October 31 is best known as an American holiday filled with Halloween traditions like costumes, candy and pumpkins. But did you know most of these Halloween traditions find their origins in a Celtic holiday honoring spirits of the otherworld? In many other countries around the world, autumn is commonly known as a season where the doorways to the other realm are opened, bringing the dead closer to the living.
How much do you know about Halloween traditions around the world? Read on to learn how other countries and cultures celebrate the harvest, honor the dead and do their best to ward off evil spirits.
From October 31 to November 1, people across Ireland and in other Celtic nations around the world celebrate the ancient holiday of Samhain. This Celtic pagan tradition marks the transition from the end of the harvest season to winter. Ancient Celts believed that, during Samhain, the doors to the otherworld were open and spirits of “fairies” were more likely to cross over into the mortal world. Many of the Irish Halloween traditions derive from the practice of warding off evil, using bonfires or holy water. Costumes were used as disguises to trick the spirits — a tradition that carried over to Halloween and is now practiced around the world.
Like many other pagan holidays and traditions, Samhain was borrowed by the Catholic Church and reimagined as both “All Hallows Eve” (on October 31) — a night to ward off evil spirits) — and “All Saints Day” (November 1) — a day to remember and commemorate good spirits or the spirits of loved ones. And many of the Samhain traditions followed.
“Jack O’Lanterns,” for example, have their roots in Irish Halloween traditions. As legend tells it, in the 18th century, the Devil denied a blacksmith named Jack from entering heaven and condemned him to walk the earth. To light his way, Jack dropped a burning ember into a turnip he had hollowed out. Villagers followed Jack’s example, hoping to keep the damned soul moving past their homes. When the tradition made its way to the U.S. with Irish immigrants, turnips were replaced by pumpkins.
Halloween traditions in France are downplayed, and locals are more likely to celebrate All Saints Day in France — known locally as La Toussaint. La Toussaint is spent with family, visiting deceased relatives in the cemeteries where they are laid to rest. It is La Toussaint tradition to lay chrysanthemums on their family members’ graves. Locals also often attend special church services. All Souls Day on November 2 is intended to commemorate deceased relatives. However, All Saints Day on November 1 is a national holiday—so most people deliver their chrysanthemums on All Saints Day.
Dia de Muertos, or Day of the Dead, is a holiday celebrated in Mexico that honors the dead with a three-day celebration. The festival dates back hundreds of years when it originated as an Aztec festival for the goddess of the afterlife or underworld, and it originally took place in the summer. Since Spain’s colonization of Mexico, the festival is now celebrated from October 31 through November 2 in Mexico to coincide with All Saints Day. On Dia de Muertos, families to come together to celebrate the natural cycle of life and death and the souls of their beloved family members who have died. The holiday is viewed as a celebration rather than sad or scary. Locals celebrate by bringing marigolds, skulls, food and other gifts to the graves of their family members. A distinguishing tradition of Dia de Muertos is the building of ofrendas (altars) to honor deceased family members.
In China, Chinese Halloween traditions have become popularized by foreign teachers and expats. Most locals don’t celebrate Halloween, but they do celebrate a holiday similar to Dia de los Muertos called the Ghost Festival. The date is determined by the lunar calendar and falls in late August or early September during a full moon. On Ghost Day and in Ghost Month, deceased relatives and ancestors are believed to visit the living. Locals celebrate by preparing food offerings, burning incense and “hell bank notes,” and taking part in “merry-making” — large-scale, live musical performances thought to entertain both the living and the dead (traditionally, opera). Ceremonies related to the Ghost Festival are practiced by both Taoists and Buddhists to relieve the ghosts from suffering. Towards the end of the festival, people release paper boats or lanterns on bodies of water to light the way for the spirits back to the otherworld.
Korean Halloween traditions are similar to western practices — with costumes and Halloween parties becoming more common. But Koreans also celebrate a three-day harvest festival called Chuseok, which translates to autumn eve. You might witness the festival if you visit South Korea in September or early October (the dates are based on the lunar calendar). During Chuseok, Koreans travel to their hometowns to gather with their extended families to celebrate the harvest with feasts and folk music and games. A good harvest is considered a blessing from the ancestors, so locals also pay respect to their ancestors with memorial services at home, food offerings and visits to family graves. The holiday is sometimes referred to as Korean Thanksgiving, because of its similarities with the American holiday.
In Japan, costumes and parties have become popular on October 31, but mostly for adults. But the Japanese festival that honors the dead is called the Bon (or Obon) Festival. Bon is a Buddhist custom that dates back hundreds of years and has evolved into a kind of family reunion, where families come together to honor the spirits of their ancestors and prepare for a visit from the spirits by cleaning their graves. The three-day festival takes place at different times in different parts of Japan — usually in July, August or September. Traditionally, the offerings made during the Bon Festival are thought to ameliorate the suffering of the dead. Bon Odori is a traditional dance featured at the Bon Festival, and many modern Bon celebrations include a carnival with rides, games and food. The festival ends with a fire ceremony to send the spirits back to rest.
Most modern African Halloween traditions are borrowed from the western world, locals in Madagascar also practice a unique tradition to honor the dead: Famadihana, known as turning of the bones. Families travel for miles for the two-day celebration. During the ceremony, families exhume the remains of their deceased members from their tombs and refresh their silk wrappings. The family then takes part in a traditional music, dancing and food and drink before returning the corpses to their crypts before sunset. They are placed upside down to with gifts of money or alcohol. The ceremony takes place every five to seven years and is based on the belief that the dead do not progress to their second life (after death, with their ancestors) until complete decomposition.
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About the AuthorJoAnn Bell, Senior Vice President of Program Development, develops and manages more than 5,500 learning adventures in 150 countries and 50 states. JoAnn's extensive experience informs her expert insight on everything from where to find the world's most charming streets to must-see hidden gems across the globe.
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