How is Halloween Celebrated in Different Cultures?

A true Halloween Story

Once upon a time, on a dark and stormy night… a group of friends huddled together in a dimly lit restaurant in central St Petersburg. Drinking cups of tea and hot chocolate to keep warm, the group were happily chatting away, sheltering from the biting cold and northerly winds that blow through the city’s streets.

I remember that night as if it were only yesterday. We were sitting together, laughing and joking, about to order some food. As the waiter approached, the lights suddenly flickered on and off.

“Don’t worry,” said the waiter dismissively, “we’re getting an electrician in tomorrow. Those lights have been playing up all week. What can I get you?”

We all smiled, turning back to our menus. My friend Sasha started to order: “I’ll have the –”

The lights flicker on and off again. Then a crash is heard from the kitchen. We hear the sounds of pots and pans being thrown around and animated voices coming from behind the kitchen door. The whole restaurant has stopped eating now and we all watch as a young chef strides through the door, yelling behind him – between expletives – that he is handing in his notice. The door swings open again as another chef follows him out, yelling at him and brandishing a kitchen knife. They start arguing. The lights flicker on and off. A nearby waitress tries to take the knife off the second chef, urging him to calm down, as suddenly the lights go out altogether. 

A screech. The lights are back on. Blood. Lots of it. Confusion. The lights go off. Panic. We rush blindly towards the door. Have we just… witnessed a murder…?

The History of Halloween

All Saint's Day - Halloween History

Now, you may be wondering – and rightly so – what does this spooky story have to do with Halloween? Well, we’ll get to that shortly, but before we do, let’s firstly take a look at where our trick-n-treating, pumpkin-carving celebration actually comes from.

Halloween – which takes its name from ‘All Hallows Eve’ – is a day that many believe stems from the Christian celebration of All Saints Day on the 1st of November. This is a day where the church remembers those who have died, whether they are known saints or simply loved ones that have passed away. Now, we wouldn’t be a very good language services provider if we didn’t tell you a bit about the etymology of the word ‘Halloween’ or ‘All Hallows even’, as it was referred to in the 16th century… Hallow finds its roots in the Middle English word ‘halwe’, meaning a holy person or a saint and the Old English word ‘even’, meaning the end of the day, or eve, was shortened by the Scots in the 18th century to become ‘Halloween’.

As for the bonfires, scary costumes, ghosts and your classic haunted house stuff, these are more likely to come from the Celtic celebration of ‘Samhain’, an ancient pagan festival that marks the start of the winter months. This time of year was considered to be the darker half of the year – and on this night in particular, as the harvest season ended, the veil between our world and that of the ghosts and ghouls was thought to be much thinner. People would light fires to scare them off, or wear masks to disguise themselves in case they were to meet one of these scary spirits face to face – or so the story goes… It’s not hard to see how this has evolved into our current British Halloween traditions.

How is Halloween Celebrated in Different Cultures?

So, how is Halloween celebrated in other cultures? As it is predominantly a British celebration, it isn’t really celebrated very differently in other cultures. The concept of Halloween was later taken to North America by Scottish and Irish immigrants in the 19th century and has since spread across the world. It has been imported, so to speak, or adopted and popularised by TV and films in many other countries but isn’t actually as big a celebration as it is in Great Britain or in the USA. But it is certainly growing in popularity.

The real variation between cultures is how All Saints Day, or a day of remembering dead souls is celebrated in each country. This of course, is often around the same time as Halloween, like Día de los Muertos in Mexico (The Day of the Dead). This day is often associated with vibrant street parades, but interestingly, many people create mini alters, called ofrendas, adorned with the favourite food of the deceased family member, to entice them back to the home to have a snack. It is a time to come together, and reminisce, telling stories and remembering those who have departed. This day is celebrated in many countries, each with their own unique twist.

In Guatemala, they have a giant kite festival. In Spain, roasted chestnuts are associated with this day, whilst in the Philippines, it’s rice cakes, handed out to children who sing at their neighbours’ doors. Some countries, such as China, have their own celebration to remember the dead on an entirely different day of the year. People in China float lanterns along rivers in memory of the dead at the ‘Hungry Ghost Festival’ around the 14th and 15th of July, and Romania has a Halloween-style day on the 30th October, called the Feast of St Andrew – the patron saint of Romania.

In many European countries, Halloween sees people dressed up in scary costumes, an increase of pumpkins in the shops or horror films in the cinema, some trick or treating and that’s about it…

Dark restaurant on Halloween

Unless, of course, you are witnessing the prank of your lifetime in a badly lit Russian restaurant…

As some of the kitchen staff started to drag the limp body back through the kitchen doors amidst the screams of the restaurant diners scrabbling for the exit, my friend suddenly started laughing.

“What’s so funny?!” I asked, heart-racing, palms sweating.

“Today’s date,” they replied, as the lights came on and some unusually jolly music started to play.

“Happy Halloween!” shouted the restaurant staff, as they came back out of the kitchen, grinning and bowing…

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