History of Halloween

Halloween traditions from around the world

To most Americans, Halloween means dressing up in costume and going door to door asking people for candy. But the holiday originally began as a celebration acknowledging the change in seasons. 

To others around the world, this time of year holds a different meaning. From celebrating the dead to feeding hungry spirits, our Halloween celebration has roots in many traditions from around the world. Here are some of the ways others are celebrating., and some ways U.S. Halloween is influencing other cultures.

Ireland – Where it started

The origin of our Halloween is based on Celtic and Pagan traditions and rituals that involved celebrating a festival called Samhaim. The festival represented the end of summer and the beginning of winter.

People would dress up and light bonfires to ward off any roaming ghosts during Samhain. The tradition is now celebrated in Ireland with gatherings involving bonfires, games, and traditional foods like “barmbrack,” an Irish fruitcake.

In America, there was no mention of Halloween until the early 19th century when the Great Irish Famine drove millions of Irish families to immigrate to the United States. They brought with them an influx of customs and traditions and thus our version of Halloween began to take shape.

Mexico, Latin America, and Spain - Dia De Los Muertos Day of the Dead

This two-day celebration takes place on November 1st and 2nd to honor the deceased. Combining Aztec rituals and Catholicism, Dia de Los Muertos is celebrated alongside All Saints Day and All Souls Day.

Tradition says that the Gates of Heaven open up at midnight on October 31 and the souls of children return to Earth to be reunited with their families for 24 hours. On November 2, the souls of adults come down from heaven to join in the festivities.

Some people create in-home altars, or ofrendas, that pay tribute to loved ones who have passed. Others dress up by painting skeletons on their faces or creating sugar skulls known as Calaveras. These brightly painted skulls represent a departed soul. Many families gather at cemeteries at the graves of their loved ones and picnic in honor of their lost relatives.


China – Teng Chieh The Hungry Ghost Festival

On the 15th day of the seventh lunar month, people of Hong Kong celebrate the Hungry Ghost Festival. During this time, it is believed that the gates of the afterlife are opened and ghosts are free to roam the earth in search of food, entertainment, and mischief. This festival is part of a month-long celebration featuring food and money offerings to these restless spirits as a means of feeding them what they need in the afterlife. Some traditions include burning make-believe paper money, placing red lotus lanterns throughout the towns and lighting incense to worship the hungry, unhappy ghosts.


Japan –Kawasaki Halloween Parade and Buddhist Obon Festival

In recent years, the U.S. tradition of dressing up for Halloween has taken off in Japan. Perhaps the largest Japanese Halloween celebration is in Kawasaki, a town outside of Tokyo. The Kawasaki Halloween Parade takes place at the end of October. It is one of Japan’s biggest and most impressive Halloween events and features people in elaborate costume. The parade has strict standards as far as who can enter, but it is free to watch for all attendees.

Don’t expect any trick or treating in Japan, though. The U.S. tradition of going door-to-door for candy doesn’t really happen in Japan.

 While the Kawasaki Halloween parade draws tradition from the U.S., the Obon tradition is about honoring ancestors and dates back centuries.. Obon is celebrated in August or July and tradition says ancestors' spirits come back to visit during the holiday.

Similar to other Halloween festivities dedicated to the spirits of ancestors, the Obon Festival involves the preparing of food offerings and the hanging of red lanterns. During the festival, a fire is lit each night to show ancestors where their families can be found and to welcome their spirits.


Romania – Day of Dracula and St. Andrew’s Night

Over the years, people from all over travel to celebrate Halloween at Bran Castle, also known as Count Dracula’s castle. The monument became home to one of the most well-known monsters, Count Dracula, from Bram Stocker’s 1897 gothic horror novel Dracula based on Vlad “The Impaler” Tepe.

Vampires are believed to hang around crossroads on St. George's Day, April 23, and the eve of St. Andrew, November 29. During these nights, Romanians bring garlic out to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. During Halloween time, there are tours and parties at Dracula’s castle as well as other spooky landmarks.


Korea – Chuseok

Also known as Hangawi, this major harvest festival takes place around the autumn equinox and involves sharing feasts and wines while celebrating a good harvest and ancestors. Koreans make the pilgrimage back to their hometowns to honor familial ancestors for a three-day holiday, also seen as “Korean Thanksgiving”.


Pitru Paksha – India

The Hindu religion states that when a person dies, the God of death, Yama, takes the soul to purgatory to rejoin the last three generations of family members. It is believed that if the sacred ritual of Shraddha isn’t performed, the soul will wander the Earth for eternity. During the 16-day celebration, families offer the dead traditional foods served on banana leaves and the souls are briefly allowed to return and be with their loved ones.

Other places around the world that hold celebrations honoring the dead:

  • Cambodia Pchum Ben – 15-day religious festival honoring ancestors
  • Italy Ognissanti - All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day celebration
  • Poland Dzien Zaduszny – Equivalent of All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day
  • Philippines Pangangaluluwa – Kids going house to house at night singing All Saints' Day and All Souls' Day ditties in exchange for cash
  • Nigeria Awuru Odo Festival - Marks the return of dearly departed friends and family members back to the living. The holiday is celebrated with feasts, music, and masks before the dead return to the spirit world.




















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