Modern western culture tends to be a feel-good affair, by and large, and our holidays reflect that. Throughout the year our celebration mascots include a jolly old gift-giving codger, flying love cherubs accompanied by harps and roses, and magic bunnies that bring candy! But come Halloween, all bets are off. For a brief reprieve from the cute and cuddly, we dive headfirst into the dark side. Soon enough it will be all things earnest pilgrim and singing angels, but in the meantime it’s bloody dismembered body parts, freakish ghouls and monsters, the living undead and the most harrowing of all, sexy-version costumes.
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It’s widely believed that many of our Halloween traditions can be traced back to the ancient Celtic “feast of the dead” festival, Samhain, which was co-opted into a Christian celebration back when the Christians were washing the pagan out of people. By the Middle Ages it was believed that All Hallows Eve — the night before All Saint’s Day on the Christian calendar — was when the division between the material world and the afterlife was most permeable. The holiday has since become a celebration of all things dead and spooky.
And we're not the only ones who pay tribute to things that go bump in the night. While the random collection of celebrations below may not be inspired by our Halloween per se, they are all centered around the overlapping of the physical and supernatural worlds. Some pay homage to the dead, some work hard to placate the dearly departed, and one goes so far as to give corpses a full-on party.
In Ireland, the so-called birthplace of Halloween, bonfires are lit and children wear costumes — originally in order to camouflage with the evil spirits frolicking about — and trick-or-treat from door to door. At parties there are apple contests, treasure hunts and card games. Other customs include the eating of barnbrack, a fruitcake that foretells the future by way of items baked into the bread. If an eater gets the ring, for instance, the person will soon be wed.
Bonfires once meant to frighten witches are now burned to celebrate them. (Photo: Michael Panse/flickr)
While Halloween leads us to winter, Germany’s Walpurgisnacht in April leads revelers to spring as they celebrate the witches and warlocks that, according to legend, gathered on this day to hop upon their broomsticks and flying goats to soar to the highest peak of the Harz mountains. What a sight! In the old days, petrified peasants would, understandably, hang crosses and herbs on their doors; bells and whips were employed in deterring stray witches, as were bonfires and wild dancing. These days the witches are honored, not shooed away, but the bonfires and wild dancing remain as hordes of celebrants take to the mountains in a witch-loving festive frenzy. Similar celebrations are held in Sweden, Finland and the Czech Republic.
There may be a lack of kitschy costumes and mini Snickers bars, and it occurs earlier than our Halloween … but the Hungry Ghost Festival deserves a place on this list, if not for the name alone. Celebrated by Taoists and Buddhists in China (and elsewhere), there is a whole month, Ghost Month, when ghosts return from “Hell” to visit the living — there is much feeding and tending to the ghosts, there is even opera performed for them. And the whole ghostly shebang culminates with the Hungry Ghost Festival in which paper money and other goodies are burned to keep loved ones comfortable in the netherworld; paper lanterns are also burned and set adrift on water to help lead the spirits back to where they came from.
Halloween faded from English custom when Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation began; a religion without saints had no need for All Saints’ Day. Instead, Nov. 5 eventually became the day to celebrate. Guy Fawkes Day, also known as Bonfire Night, is a commemoration of a foiled plot by disgruntled Catholics — and namely one Guy Fawkes — to blow up Parliament along with the Protestant King James I. Fireworks, parades, bonfires and effigies of Fawkes have all been part of the festivities. Yet to the dismay of many Brits, American-style Halloween is making its way across the pond and may even threaten to overshadow Nov. 5 altogether. According to one poll, 45 percent of those surveyed thought Halloween "an unwelcome American cultural import."
The Filipino celebration of Pangangaluluwa happens on Halloween night. Although local traditions are reportedly fading with time, in some provinces the festivities persist. It was once believed that the dead visited on Halloween and would pilfer an item from whom they visited as a sign that they were there. And hence the tradition of sneaking belongings from people, the stuff of which will appear the next day in a surprising place. As well, groups still go from house to house offering songs in exchange for money or gifts.
The love for Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) has crept across the border from Mexico to the States, where those looking for an alternative to a Hallmark Halloween have embraced the holiday’s grimly smiling sugar skulls and beautifully decorative attire. As practiced by the indigenous communities of Mexico, the day marks the transitory return to Earth of loved ones who’ve passed away, as well as marking the end of the maize harvest, the country’s predominant food crop. On this day, people help to ease the return of departed souls to Earth by making flower petals trails with candles and offerings along the way from cemetery to homes. As well, the dead’s favorite foods are prepared and home shrines are decorated to ensure that the deceased brings prosperity to the living.
Although generally falling near the end of September rather than October, Chuseok is a major three-day holiday in South Korea intended to give thanks to the dead. During the festival, people return to their ancestral homes to carry out certain rituals, like preparing special rice cakes called Songpyeon, which are left out for dead relatives to eat. There are also feasts, services and visits to tombs for cleaning and paying respect, all marked with eating, dancing and drinking. While this may be missing the spooky ghoul component of other Halloween-type celebrations, the whole paying-homage-to-the-dead part is a lovely way to embrace our mortality ... or immortality, where eating Songpyeon is concerned.
Halloween has a long tradition in Scotland, land of MacBeth’s witches and Robert Burns’ devils. In many areas, past custom was to leave an empty chair and a plate of food for ghosts, since Halloween was the when the souls of the dead roamed the mortal world. To this day bonfires are lit — once to scare away the dead. While turnips — the original jack-o’-lanterns — are still carved, pumpkins are now making an appearance as well. Until recently, children dressed in old clothes or costumed as evil spirits went from door to door singing or telling stories for sweets or snacks. Although increasingly, kids are resorting to trick-or-treating without the tricks. Children’s parties are still popular, and just like Americans bob for apples, “dookin’” for apples is still going strong in Scotland; a tradition which, like the ghosts that inspire the day, never seems to die.
Parade of the corpses during Famadihana. (Photo: Hery Zo Rakotondramanana/flickr)
Although in reality this is a tradition filled with joy, it’s a festival so morbid it makes the goriest of Halloween themes seem tame in comparison. In Madagascar, the Merina people honor the dead with a festival called famadihana, the turning of the bones. And, that’s literally what they do. Corpses are exhumed by their families every seven years and given a cleaning and a party. The bodies are unwrapped, perfumed and rewrapped in scarves. There is music, drinking and good cheer. Family members may sit with the corpses on their laps, there may be photos taken with the dead relative ... and then the bodies are lofted above revelers’ heads and danced around before being returned to the grave — often with money, alcohol and photos — for another seven years.