Humanity has long held a fascination with the mysterious and the unknown. Death and the supernatural lead to speculation, and speculation can lead to some creepy, kooky, mysterious and spooky traditions. Interested in the unseen? No reason to be limited to just Halloween.
Tim Burton, arguably one of the masters of the macabre, said, “Every day is Halloween, isn’t it? For some of us.”
Well, if Tim Burton or anyone equally enamored with Halloween wishes to expand their repertoire of Halloween and other similarly spooky beliefs and customs across the vast reaches of the world, we have assembled some history, practices and beliefs relating to the sometimes sinister and always spellbinding and captivating Halloween and Halloween-like traditions around the world.
History of Halloween
The origins of Halloween date back to the Celtic festival of Samhain. The Celts, who lived over 2000 years ago, celebrated their new year on November 1st, and the day marked the end of the summer harvest and the beginning of the harsh winter, a time they associated with death.
Celts believed that on the night before the new year, the night of October 31, the lines between our world and the world of the dead blurred, allowing ghosts of the dead to return to earth. These ghosts caused trouble and damaged crops, but the Celts thought that the presence of these spirits enhanced the ability of the Druids, the Celtic priests, to make prophesies.
During Samhain, people lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off the ghosts and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes. However, people did feel close to their deceased relatives and even set places at the dinner table, left treats for the benevolent ghosts and lit candles to help their loved ones find their way back to the spirit world.
When Christianity spread into Celtic lands, the church made November 2nd All Souls’ Day, which was celebrated in a similar way to Samhain and was meant to honor the dead. This celebration was also called All-hallows or All-hallowmas from the Middle English word Alholowmesse, which means All Saints’ Day, and the night before, the traditional night of Samhain in the Celtic religion, began to be called All-Hallows Eve, and eventually, Halloween.
The trick-or-treaters we see going up and down streets and ringing doorbells awaiting candy probably have no idea that this activity dates back to early All Souls’ Day festivities where poor people begged for food, and families gave them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their prayers for the dead relatives of the pastry providers.
Early masks and costumes had the original intention of allowing frightened people to believe they would blend in with ghosts and be left alone in their travels.
Halloween Prediction Traditions
Many early traditions existed to help young women find their future husbands. In Ireland, a matchmaking cook might place a ring hidden in a dish hoping to bring true love to the person who finds it. In Scotland, young, single women would name a hazelnut for each suitor, then toss the nut into the fireplace. The nut that burned to ashes instead of popping or exploding represented the future husband, but in some versions, the opposite was true.
Some other marriage-related prediction traditions used food. A sugary concoction could prompt a woman to dream about her future husband. Tossing apple peels and then analyzing the shape or peering at egg yolks could predict who the husband would be. One tradition even said that the first woman to successfully retrieve an apple when bobbing for apples would be the first to marry.
Whether predicting a future marriage or trying to appease the spirits, these old rituals influenced the Halloween traditions we still enjoy.
William Shakespeare wrote, “By pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes,” so without further ado, here are some other Halloween and Halloween-like traditions.
Samhain in Ireland
In Ireland, the birthplace of Halloween with Samhain, celebrations consist of bonfires lit in rural areas, trick-or-treating and parties. At the parties, a popular game called “snap apple” is played where players attempt to bite an apple that is hanging from a doorframe. There are also treasure hunts and card games.
A traditional food called barnbrack is eaten. Barnbrack is a fruitcake with a muslin-wrapped treat hidden inside. The treat is said to foretell the future. If the treat is a ring, the person will soon marry. If the treat is a piece of straw, prosperity will follow.
Children play tricks including “knock-a-dolly” where they knock on doors but run and hide before the door is opened.
Halloween in Romania
October 31st in Romania celebrates the myth of Dracula, a real-life early 15th century Romanian prince with the nickname Vlad the Impaler, who was also the inspiration for Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
Transylvania celebrates with costume parties, storytelling and actors playing out Dracula-inspired scenes. Sighisoara, the town in Transylvania where Vlad was born has the country’s most popular Halloween festivities complete with historical reenactments of witch trials.
Japanese Obon Festival
The Japanese celebration of Obon is observed in July or August. Spirits of ancestors visit the living. Relatives of those who have passed prepare special meals as offerings and hang lanterns to guide the spirits.
During this festival, a fire is lit nightly to light the way for the ancestors and lighted candles in lanterns are set afloat on rivers, gravestones are cleaned, homes are cleaned, an altar is set up in the home where offerings and dances are performed.
The culmination of the Obon festival is Daimonji in Kyoto where five bonfires are lit in the surrounding mountains as symbolic characters for a farewell to the spirits who will be returning home.
Hong Kong Festival of the Hungry Ghosts
During the festival Teng Chieh or the Feast of the Hungry Ghosts, lanterns and bonfires are lit to guide spirits back to earth. Water and food are provided next to photos of deceased relatives to provide them comfort and ward them off.
When they return, ancestors are hungry ghosts who expect gifts. Living relatives appease them by burning paper offerings of food, money, homes, cars and more. Traditional Chinese operas are staged to entertain spirits.
Pangangaluluwa in the Philippines
The Filipino version of Halloween is a three-day festivity full of family activities. Families spend the day at the cemetery cleaning and paying their respects with flowers and candles while a priest goes around the cemetery blessing tombs.
During Pangangaluluwa, children go door to door in costumes singing and asking for prayers for those stuck in purgatory.
