It’s kind of weird to think of a place where people don’t celebrate Halloween. As Americans, most of us have never known an October 31st that wasn’t observed with a nationwide costume party and ritualistic candy binge-eating. I for one do not remember a time where the 13 Days of Halloween movie marathon didn’t exist, nor can I recall a single time a grocery store wasn’t decked out for Halloween in October.
Of course, there are many reasons why Halloween, a festival with Irish origins, made its way to cultural prominence in America. And there are many reasons why the holiday didn’t spread to other parts of the world.
But as American pop culture spreads across the world, Halloween goes with it. Many countries have begun to celebrate Halloween with their own additions and twists, much to the dismay of some older and more conservative citizens. At the same time that young people and children gravitate towards the fun and macabre aspects of Halloween, people with religious and nationalist concerns regard Halloween with great suspicion, afraid that the American holiday will replace their own traditions.
Both sides have valid points. Halloween appeals to all people for reasons I’ve talked about before, but there is cause for concern about cultural exports overwhelming local traditions. The bottom line is that I find the organic integration and evolution of Halloween in other countries to be a fascinating process. No two countries celebrate Halloween the same way. The choose to adopt or discard certain American Halloween rituals that Americans might find an indispensable part of the celebration.
Such is the beauty of a holiday like Halloween–people from all walks of life, all cultures and nations and religions, seize upon what resonates. They add those elements to their own local celebrations or create entirely new traditions with their own national flavor.
Here is a sampling of how countries from Brazil to Romania to Ireland celebrate Halloween. If you know of any other cool Halloween traditions in other countries, tell me about them in the comments!
Everyone knows that Mexico celebrates Día de los Muertos, a large, colorful, reverent but also joyful homage deceased relatives. It’s celebrated on November 1st and is the Mexican version of the old Catholic feast day All Soul’s Day. Consequently, October 31st and Halloween take a bit of a back seat to Día de los Muertos. Mexicans see Halloween as a children’s holiday and encourage their children to dress up and trick-or-treat. Recently, the costume craze in Mexico has been for superhero and Disney costumes (much like American children), and scores of tiny Spidermans and Elsas roam the streets, chanting “Queremos Halloween!” which means “We want Halloween!” (“Trick or Treat” is difficult to pronounce in Spanish, so the greeting has been modified.)
However, many Mexicans also see Halloween as an invasive American cultural export threatening to take over and replace Día de los Muertos. As a result, despite allowing children to engage in Halloween, Mexican parents and elders are very careful to stress the cultural significance and lasting importance of Día de los Muertos.
Halloween is slowly taking root in Brazil in all the expected ways–costumes, decorations, giving out candy to children, and parties. It’s not at all uncommon for bars and clubs (who service mostly tourists) to hold costume competitions, horror movie marathons, and horror-themed concerts. But it’s not as widespread a celebration, especially because a significant chunk of the population resists Halloween as a sign of creepy American influence.
But the really cool, morbid part of how Brazilians celebrate Halloween isn’t technically about Halloween. Being that Brazil has a strong Catholic past, many people celebrate The Day of the Dead on November 2. And they have massive zombie walks as part of this celebration. In Rio de Janeiro, people dress up in their most gruesome zombie finery and walk to 2.48 mile stretch of the famous Copacabana Beach. In Sao Paulo, hundreds of people dressed in ghastly makeup, trying to top what the did last year, flock to the city square to be horrifying and have a good time.
The Middle East
Israel doesn’t really observe Halloween the same way many countries celebrate it – commercialized, secular, and with strong American influence. But the old Christian way of celebrating Halloween persists in Jerusalem, since the Holy City has a distinct Christian population. Christians celebrate All Saints’ Day and All Souls’ Day to remember and honor the departed Christian faithful in ceremonies held at the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher, Notre Dame Center or at Dormition Abbey.
In keeping with the global trend of Halloween, secular celebrations of Halloween are gaining prominence, though many of the more conservative Jews object to the celebration due to its pagan roots.
Like a lot of countries, Japan has seen an increased interest in Halloween celebrations over the last decade. But Japanese people are very drawn to the costume aspect and love to dress up for Halloween. Halloween is a time for dedicated cosplayers to really bring their A+ game, as costume contests and large public gatherings give people a chance to show off. Young adults spend Huge amounts of money on costumes and attending huge parties in nightclubs. So while costumes are for everyone, and children do dress up, Halloween is way more of an adult celebration.
Japanese people do not celebrate trick-or-treating, as it conflicts with long-held societal norms.
It is viewed as bothersome to strangers, maybe even straight-up rude. However, the Japanese believe that spirits will wander out into the streets on Halloween, so they put out lanterns to welcome ghostly visitors on Halloween night rather than scare them away. To honor the departed, they leave out food, light incense, and recite prayers in a quieter aspect of the celebration.
