For all of Halloween-themed October, ComicsVerse is creating magic. By magic, we mean analyses of Halloween films, shows, music, and anything else we can find. If you want to keep posted on the newest and greatest content in this particular series, you can check it out here. Stay tuned for more ComicsVerse series coming your way, Spoopy Ghostoween and beyond! Let’s talk about HALLOWEEN around the world!


Ah, Halloween. The candy, the costumes, the evening mass and abstention from meat.

Yes, you read that correctly. Halloween, as we know it in 21st century America, is very different from the holiday’s religious and pagan origins. Influences from Roman Catholicism, Celtic folklore, and local customs from around the world have turned All Hallows’ Eve into a day of various meanings and significance that are recognized differently in different parts of the world.

While it might seem like dressing up as Iron Man and getting free candy is the best iteration of any holiday, really, let’s take a look at the diverse, bizarre, and fascinating ways that the world celebrates this day we call Halloween.

So You Think You Know Halloween

You probably know how Western Halloween goes down (costumes, trick-or-treating, pumpkin-flavored alcoholic beverages, etc.), but where does all that come from?

The name “Halloween” is a shortened version of “All Hallows’ Eve,” meaning the day before All Hallows’ Day. Those two days plus All Souls’ Day Day comprise Allhallowtide, a Western Christian observation in remembrance of the dead, saints, and martyrs.

Since around the 4th century, Christians held feasts and vigils to pray for souls that haven’t yet reached heaven. However, these feasts were usually in springtime. Pope Gregory IV changed the date in the 9th century to align with the Celtic holiday Samhain on November 1. Moreover, the rest, as they say, is history.

Halloween-Samhain
A pagan Samhain altar

Samhain itself had a big influence on Allhallowtide festivities. The holiday dates back to ancient times, under pagan origins. In Ireland and Scotland, it was a celebration of the harvest and the “darker half” of the year. Most importantly to Halloween, though, it was a liminal day, when people could cross over between the living world and the spirit world — a belief that some Christians brought into Allhallowtide.

People also believed that Celtic fairies and spirits would enter this world on Samhain and do damage to their livestock. As appeasement, they would leave food and drinks outside as offerings. They would also hold feasts where they would invite their dead loved ones, even leaving place settings for them.

How we got here

“But what about the costumes?” you ask. “There can’t possibly have been people looking like sexy nurses just sitting around praying!”

Well, you are half right. There certainly weren’t people pretending to be werewolves or superheroes or sexy fake news at these vigils. However, there were people in costume. Some churches did not have enough money to display relics of martyred saints as was part of the Allhallowtide tradition.

Instead, they let members of the congregation dress up as these saints. I am not sure what they did in their saint costumes, but it is a direct correlation to today’s Halloween.

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“Ok, but that does not explain the trick-or-treating!” you proclaim.

No, it does not, but this does. Beginning around the 12th century, All Hallows’ Eve traditions came to include parading through the town, dressed in black and ringing a bell to call on good Christians to mourn the dead.

People in their homes would bake “soul cakes” that they would share with those marching in the streets. Poorer people, especially children, would often go door to door collecting these cakes in exchange for prayers for the dead. Records do not indicate whether these kids would invite their neighbors to “smell my feet” if they did not receive a cake.

The religious parts of All Hallow’s Eve waned in Europe after the Reformation, since concepts of purgatory changed. Over time, the traditions of Samhain and All Hallows’ Even morphed into the secular holiday Halloween. However, many of the customs remained, and the general remembrance of lost loved ones took hold around the world.

Europe

Halloween came to replace many local and religious customs in Europe, so they do not differ too greatly from what we know in the U.S. In fact, in some parts of Europe like Germany and Poland, it is because of the presence of American soldiers during the Cold War that Halloween became a holiday at all.

However, America is not the source of some of these traditions. In Scotland, records show the practice of “guising” dating back to 1895. People would dress in costume, carry lanterns made of turnips, and walk house to house in search of food or money. Nowadays, children are expected to sing a song or tell a story in exchange for treats.

1900s halloween
I definitely won’t have nightmares about that tonight

In other, more religious parts of the continent, some of the Catholic traditions persist. In Italy, All Saints’ Day is a bank holiday and All Souls’ Day features a religious remembrance of the dead. Sometimes, children awake on these days to find presents from their ancestors, and people often carve pumpkins into skulls.

In Romania, Catholic and Orthodox churches actually discourage people from celebrating Halloween. Instead, they focus on the “Day of the Dead” on November 1. There have even been attempts to ban costumes and decorations in schools, though they meet a lot of opposition.

A more similar day to Halloween is November 30, the Feast of Saint Andrew, when Romanians celebrate their patron saint. On St. Andrew’s Eve, legend says that ghosts roam Romania and believers perform divination.

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Latin America

Many Latin American countries celebrate Dia de Los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, on November 1 and 2.  Like other Christian traditions, it is a time to remember the dead, but its customs are a bit different. Families often construct altars in their homes that they decorate with flowers and offerings in honor of their lost loved ones.

Meanwhile, children make their own altar to welcome back the spirits of dead children. People also hold vigils at the graves of their loved ones, sometimes accompanied by picnic-like feasts of pan de muerto and sugar skulls, while families share their favorite memories and stories about the deceased. Despite all the seemingly gruesome imagery, it is a joyous holiday of celebrating life, even in death.

