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The Spook Heard Around the Globe: How Halloween Came to Be

Morgan Hughes Author PIC
by Morgan Hughes

October 21, 2019

6 minute read

All Souls’ Day. All Saints Day. Hallowmas. Samhain. Halloween.

Whatever you call it, the world will be celebrating the dead this fall. October and November mark the season for these related holidays – and many of them can be traced to one ancient celebration.

Read on for the history of Halloween traditions around the world.

 irish graveyard

Ireland - Samhain

It may have all started with the Celtic holiday of Samhain. Historically, Celtic Pagans believed that between sunset on October 31 and sunrise on November 1, the separation between the dead and the living weakened, and wandering spirits would damage crops and meddle with the living.

People would light ritualistic bonfires to protect themselves from mischievous spirits and cleanse themselves of evil. It was believed that they needed to appease the ghosts roaming about that night, so people would leave food and drink outside their homes to ensure that their family and livestock survived the winter.

It was also believed that the souls of the dead would revisit their former homes on this night. So, families hosted large feasts and set a spot at the table for the spirit of their kin. In the villages, large festivals would invite its people to go door-to-door in costume reciting verses in exchange for food. The costumes were intended to disguise themselves from unwanted spirits.

When the Romans conquered the Celts, Samhain was blended with two Roman holidays that honor the dead and celebrate the goddess of trees and fruit. And so, the holiday was replaced with All Souls’ Day, which incorporated the costumes and bonfires of the original holiday. It was later called All Hallows Eve and eventually Halloween.

Halloween today looks a lot different in Ireland, and now resembles an American Halloween of candy, scares, and revelry. But the belief that the division between the living and the dead is thinned on October 31 still permeates many traditions and celebrations.

In the “Ancient East” particularly, celebrations on historic grounds honor the roots of Samhain. At many, participants will listen to traditional poetry, song, and cautionary tales of fairies and spirits. Many more will end with the ethereal lighting of Samhain bonfires.

 trick or treat

United States - Halloween

The spooky holiday as we know it today stems directly from the evolution of All Souls’ Day in Ireland. Today, the holiday is more about humorous spooks, costumes and masks, and chocolate-fueled gatherings. It became largely commercialized – 25% of all the candy sold all year in the U.S. is purchased for Halloween. The holiday in America is a blend of European traditions, but it wasn’t very popular at first.

In New England’s colonies, Halloween was widely rejected by conservative Protestants and Puritans. It was more common down south. Nonetheless, celebrations persisted. Villages held festivals to celebrate the fall harvest, told stories of the dead, danced, sang, and made mischief of all kinds.

Halloween didn’t catch on right away in America, however. It wasn’t until masses of Irish and Scottish immigrants landed in the U.S. during the mid-1800s, and brought their holiday traditions with them. Borrowing from European traditions, Americans would go door-to-door in costume asking for food or money – which eventually became known as “trick-or-treat.”

But shortly after the holiday caught on, the public decided to mold Halloween into a holiday centered around neighborly get-togethers rather than spirits, mischief, and witchcraft. The public was encouraged to take anything spooky out of their celebrations, and the holiday lost most of its religious and superstitious overtones by the early 1900s.

 el dia de los muertos

Mexico – El Día de los Muertos

This celebration, like the Irish tradition of Samhain, was a merging of indigenous Mexican traditions with Spanish Christian culture. The traditions began with the Aztecs, Mayas, and other Mesoamerican indigenous people. They kept skulls of the dead and used them during rituals to symbolize death and rebirth, presided over by the god Mictecacihuatl, the “Lady of Death.”

Frightened by the Pagan practices of the natives as they attempted to convert them to Christianity, the Spanish conquistadors of the 15th century moved the festivities to November 2 to coincide with All Saints and All Souls’ Day. Mexicans honored their dead loved ones with shrines and rituals, performed in joy and the celebration of life instead of sadness and grief.

El Día de Los Muertos today is a wildly popular festival, celebrated with marigolds (the flower of the dead) and candy sugar skulls. Many festival-goers paint their faces like skulls, a look known as “Calaveras makeup.” It is widely celebrated in U.S. cities and towns with large Mexican-American populations, like Santa Fe, but less so in the rest of Latin America.

 japan halloween

Japan – Halloween

When Tokyo Disneyland held its first Halloween celebration in 2000, the holiday began to take off in Japan. Before that, Halloween was typically only celebrated by foreigners. Halloween-themed merchandising, costumes, grand pumpkins, and spooky decorations were, at first, only enjoyed inside Tokyo Disneyland. But in the last 10 years, the country known for cosplay has taken to the celebration.

Japan took Halloween from the west, and then decided to do it bigger and crazier. The Kawasaki Halloween Parade has an average of 3,500 costumed participants every year. You can join in the fun, but you have to submit an application, including a photograph of your costume. If it isn’t very high level, you’re out of luck.

But there is no trick-or-treating. Inconvenience is somewhat of an offense in Japan, where people avoid bothering others at all costs. Walking home-to-home, knocking on doors and asking for candy and food would be culturally inappropriate. So instead, the people of Japan stick to the costumes, the decorations, and the sharing of treats (without the tricks).

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The season of Halloween is the perfect time to visit some of these countries. During the off-season (November through March), ticket prices tend to drop but the festivities are as big as ever in many cities around the world! Contact your local travel professional to search for Collette tour departures that fall around Halloween and related international celebrations.

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