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How the World Celebrates Halloween

Halloween, one of the world’s oldest holidays, is celebrated today in various countries around the globe. In the United States and Canada, 65% of the population decorates homes and offices for Halloween, a percentage only second to Christmas. Adults and children alike, revel in celebrations derived from ancient festivals and religious rituals, including costume parties, jack- O’-lanterns carved out of pumpkins, trick-or-treating, pranks and games.

In Ireland, the Spirits of Meath Halloween Festival in County Meath is the origin of Halloween. An ancient Celtic festival we now know as Halloween started more than 2,000 years ago. Nowadays throughout the country, Halloween is still welcomed with bonfires, party games, and traditional food, such as barmbrack, an Irish fruitcake that contains coins, buttons, rings and other fortunetelling objects. (If a young woman gets a ring that has been baked in a pastry, bread or any kind of food, she’ll be married by next Halloween. A straw means that a prosperous year is ahead.) After trick-or-treating, most people attend parties where many games are played, including “snap-apple,” a game in which an apple on a string is tied to a doorframe or tree and players attempt to bite the hanging apple. In addition, treasure hunts for candy or pastries and card games are also popular, and of course drinking and feasting.

Once upon a time, English children made "punkies" out of beetroots and carried their "punkies" through the streets while singing the "Punkie Night Song." They knocked on doors and asked for money. Turnip lanterns were placed on gateposts to protect homes from the spirits who roamed on Halloween night. Another custom was to toss objects such as stones, vegetables and nuts into a bonfire to frighten away the spirits. These symbolic sacrifices were also for fortune-telling. If a pebble burned and became invisible in a fire pit, the person who tossed the pebble would not survive another year. If nuts exploded in the blaze, lovers would quarrel and have troublesome marriages. However, the English ceased celebrating Halloween with Martin Luther's Protestant Reformation. Since followers of the new religion did not believe in Saints, they stopped celebrating the Eve of All Saints' Day. On the other hand, a new autumn ritual did emerge. Guy Fawkes Day festivities were to commemorate the execution of a notorious English traitor, Guy Fawkes. (On November 5, 1606, Fawkes was executed after being convicted of attempting to blow up England’s parliament building.) Children walk the streets carrying an effigy or “guy” and ask for “a penny for the guy.”

In Austria, people leave bread, water, and a lamp on the table before retiring on Halloween night, because such items would welcome the dead souls back to earth. The Belgians believe that it is unlucky for a black cat to cross one's path and also unlucky if it should enter a home or travel on a ship. They light candles in memory of dead relatives. In Germany, people put away their knives on Halloween night to prevent the returning spirits from being harmed. In Czechoslovakia, chairs are placed by the fireside on Halloween night, one chair for each living family member and one for each family member's spirit. In Sweden, Halloween known as "Alla Helgons Dag," is celebrated from October 31 until November 6.

In Mexico, Latin American countries and Spain, Día de los Muertos—the Day of the Dead/All Soul’s Day—honors deceased loved ones and ancestors. It takes place on November 2, commemorated with a three-day celebration that begins on the evening of October 31. Altars are constructed in homes to honor deceased relatives. Skull-shaped candies, flowers, photographs, samples of the deceased’s favorite foods and drinks, and fresh water are offered. Also, a wash basin and towel are prepared so that the spirit can wash before indulging in the feast. Candles and incense are burned to help the deceased find the way home. Families also tidy the gravesite of their deceased relatives, snipping weeds, making repairs, painting, and decorating. On November 2, relatives gather at the gravesite to picnic and reminisce. Feasts, lots of tequila, dancing and mariachi music, as well as parades of people dressed as skeletons, all ensure that one’s ancestors are honored.

Other than the imported Halloween celebrations, Asia has its way of paying tributes to the ghosts. In China, the Hungry Ghost Festival /Zhongyuan Festival (中元节) is on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month. The whole month of July starting from the seventh day, is dedicated to dealing with ghosts and worshiping ancestors. Festivities include parades, operas, burning incense, food for the dead and performances to entertain the spirits. The Japanese celebrate the "Obon Festival" in July or August (also known as "Matsuri" or "Urabon") in dedication to their ancestors’ spirits. Special foods and bright red lanterns are prepared. Candles are lit and placed into lanterns which are then set afloat on rivers and seas. In Korea, "Chusok" in August is for families to thank their ancestors. They make offerings of rice and fruits at their ancestors’ graves.

Halloween, incorporating all the best superstitions of the Roman, Celtic, Catholic and European folk traditions, has become a celebration of the human spirit and the afterlife. While Christmas elicits good cheer, Halloween fosters a night of sensory stimulation. A day to cast out evil spirits as well as celebrate the dead, Halloween is certainly favored and rejoiced around the world.

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