Halloween is a Christian celebration, but its roots are complex. Many of the traditional elements of Halloween come from the Pagan, Celtic harvest festival of Samhain. With the rise of Christianity in places like England and Ireland, these traditions became synonymous with Halloween. In many countries, people would dress up and wear masks to confuse the souls of the dead who wanted to settle scores with people who had wronged them. This particular tradition has long endured. However, the essence of Christian Halloween is to honour the souls of the dead. Many religions also have festivals that serve a similar spiritual purpose. Here’s how the spooky season is celebrated across the world.
1. The giving of soul cakes
Soul cakes are small, round cakes, baked for Halloween. They are given to children who knock on doors, singing and praying for the souls of the dead. The tradition was once widespread across England. In some areas, those who went from house to house would carry a horse’s head on a stick, called an old cob, which is something you certainly wouldn’t want to bump into in the dark. This tradition is incredibly old, having been traced back to the Medieval period in England. It still exists in some countries, namely the Philippines and Portugal. The cakes are given in exchange for a promise on the part of the recipient: that they will pray for the souls of the giver’s family.
2. Día de Muertos
Día de Muertos is a Mexican tradition that has become known across the world due to the bright and elaborate costumes worn during the festival. In order to remember the souls of dead relatives, people gather to pray and celebrate life. Altars are built in people’s homes for the deceased, covered with flowers and the deceased’s favourite things. The graves of the dead are maintained, decorated and gifts are left for their spirits. It’s a very colourful and cheerful celebration of both life and death.
3. Pangangaluwa, Philippines
Pangangaluwa takes place on what English speakers call All-Saints Day, in parts of the Philippines. Children will drape a white sheet over themselves to look like ghosts and knock door to door, in exchange for treats. Sometimes soul cakes are still given out and the children will sing songs and pray. Some Filipinos will also travel to their hometowns and sit by the graves of their relatives, sometimes overnight. The family will eat, play games, and reminisce about the life of the deceased. This huge yearly gathering of relatives at graves will look very different this year, with many cemeteries closed on October 31 due to the pandemic. Accordingly, people will observe this tradition throughout October this year.
4. Hiding things in the barmbrack, Ireland
Barmbrack is a tasty Irish bread, filled with dried fruit and often filled with a cup of tea. In the 18th Century, barmbracks were baked ready for Halloween, each containing a ring, a pea, a stick, a coin, and a rag. If you were served the slice containing a ring, you were bound to get married soon. The pea meant the opposite: no weddings for you, and the stick foretold a troubled marriage. The rag predicted a life of poverty for the recipient and the coin meant that you would become rich. Barmbracks are still traditional on Halloween in Ireland, but they are no longer filled with sticks and peas. Sometimes a coin will still be baked into the loaf and the kids have fun seeing who finds it.
5. Teng Chieh, China
Teng Chieh, which is also known as The Ghost Festival, marks the end of the Chinese New Year, under a full moon. People hang lanterns outside of their homes and businesses, creating a beautiful display of flickering lights every year. In San Francisco, a 160ft dragon lantern is erected and dances in a parade, accompanied by marching bands, dancers, and floats. A lion dance can be part of the celebration, in which two men operate a huge lion puppet from within making it dance around the street. Teng Chieh is also called The Feast Of The Hungry Ghosts because it serves to bid spirits a safe journey to heaven. As with most (good) celebrations, plenty of food is prepared and this food is also offered to the spirits of departed ancestors.
6. Pchum Ben, Cambodia
Pchum Ben is generally celebrated in October in Cambodia and lasts a whole 15 days. People pay their respects to deceased relatives. As the gates of hell open and allow souls to wander the Earth, people offer food to their relatives, either directly or through the medium of a monk. The 15 days in which souls wander the Earth is a time for celebration, rather than consternation, as people come together to eat food and play music.
7. Fave dei morti, Italy
In Italy, fave dei morti cookies were once made from fava beans, but now they are made with almonds, which sounds far more appetising. They are traditionally eaten on All Saint’s Day, which is also the day on which relatives will visit and maintain the graves of their relatives, sometimes dressed in black. In some parts of Italy, men will send their fiancés boxes of these little fave dei morti cookies, also containing an engagement ring. In Rome, it is a popular day to pop the question. Palermo, in Sicily, celebrates by sending children gifts from the dead such as sweets—and, in turn, people will leave gifts on the graves of their dead relatives.
8. Peeling apples to predict the future, UK and Ireland
Although this tradition isn’t very popular in 2020, it hasn’t completely died out. On Halloween, people peel an apple and then throw a slice of the peel behind them. The slice of a peel will curl into a shape on the floor and whatever letter shape it makes will be the first initial of any future spouse. In Scotland, people would sometimes tear stalks from heads of kale and use them in the same way.