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Halloween: It’s A Small World After All

Halloween not only bewitches the United States with trick-or-treating and jack-o-lanterns, this frightful yet delightful holiday has cast a spell on many countries, making All Hallows’ Eve a worldwide celebration. Some of these worldwide traditions have even crept their way into U.S. culture.

The historical birthplace of Halloween is in Ireland. The Celts celebrated Halloween as a harvest festival under the name of Samhain (translated as “End of Summer” from old Gaelic). Samhaim was also known as a bucolic, agricultural celebration where ghostly spirits were welcomed as they revisit the world. They ignited blazing bonfires to scare off demons and other evil spirits. Also, Celtic tribes wore frightening costumes to scare away the nefarious spirits.

In addition, the Irish held treasure hunts and games for children. One game in particular is called “Snap-Apple.” This game requires an apple to be tied on a string and attached on a doorframe. The objective of the game is to bite the apple, despite its difficulty. Irish children are also bedazzled by Halloween pranks, including a prank called “Knock-a-Dolly.” This prank requires boys and girls to knock on neighbors’ doors and leave. This is the Irish version of “Ding Dong Ditch,” a popular prank of Halloween tricksters across the globe.

Scotland also shares the Celtic traditions of Samhain. However, the Scots acquired traditions of their own. Numerous Scottish families would hang glowing, candle-lit lanterns in their homes. These lanterns provided protection from spirits. Sound familiar? This Scottish practice bears a striking similarity to the jack-o-lantern. Scottish children delighted in bobbling for apples or earning candy.

The colorful holiday of El Dia de Los Muertos (translated as “The Day of the Dead” from Spanish) is a common celebration in Mexico, Spain and other South American countries. El Dia de Los Muertos is a three-day celebration, starting on October 31 and ending on November 2.  This spiritual holiday commemorates family members, friends and other people who have passed on. Many families honor the dead by creating an altar for the dead. Once the altar has been constructed, the family will decorate the altar with flavorful candy, fresh flowers, religious icons, skulls, food, water and photographs of deceased family members.

Families also visit the gravesites of their loved ones during El Dia de Los Muertos. Relatives clean and repair the gravesites of their family members. Flowers, wreaths and paper streamers decorate the gravestones. Festive picnics around the family member’s tombstone are not uncommon on this holiday.

Many Asian countries celebrate death and the ghostly spirits through festivals held during the summer. For instance, the Japanese hold an annual summer festival called Obon, where they honor those who have passed on. During Obon, the Japanese hold a special carnival with games, food and other entertainment. They also set lanterns afloat on a body of water in order to guide the spirits back to earth.

Similarly, the Chinese hold a ceremony called the Ghost Festival. Known as the Chinese Halloween, the Ghost Festival is a celebration of the dead as well. Much like the Japanese Obon, this holiday usually takes place during the summer months. Family members place food and water next to photographs of deceased loved ones. Buddhists often burn papier-mâché figures of material items. Like the Obon ceremony, the Ghost Festival participants set lanterns on water in order to direct the spirits to the mortal world.

The remembrance of the dead and the world beyond our own are universally fascinating. These holidays go beyond candy corn and haunted houses.
Halloween and similar celebrations worldwide commemorate the cycles of life and death and remind us that the dead live on, even if it is merely in our hearts and minds.