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Halloween international

Halloween as it is today in western culture is a widely celebrated and popular holiday. Its varying forms and historic origins differ from continent to continent from such festivals as the Chinese Hungry Ghost Festival and Spanish speaking countries’ El Dia de los Meurtos. Much of the underlying principles of the holiday are consistent across the globe, often honouring ancestors returning to earth. It’s Halloween soon, so today Frontier is exploring some of the traditions and festivities celebrated across the globe.


Image courtesy of Richard Toller

The alleged birth place of what would be identified in today’s western world as Halloween, likely started in Ireland. The originally pagan and Christian influenced festival is one of the oldest festivals in the world, and has had many incarnations throughout history. In Ireland you’ll find children knocking on doors and running away, bobbing for apples and playing a card guessing game to reveal a hidden prize. The celebrations in Ireland hopped over the pond to the United States and gradually gained in popularity as it evolved. Costumes are worn and these were likely influenced originally by the Gaelic festival of Samhain (summer’s end) in Ireland.


Image courtesy of Dennis Wong

This Chinese festival begins as a month long celebration of deceased ancestors peaking on the 15th day of that 7th month in conjunction with the Chinese calendar. Its origins are said to have been both influenced by early Chinese folk religion and the canonical scriptures of Buddhism. During the festivities, food and water are placed in front of deceased relatives, who are believed to have returned due to an improper send off or ritual, to sustain them during their trip to the mortal plane, and objects made from joss paper are burnt to appease these ghosts.


Image courtesy of Crystal Agozzino

Halloween falls on the eve of the catholic holiday of All Saint’s Day and until the protestant reformation of the church in England in 1517, England celebrated Halloween in a similar way to the Scottish and Irish. After this day as a consequence to no longer believing in saints, England no longer celebrated Halloween. This was until 1605 when a plot to destroy the houses of parliament was foiled and a man by the name of Guy Fawkes took the blame. He was burned at the stake and November the 5th became an English day to celebrate in which many Halloween traditions were resurrected, such as bonfires and knocking on doors to request a gift, in this case a “penny for the guy”. Nowadays Halloween is also celebrated in much the same way as the Americanised version of the Irish festival.


Image courtesy of Pieterjan Vandaele

Japan has recently become more aware of western Halloween traditions but the festival that is still predominantly celebrated which can be likened to Halloween is the Obon festival. Also known as Matsuri or Urabon, this festival, which is celebrated between July and August, commemorates deceased ancestors. Festivities include lighting candles and floating them on rivers in attractive lanterns, setting food out for ancestors and generally having a good time at a “bon” dance.

US and Canada

Image courtesy of Normadic Lass

When mentioning Halloween most people will think of the North Americans, but the late October festival only arrived in America with Irish and Scottish immigrants at the start of the 19th century. Initially practised only in small pockets by these immigrants, slowly the festival gained popularity until it became the mammoth it is today. Halloween in the U.S. is second only to Christmas as the highest spending holiday period. Expect kids to be “trick-or-treating”, which originates from a practise of guising in Ireland, carving “Jack-o-lanterns” and scaring people in spooky costumes!

Latin America, Spain, Mexico

Image courtesy of Texas University

El Dia de los Meurtos or The Days of the Dead is celebrated amongst Hispanic cultures in many different countries in “the new world” regions of Central and South America. The festival takes place over a 3 day period and begins on the evening of the 31st of October. Food and drink is laid out for ancestors and a wash basin so the spirits can clean up before joining the feast. Families take picnics at gravesites and remember their ancestors in the stories they tell each other of their lives. The on-set of North American influence is gradually resulting in the children of these countries to adopt the types of activities and costumes associated with the iconic western festival. The Aztecs believed that the monarch butterflies which return each autumn to the fir forests of Central America were the spirits of their ancestors arriving on the earthly plain.

Hope you’re not too spooked out! Expect some more ghastly Halloween fun throughout the week here on the Into the Wild Blog.

By Jack Plumb

Frontier has a project running in all the countries on this list, so if you fancy seeing any of their traditions and festivals for yourself, you better get over there on one of our projects!

We run conservationdevelopmentteaching and adventure travel projects in over 50 countries worldwide.

See more from our spooky volunteers, #Frontiervolunteer