Though predominantly a Mexican holiday, different Latin American communities have put their own spin on celebrations for Dia de Los Muertos. In Guatemala, people make and fly giant paper kites, and have feasts of fiambre, which is only made for this holiday.

The indigenous Kichwa people of Ecuador also have their own unique, pre-Columbian foods, like colada morada, which is a purple porridge with Andean blackberries and purple maize, and guagua de pan, bread in the shape of a swaddled baby.

Ecuador-Halloween
Guaguas de pan

Likewise, indigenous peoples in Bolivia, particularly in La Paz, historically celebrated their Dia de Los ñatitas (Day of Skulls) in May. The day has a much more specific ritual than analogous holidays; on the third anniversary of a loved one’s burial, the family will spend a day with their bones.

Today, families just keep the skull in the house year-round to look after and protect the family. On November 9, the skull is crowned with flowers and offerings are made as thanks for the protection.

Asia

Days of memory and mourning are not unique to the Western world, nor are celebrations of costumes and candy. Countries like Japan have adopted American Halloween and taken it to the next level with super-elaborate costumes and festivals.

With its history of colonization, the Philippines has an interesting blend of practices for honoring the dead. Celebrations align with Allhallowtide, from October 31 to November 2, and customs draw from religious and secular sources. The traditional Filipino version of trick-or-treating is called pangangaluluwâ when groups of people go from house to house offering songs in exchange for food or money.

The songs are usually about souls in purgatory (probably made even more haunting by children singing them) and the money earned, called abúloy, is used to pay for masses to honor the dead. Some houses also give the kids suman or rice cakes.

Like in other cultures, deceased ancestors come back to visit on this night. Sometimes items from the home will disappear during the night and reappear in weird places, like in the middle of the street. Western Halloween is replacing many of these traditions, so they are more common away from big cities.

Halloween in Tokyo
Halloween in Tokyo

Hungry Ghost Festival

Other cultures have cultivated their own traditions, like Singapore and China’s Zhong Yuan Jie or Hungry Ghost Festival. On the lunar calendar, the seventh month is Ghost Month to Buddhists and Taoists. On the first day, ghosts enter Earth from the underworld — and they may or may not be happy.

Ghosts are said to attack their enemies, so people sometimes avoid being alone at night just in case. People also burn fake money and make offerings of paper-mache cars, clothes, jewelry, you name it, so the ghosts have what they need for their month on Earth, and hopefully leave the living alone.

Since a bored ghost is a dangerous ghost, entertainment is also an important part of Hungry Ghost Month. There are plenty of live shows, operas, auctions, feasts, etc. They are all-out affairs, but the first row is always left empty for VIG (very important ghosts).

On the fifteenth day, people will make offerings of food to their own dead ancestors to make sure they are happy and full. On the last day of the month, when all the ghosts leave, people will again burn fake money and clothing, so the ghosts are well-off in hell. Some people also float paper lanterns on rivers to guide lost souls to the afterlife.

Hungry-Ghost-Halloween
A Hungry Ghost Festival performance

Festival of Cows

The small country of Nepal has one of the most unique traditions I have come across, called Gai Jatra, the Festival of Cows. To commemorate the deaths of the past year, a parade of cows marches through the streets, with every family that has lost a relative leading a cow.

If a cow is unavailable, then a boy dressed as a cow will suffice. (Seriously.) Cows are sacred in the Hindu faith, so Hindus believe that these cows will guide the dead to the afterlife. The day is a happy affair to the liven the spirits of all who lost family members, and show that death is a part of life and it happens to every family.

Africa

Halloween is really not popular in Africa, though it has been gaining steam as countries globalize. The difference is largely spiritual. The Western iconography of Halloween includes a lot of witches, demons, and ghosts, all of which are considered seriously evil in many African cultures, so making a fun holiday out of them just doesn’t add up. Ancestor worship is very important in these cultures, though.

Some believe that ancestors visit Earth frequently, and can take the form of things in nature, like animals and plants. People who believe this are called animists. They sometimes believe that bad fortune can be the result of upsetting an ancestor, who can have special powers like healing illness and granting success. Because of this, respect for ancestors is paramount at all times and prayers, and offerings are common year-round. There are, of course, variations on these beliefs across Africa. Many of them intertwine with other organized religions, like Christianity and Islam, as a result of colonization.

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Awuru Odo

One of the most widespread celebrations is Awuru Odo Festival in Nigeria. Awuru Odo is unique because it only takes place once every two years. It is a celebration of the Igbo religion, which believes that spirits of the dead (called Odo) return every two years and stay for six months. The main event is the Odo play, which recounts the story of the Odo’s arrival and departure, starring men in masks as the Odo and featuring obilenu music of xylophones, drums, and rattles.

In between festivals, men spend a lot of time creating the elaborate masks and preparing shrines. Meanwhile, women are responsible for preparing food for the Odo and any guests. Families will often have their own welcoming ceremony for their Odo, with all families coming together in April for the Odo play. After the performance, the Odo ascend the Ukehe hills and return to the afterlife.

More than Pumpkins and Candy

Western Halloween is dope, there’s no denying that. However, what we know today is vastly different from its origins. Plus, it represents only a small portion of the world’s celebrations of the dead. They run the gamut literally from A to Z — from Awuru Odo to Zhong Yuan Jie, and so much in between.

So this October 31, maybe take a minute to pay your own respects to your ancestors and take a look at how they would have celebrated in their country!

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