Ognissanti and Giorno dei Morti in Italy
Ognissante, where All Saints is celebrated on the first of November. The second of November is commonly called i Morti and is dedicated to those who passed away. Traditions include lighting red candles on windowsills at sunset and making food offerings including bean-shaped cakes that are from a recipe with origins from the pre-Christian time when fava beans were used as ritual offerings.
Another custom is laying a table for the dearly departed while the living relatives visit the cemetery and leave the house empty for the dead to visit undisturbed. When the family returns to the home, they ring bells, so the dead can leave unseen.
Pitru Paksha in India
Pitra Paksha is when the souls of the dead are briefly allowed to return to earth to be with their families. This Hindu celebration lasts 16 days. In the Hindu religion, when a person dies, Yama – the Hindu god of death- takes the soul to purgatory where he or she will find the last three generations of the family.
During Pitra Paksha, families offer the dead food like kheer, which is a sweet rice, lapsi, rice, lentils, beans and pumpkins, which are cooked in silver or copper pots and all served on banana leaves.
Gai Jatra in Nepal
The Nepalese celebration Gai Jatra commemorates the loss of loved ones throughout the past year. It falls on the month of Bhandra, August to September, and can be translated to Cow Festival as Gai means cow and jatra means procession or journey.
If families of the deceased have a cow, the cows are sent for the procession, bathed and worshipped because cows are holy animals thought to lead the departed on the journey to the other side. If the family does not have a cow, young boys from the family dress as cows.
Gai Jatra involves song, dance, comedy, food, face paint, flowers and remembrance of the lives of those who have died. On this day, people are permitted to convey whatever they want if it is conveyed in a comical, humorous or satirical way.
Awuru Odo Festival in Nigeria
The Odo festival in Nigeria welcomes dearly departed friends and family back to the land of the living in a mass return of the dead. It is celebrated once every two years and lasts up to six months. The Odo Festival ties into the belief that the dead help the living by protecting from evil spirits, predicting the future and that they possess the power of rebirth.
The festival requires immense preparation including food, performances and costumes and masks made of plant fiber, beads, feather, flowers and cloth. The odo, which is the term that describes the returning dead, are welcomed, they make visits to their former homes and then have a sad departure when they take their leave from the land of the living.
The Nigerians believe that the dead are reincarnated into their families and that they then continue life in a cycle consisting of the living, the dead and the dead who become the unborn waiting for rebirth.
Pchum Ben in Cambodia
The festival of Pchum Ben is a Buddhist celebration where people gather with family to show respect to the dead. Foods like sticky rice and beans wrapped in banana leaves are offered along with flowers to the temple. This celebration takes place from September to the middle of October.
Bay ben, which are balls of rice, are offered to ghosts at dawn. It is believed that ghosts who led lives full of sin cannot receive the food during the day.
These are just a few of the beliefs and practices that are like Halloween in that they are entwined with those who have passed and the recognition they are given by those who are still among the living.
Thanks to the global reach of American culture, the American version of Halloween celebrations is also becoming popular in many places throughout the world, and the old traditions struggle to remain a relevant part of the lives of the younger generations.
All these many different customs and traditions are united by a common thread. We all want to remember those who have passed. Death is a great mystery still, and where there is mystery, there is speculation and a wish to honor those we love yet also keep evil spirits (if they exist) away.
Even the most rational among us may succumb to speculation when it comes to something as mysterious and compelling as the supernatural, and 18 percent of Americans report that they have seen a ghost, though the ghosts they describe vary greatly. Even so, it might not hurt to leave a little something to quell their hunger, just in case, and to light some lanterns to assist them on their journey.
Halloween and Festival Flowers
Flowers are associated with many of the Halloween-like traditions and festivals. In both Christianity and Hinduism, marigolds have great spiritual significance.
In Christianity, the marigold flower was offered to Mother Mary when she was told of Jesus Christ’s coming. In Hinduism, it symbolizes auspiciousness and a trust in the divine. Garlands of the blooms are hung for luck and offered in rituals.
The color of marigolds represents renunciation and is offered as a symbol of surrender, which is why it features so prominently in many festivals and celebrations of the Hindu faith. In fact, demand for marigolds surges during important events as garlands of marigolds decorate homes and temples and are even placed on animals like dogs and cows.
Chrysanthemums are considered prosperous in most of the world, but in the Italian and partly European civilization, they became associated with death. This is because the Day of the Dead coincides with the blooming of chrysanthemums in the autumn. In some of these parts of the world, chrysanthemums are only used for funerals and gravesites. In China, Japan and Korea, white mums represent lamentation and grief.
Flowers are extremely important to Buddhist practice. Even though the lotus is the most recognizable flower in Buddhism, as it is associated with purity of the body, speech and mind, chrysanthemums find their way into many Buddhist festivals.
For those of us celebrating a Halloween consisting of a standard party or escorting some costumed little ones for the typical candy collecting, our florists can assemble creative bouquets that really capture the fun of the holiday.
If you happen to be celebrating in a way to commemorate a loved one who is no longer among the living, there are bouquets with meaningful blooms that can be arranged to suit your tastes or the tastes of someone you love who has passed.
No matter what your needs are, whether Halloween or other Halloween-like tradition, our creative and caring florists at Flowerama Des Moines in Des Moines, IA can create the perfect arrangement for your Halloween or Halloween-like celebration.