Most likely you already know the origins of Halloween, which traces all the way back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced sow-in, ow like in cow), which is Irish Gaelic for “summer’s end”.
The pagan Samhain and Christian Halloween merged into one in the 9th century. The word Halloween, or Hallowe’en is a shortened All Hallows’ Evening, or All Saints’ Eve.
So where do American traditions come from:
Jack-o’-lanterns come from a tradition to place candles inside of hollowed-out-turnips to keep away evil spirits on Samhain.
Halloween costumes have roots in cold medieval times, which were indeed dark and full of danger. It was strongly believed that on Halloween ghosts came back to the world of the living, so to trick the said ghosts into mistaking them for their fellow spirits, people used to put on masks when they left the house. To prevent ghosts from entering their houses, people tried to appease them by placing bowls of food outside.
During All Souls’ Day festivities, poor citizens used to beg for food and more fortunate families gave them pastries called “soul cakes” in return for their promise to pray for the giver’s dead relatives. This tradition, referred to as “going a-souling” was encouraged by the church, to replace the practice of leaving food and wine “for roaming spirits”.
Not all countries celebrate Halloween as we know it, although many cultures, just like ancient Europeans, believe that on this night and the days to follow, the borders between our and dead worlds are altered. Some of the peoples adapt western Halloween traditions to their national cultures and mindsets, while others have their own unique customs.
Mexico, Czechoslovakia, Philippines celebrate Day of the Dead from October 31 to November 2 by remembering their deceased loved ones, setting up memorials and going to cemeteries.
It might sound gloomy, but in reality these festivities are full of joy, flowers, love and are basically family reunions. In Philippines on these days the graveyards are filled with tents, music, karaoke, board games, just as a regular festival. Especially colorful and beautiful Mexican Dia de Muertos is getting more and more popular around the world.
The majority of Chinese people celebrate Days of the Dead as well, not only by honoring, but also fearing pranks from the dead, believe at that time opens a bridge between the dead and the living. These traditional festivals are hundreds of years old.
Halloween in China in its western sense is mainly celebrated by Western expats, and some local services adapted to provide themed decorations for that. Two big theme parks in Hong Kong, Ocean Park and Disneyland, offer Halloween masquerades, haunted houses and movies. In Shanghai there is an old massive solid concrete building from the early twentieth century called 1933 Shanghai. It was originally intended as a slaughterhouse, but now is a ‘commercial hub for creative industries’, which holds a Halloween adult-rated masquerade parties every year.
Halloween is still new to Japan , but already causes frustration. In only a couple of years it has become one of the biggest holidays in Japan, but older people are not happy about it at all. Main reasons: epic debauchery and waste of money. The huge number of party-goers and heavy advertising of Halloween as “an adult holiday where you can behave badly, and it’s totally okay!” makes it the biggest opportunity of the year for many vendors.
Trick-or-treating never became popular in the reserved and private Japanese culture. Costumes, however, are a huge hit and many say that “Japan wins Halloween” with its elaborate and bright outfit ideas. Just google Japan Halloween. People in casual clothes will simply feel out of place here.
If you are curious to learn more about other cultures and their traditions, check out our state-of-the-art Cultural Awareness Training, which covers everything you want to know from beliefs and history to gestures and communication norms.