With Halloween approaching at a rapid rate, what better way to get into the spooky swing than by exploring the unique ways other cultures celebrate the day.
Halloween is celebrated around the world and although in today’s commercially driven society we immediately tend to associate it with ‘trick or treating’, there are actually plenty of traditions practised by children around the world.
We probably have Hollywood to thank for portraying Halloween as a distinctly American holiday and reinforcing their traditions. However, other countries have some fascinating traditions which aren’t as widely known and as a parent, it can be fun finding out what other cultures have done and comparing it to what happens now. It’s always great to give your children a better idea of why we celebrate certain days – assuming you don’t scare them too much!
England and Ireland
In England and Ireland, Halloween was nicknamed Snap Apple Night. Families used to light a great fire in their hearth and gather to tell stories and play games. ‘Snap Apple’ was a game which involved an apple being hung on a string with a candle beneath it which made it spin, children would try and bite the apple like in Apple Bobbing. ‘Punkie Night’ is another tradition from Somerset linked to Halloween but instead practised on the last Thursday in October. Jack ‘o lanterns were made, usually of Swedes, and carried about the town lit by a candle while children sang the ‘Punkie Night’ song.
Farmers sometimes carved out lanterns to put on their gateposts to ward off evil spirits. Children and the poor would go around knocking on doors and be given ‘Soul Cakes’ in return for saying prayers for the dead. In some parts of England, it was also known as ‘Mischief Night’ and people would take doors off their hinges in the night, or remove it completely and throw them in a pond so their owners couldn’t find them. Children were also told not to sit in circles of white and yellow flowers because they would be stolen by fairies. If a black cat crossed their path it was considered good luck, whilst a white cat was considered bad.
In Mexico, they have more than one night where spirits are the main focus. October 27th is the Feast of the Holy Souls where families begin by cleaning their loved ones’ graves and decorating them in flowers and pine needles. The families assemble a temporary altar near the gravesite, covering them in candles and leaving out foods like beans, meat, tortillas and alcohol. Each person takes a turn at speaking to the departed spirit, offering the food and letting them know they are loved. This can last for days if the family has many relatives’ graves to tend to.
All Saints Day is devoted to Los Angelitos – the dead children – who get a head start before the adult ghosts who arrive on Dia de los Muertos (the day of the dead) so the spirits can find the way back to the homes where they once lived. Parents and living relatives set off fire crackers and lay out a pathway of petals from the graveyard to their home to help them find their way back. They hang lanterns on trees to light the way and the children run through the streets with lights asking for coins. They also have picnics on the graves of their relatives, celebrating their lives and eating their favourite food and drink. At home, there will also be an altar called an ‘Ofrenda’ with their loved one’s favourite food and drink on it, alongside candles and marigolds, a flower long associated with death.
Teng Chieh is the name for the Halloween festival in China. Food and water are placed in front of the photos of dead relatives and bonfires and lanterns are lit to guide the spirits down to earth. Their biggest Halloween-type festival however is The Feast of the Hungry Ghosts. In China, they believe the souls of the dead walk the earth in the seventh lunar month searching for affection.
They are known as the ‘hungry ghosts’ because of their need for love and care. The number of souls is increased by those who died unnatural deaths, those not given a proper burial or burial place and spirits whose families have died out or shown no care for them in the afterlife. These are ghosts bereft of comfort who may become threats to the living because of their feelings of abandonment and lack of ancestral worship. The festival is to placate the spirits, welcome them and satisfy their spiritual hunger. They are given offerings in the form of incense sticks, food and gifts. Paper money is also burnt on their behalf to pay for their expenses in the afterlife and fires are lit to light the way and offer a warm welcome.
In Italy, their day starts at 5am with the church bells ringing and a service for the dead. The Churchyards are decorated in flowers and candles, whilst the women, dressed in black, clear the family graves of leaves and debris then place wreathes and bouquets of flowers on them. In Sicily, the cult of the dead is the strongest and Il Giorno dei Morti is a very big festival, especially for children!
They believe that if they respect their elders and pray for the morti, or family dead, during the year they will return with gifts for them on the festival night. The candy dolls displayed in shop windows are the most longed-for gift! Surprisingly, Il Giorno dei Morti is also the proper time for young men to send engagement rings to their loved one. Fave dei Morti, the bean-shaped cakes they make for the occasion, are packed into an oval container with the engagement ring and gifted to the woman.
Halloween is an exciting night for children – often dominated by dressing up, pumpkins and hunting for chocolate or sweets – but maybe discovering the ways other countries celebrate this time of the month has made you look at it in a slightly different light.