd November. Festivities include creating colourful altars (ofrendas) in homes adorned with flowers, candles, ceramic skulls, favourite dishes and images of lost loved ones, decorating graves, and baking pan de muerto, a sweet bread to nourish the spirits after their long journey.
Celebrating the harvest
Another shared notion at this time of year is a celebration of the harvest season. Often alongside paying respect to ancestors, many countries mark a seasonal change in the weather with food-related festivities in the hope of a bountiful harvest. China’s Mid-Autumn festival or the Chinese Moon Festival, is celebrated with colourful lanterns and moon cakes. Korean families rejoicing in the aforementioned Chuseok knead small balls of rice powder known as songpyeon, stuffed with fillings such as sesame seeds, beans, or chestnuts, which are then steamed and layered with pine needles to produce a distinctive and delightful fragrance.
However you choose to celebrate, be it a Halloween party, hiding your knives from evil spirits like in Germany, debating whether Nightmare Before Christmas is a Halloween film or in fact only fit for Christmas, creating your own ofrenda, or simply watching the Harry Potter series back to back with a carved glowing pumpkin at your window, have a happy Halloween (or perhaps Harvest Festival) from all of us at GL.