In China, Halloween is still very much a foreign holiday that most Chinese people don’t really observe. If there is a pocket of American expatriates or people with some strong western influence, then Halloween might be celebrated. This is seen mostly in large cities, like Beijing, where huge groups of young people dress up in elaborate, splashy costumes and party all night. The melding of western and eastern influence makes for some amazing costumes. As for the more spiritual, contemplative aspects of Halloween, those haven’t translated to China. This isn’t a surprise considering China has its own centuries’ old version of Halloween called Zhong Yuan Jie, the Hungry Ghost Festival. This festival is very similar to Halloween. It is believed to be the day when the boundaries between the spirit world and living world dissolve. Chinese legend states that the spirits and ghosts wander into our world on this date in mid-August, searching for food, money, and other tokens of respect and remembrance. To appease them, people leave out gifts of food, mementos, and other small treasures.
The Philippines have a strong Catholic influence, so Halloween is celebrated in the Philippines in a way very similar to how Europe celebrated Halloween in the middle ages. This means that Halloween is a three-day celebration, with their own versions of AllHallowmas, All Saint’s Day, and All Souls’ Day. In the week or so before October 31st, Filipinos commence the holiday by cleaning up the cemeteries and graves of their loved ones. The grass and hedges are carefully manicured, tombstones are cleaned, and flowers laid out. In the last few days before the holiday, city dwellers return to their hometowns and families, so everyone can visit the graves of loved ones together. As you can imagine, the mass influx of travelers from the city to the countryside causes the biggest, busiest travel days of the year in the Philippines, akin to Thanksgiving Day travel in America.
The Philippines also observe their own version of trick-or-treating called pangangaluluwa, or ghost haunting. Young adults dress in white or drape themselves in sheets and go from house to house begging for food or money. At the stroke of midnight, the “ghosts” roam neighborhoods, singing and picking up the offerings left for them. Parents wake their children and encourage them to watch the ghosts through the windows.
Romania is a very Catholic country, and both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches there discourage the observance of Halloween. Instead, Romanians are encouraged to celebrate the “Day of the Dead” on November 1st to honor and remember the souls of the deceased. Additionally, Romanians already have their own version of Halloween called the Feast of St. Andrew, who is patron saint of Romania. This holiday is celebrated on November 30th, and Romanians believe that ghosts roam free on St. Andrew’s Eve.
However, the Romanian tourism industry sees a huge spike in travel around Halloween due mostly to the popularity of fictional character Dracula and historical legends surrounding Vlad the Impaler. The tourism industry organizes special trips and travel packages to historical locations and creepy places associated with both of these figures. There’s even a huge Halloween party in Transylvania held in Sighisoara, the citadel where Vlad the Impaler was born. If you decide to visit one day, you can attend eerie special events held in the Hoia Baciu forest, one of the scariest places on earth. Or you can find a more normal Halloween party in one of the many clubs and bars that have begun to celebrate the holiday.
Conservative religious and secular leaders, concerned about spiritual and nationalist consequences, have pushed for bans on Halloween costumes and parties, but they were not very successful and Halloween continues to grow.
Celebration of Halloween began in the 1990s, when costume and ghoulish parties spread throughout night clubs throughout Russia. Halloween is generally observed by the younger generations and is not widely celebrated in the rest of Russian society. In fact, Halloween is among the Western celebrations that the Russian government and politicians—which have grown increasingly anti-Western in the early 2010s—are trying to eliminate from public celebration. In fact, some local government officials have claimed that Halloween is “incoherent to basic traditional values and causes a negative influence on fragile minds” and going so far as to claim that “dangerous and morally corrupt U.S. cultural influence.”
Germany is another country that had its own unique version of an autumnal holiday. This celebration is named St. Martin’s Day, and it is celebrated on November 11th. On St. Martin’s Day, German children go door to door with lanterns, offering to sing songs and recite poems in exchange for treats. Additionally, October 31st is the date for German holiday Reformationstag, which commemorates and celebrates the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg. Reformationstag is an important date for the Lutheran population of Germany, as well as signifying an important day in German history. So the American export version of Halloween isn’t exactly a welcome addition to German culture.
However, that hasn’t stopped the holiday from growing—costumes and trick-or-treating become more popular every year, especially in major cities and in areas where there are American military bases. It seems like the Germans may not mind Halloween so much after all—they celebrate with costume parties, pumpkin festivals, and horror movie festivals. And these activities only get bigger and more elaborate as time goes on.
As the birthplace of Samhain and ancestor of modern day Halloween, Ireland vigorously celebrates Halloween. Children and adults alike dress up in intricate costumes, jack lanterns dot neighborhood streets, and Irish families share meals of colcannon and barmbrack. They tell ghost stories, hold great big bonfires, and throw big parties at famously haunted local pubs.
Irish cities in particular goes all out for Samhain/Halloween. Dublin puts on a massive parade to commemorate the Samhain/Halloween. Derry throws the huge Banks of the Foye Hallowe-en Carnival, which is a city-wide party with costumes, games, demonstrations, and fireworks. Things get pretty crazy during this time, but it’s all in good fun.