Halloween, or All Hallows’ Eve, celebrated in many cultures on 31 October, is traditionally a festival of remembrance for the dead. Its roots are said to stem from the Celtic festival of Samhain, Old Irish for ‘summer’s end’, which marked the end of the fruitful summer harvest and the onset of the dark winter period to come.
Read on for the Holiday Lettings pick of past and present forms of celebration around the world for this rather special festival.
On Halloween, superstitious farmers used to anoint and bless their livestock to protect them from malevolent spirits. The traditional bake for the occasion was barnbrack fruit cake with treats hidden inside; if you found a ring, it was predicted that you would soon be married. Barnbrack still features on some contemporary Halloween menus, as does colcannon. This cabbage and potato dish (also often laced with treats) is a nod to the vegetarian roots of the festival.
Way back when, revellers in Ireland would congregate around the bonfire wearing costumes fashioned from animal skins and heads – although these days you’re more likely to run into zombies and witches in polyester garb bobbing for apples at the local Halloween party.
In more traditional times, British children would customise beetroots or turnips and go door to door singing for money. One former custom was to throw various items into a bonfire to predict the future – for example, if a couple threw a nut into the fire and it exploded, it was taken as a sign of a stormy marriage ahead.
Nowadays Brits have more or less taken up the contemporary style of celebrating Halloween, with costume parties, pumpkin carving and trick or treating for children, although it’s much more rigorously celebrated by their American cousins.
Historically, the Belgians have used All Hallows’ Eve as an occasion to honour the spirits of departed loved ones by lighting candles in their homes. Many are still superstitious about black cats crossing their paths, coming into their houses or boarding ships over the Halloween period.
For the most part, today the festivities tend to take on a more commercial slant, with shop windows dressed up with black and orange Halloween paraphernalia, and locals sporting vampire and witch costumes.
Spain, Mexico and Latin America
Los Dias de los Muertos (the days of the dead) last from 31 October to 2 November and serve as a celebration both of the deceased and of the new generation, symbolising the renewal of the life cycle. These locations favour the more traditional customs, constructing shrines at home, littered with offerings to returning spirits.
Some folk still use the last day of the festival as a time to tend the graves of their loved ones. This is generally a jolly occasion of both remembrance and celebration, marked with plenty of traditional food and drink. Some towns and villages continue to hold community celebrations including special church services and parades – although modern, Americanised parties also now play their part.
Participants in Teng Chieh, the Chinese version of Halloween, generally stay true to their ancient rituals, placing offerings of food and drink before images of deceased family members and lighting lanterns to mark the paths of spirits roaming earth on Halloween night. During Buddhist ceremonies paper boats are fashioned and burned to free trapped spirits and help them on their way to their final resting place.