Although these days Halloween has become known for costumes, trick-or-treating and haunts, the history behind the holiday stretches far back in time, nearly 2,000 years ago with the Celts who celebrated Samhain between October 31st and November 1st. Eventually with the spread of Christianity, the Celtic tradition would be absorbed into All Saints’ Day (November 1st) and All Souls’ Day (November 2nd).
Interestingly, the Christian Church celebrated All Souls’ Day in a similar way to Samhain, maintaining customs such as building bonfires and donning costumes. The origin of the term “Halloween” is the Middle English word meaning All Saints’ Day, “Alholowmesse.” In time, the night before November 1st would be referred to as All Hallows’ Eve and then as Halloween.
From America to Asia, celebrations of this holiday have spread worldwide with countries commemorating the day in diverse and fascinating ways. Following is just a small fraction of what Halloween festivities take place.
Of course we must start the list with where Halloween began! Samhain is an ancient tradition that is still celebrated in its country of origin, Ireland. Age-old rituals such as bonfires and dressing up in costume are still held. In addition to trick-or-treating, some kids play friendly gags on neighbors. An Irish fruitcake called barmbrack is also eaten on this day and used as a means of fortunetelling. Small objects such as coins and rings are baked inside the cake, signifying wealth and marriage.
In terms of festivals, Banks of the Foyle Halloween Carnival in Northern Ireland is considered Europe’s biggest All Hallows’ Eve celebration with people traveling from all over the world to experience it. It spans across a few days and features games for kids, haunts, live entertainment and plenty of other spooky activities.
Another is Spirits of Meath in Boyne Valley, which is recognized as the birthplace of Halloween. The festival usually begins in early October and continues into the beginning of November. Haunts, ghostly tours and occult-inspired attractions await.
Dracula’s (a.k.a Bran) Castle: Romania
Who wouldn’t want to party in Transylvania on October 31st? The birthplace of Vlad Tepes is a popular destination for those wanting to pay homage to a vampire legend while celebrating Halloween. Although no evidence indicates that Vlad the Impaler lived in this castle, because the historical landmark closely resembles the structure described in Bram Stoker’s novel, it has become associated with Dracula.
Revelers dress up in costume, enjoy live music and entertainment, plus indulge in mystical adult beverage concoctions while surrounded by historic architecture.
I found that various travel agencies offer Transylvania tours that include the event at the castle as part of the itinerary. There are several out there, so do your research to find which works best for you. One tour that I discovered in the early 2000s, and have had my eye on since then, is the Tours and Events Dracula travel package. The eight-day adventure includes visits to sites that Vlad purportedly visited and includes the Bran Castle party.
Kawasaki Halloween Parade: Japan
This event began in 1997 and has grown to become the largest Halloween parade in Japan. Taking place south of Tokyo during the last weekend of October, people come in throngs to witness the festivities. The 2018 celebration drew about 120,000 spectators setting a new record number of attendees for the parade. The festival is free unless you want to participate.
For those who want to do more than just watch, a maximum of 2,500 individuals are welcome to walk in the parade, which runs the length of nearly a mile. Registration is required two months in advance and there is a small fee to join. From images I saw, participants get quite creative with their costumes and makeup. From stitched up mouths to blood dripping down faces and clothes, the looks are incredible.
Although I was unable to find out this year’s themes, last year’s included Near Futuristic Costume & Dance, Zombie & Horror, Street Culture & Dance and Drag Queen & Sexuality-Free Party. The 2019 edition will feature a Pride Parade. But the party doesn’t end with the bone-chilling procession. There is an awards ceremony for best costume and an after-party in the evening.
Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead): Mexico & Latin America
It is believed that on Día de los Muertos, the veil between the realms of the living and the dead is thinnest. Occurring on November 1st and 2nd, Día de los Muertos is a celebration of death. Families gather to honor the memory of loved ones who have passed and commemorate the ending of life in a positive way. Although it should not be thought of as a Mexican version of Halloween, I’m including this event here because it shares similarities with European pagan traditions like Samhain, which acknowledged the ending of life and seasonal cycles during this time of year.
The Day of the Dead has indigenous roots and was celebrated by the Aztecs and Nahua tribes about 3,000 years ago. The natives believed because death was a natural part of life that it should not be feared, and that the dead needn’t be mourned but wished well on their journey in the afterlife. With the arrival of the Spaniards, the tradition would become partially influenced by Catholic and European customs.
Sugar skulls and skeletons are synonymous with the fete, as well as people painting their faces as skulls. The skeletal figure Catrina from Diego Rivera’s painting “Sueño de una Tarde Dominical en la Alameda Central (“Dream of a Sunday Afternoon in Alameda Park”) has also become a significant symbol of the holiday. Altars, called “ofrendas” in Spanish, are erected in homes and cemeteries, and adorned with candles, photos of the departed, food, drinks and marigolds. They are a focal point of Día de los Muertos and welcome spirits back to the living world.
Beside Mexico and Latin America, the occasion is also celebrated in the U.S., especially in Los Angeles, California, where there is a major Mexican and Latino population. Several events happen, but one I will mention is the festivities at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, which draws thousands of costumed people to the grounds. Live entertainment, artisans, Aztec dancers and more are featured.
Halloween Galas: United States
The celebration of Halloween in colonial America was practically non-existent except in a few states, such as Maryland. It was around the late 19th century when a wave of immigrants arrived that festivities would begin to pop up. The Irish, for instance, introduced their Halloween traditions, which would gradually infiltrate into American customs.
Trick-or-treating and Halloween parties were on the rise during the early 20th century, but remained secular, focusing more on community and omitting any obvious references to pagan traditions. Today, though, it’s celebrated in diverse ways across the states.
All Hallows’ Eve festivities are abundant, so I’ll just mention a couple of them here. The first is Father Sebastiaan’s Endless Night Vampire Ball. This gala happens at various times throughout the year around the world, but the one that coincides with Halloween takes place in New Orleans, Louisiana, annually in late October. Akin to a Venetian masquerade ball, attendees dress to the nines in elaborate costumes and fangs to partake in live entertainment and libations. If you’d like an inside look, see this blog post about my time at the Los Angeles event.
Not into vampires? Then you may want to check out the Salem Witch’s Halloween Ball in Salem, Massachusetts. It’s an evening where revelers can immerse in music, magick and rituals.
This is far from an exhaustive list of celebrations worldwide, but it at least gives you a hint of how the 31st is acknowledged on a few continents. More than just a holiday about ghouls and goblins, Halloween keeps alive the tradition of a people that lived thousands of years ago. In some way, we collectively revive the Celtic spirit on this day, every year.
How do you celebrate Halloween? I’d love to know so feel free to share in the comments below!