Halloween is believed to have originated in Ireland with the Celtic holiday of Samhain, which marks the end of the year. Scotland and Ireland both still retain elements of Samhain, including lighting bonfires, telling fortunes and reflecting on both the year gone by and the future. It is still a prominent festival in both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Europe’s largest Halloween carnival is held in Londonderry. The Banks of the Foyle includes a haunted house and a grand parade. Traditional food for the festival incorporates the spirit of the festival an Irish fruitcake that contains coins, buttons, and rings. Any item you receive in your slice of cake is meant to predict your future, so for example, rings mean marriage, while coins mean wealth in the upcoming year.
Halloween across Europe
If you’re looking for pumpkins, you’ll find those on the island of Sardinia. The locals call them “Concas de Mortu” or “heads of the dead”. This reflects the fact that All Souls’ Day on 1st November is primarily a religious festival in Italy, a time for people to remember their late ancestors and family members. Many other countries in Europe have lost loved ones at the heart of their celebrations. In Austria, some people will leave bread, water and a lighted lamp out at night to welcome the dead souls back to earth for one night. In Belgium, people light candles in memory of dead relatives but in Germany, the arrival of spirits is less welcome. Germans traditionally put their knives away on Halloween night to prevent harm to and from returning ghosts.
Festival of the Hungry Ghosts
Hong Kong’s celebration, Yue Lang or festival of the hungry ghosts is centred on the belief that spirits roam the world for 24 hours. Pictures of fruit or money are sometimes burned in the hope that these will reach the spirit world and bring comfort. Many light fires as welcome, but like the Germans they are aware that not all ghosts may be friendly. Food and gifts are left out to placate any angry ghosts looking for revenge or to cause harm to the family.
Día de los Muertos
One of the most famous celebrations takes place across Mexico and Latin America. It is not the same as Halloween, but bears some similarities. The Day of the Dead celebrations start on the evening of 31st October and last for three days. Despite the focus on the dead, it is a joyous occasion when people remember their lost loved ones. Gifts left on ofrendas, or private altars, include not only sugar skulls but also tequila to get the party started. It is considered a time to respect, as well as remember the dead and relatives gather at gravesites to tidy the area, clearing out weeds and making repairs while they reminisce. Often families bring a picnic with food such as spicy meat dishes, batter bread and lots of sweets. The festival captures the cycle of life, both the joy and the sadness and with people dressed as skeletons and their ancestors, the dead are invited to the party. Despite the name of the festival, the focus is very much on celebrating all aspects of life, from beginning to end.
Whether you like the idea of candles for lost souls or sipping tequila with ghosts, there are celebrations all over the world with a spooky flavour. There are many different ways to mark, as the name Samhain suggests, the end of the light half of the year and the coming dark. Wherever you visit, just watch out for things that go bump in the night.