The tradition originates from Samhain, the Celtic New Year’s, which dates back over 2000 years ago. The name literally means ‘summer’s end’, and represents the ending of summer and the beginning of winter. The Celts believed that this time of the year was the easiest for the dead to come back, as the veil between the world of the living and the dead would be thinnest at this point. People would light bonfires and wear costumes to scare off ghosts.
In the 8th century, All Saints' Day became a tradition, which was on the 1st of November. Slowly, All Saints' Day incorporated some traditions from Samhain, and the evening before the 1st of November became ‘All Hallows Eve’, which later became Halloween. Although Halloween originates from the area that is now Ireland, most people associate it with the United States. When colonists brought the tradition to the United States, the celebration started to develop in different ways. It became an evening for ‘play parties’, private parties that were thrown to celebrate the harvest. People started dressing up and telling each other scary stories.
Halloween is still extremely popular, especially in the United States: this country spends about $10 billion dollars per year on this festive season. With houses decorated in the most creative ways, pumpkins that are being turned into jack-o-lanterns, stores that sell anything related to this day and parties everywhere, it might even be the country where this celebration is most popular.
But Halloween is not the only tradition that is celebrated during the spooky season. In the rest of the world people celebrate or honour the dead all in their own way, and most traditions are derived from All Saints'. In this round-up, you’ll get to know how Europe has different ways of celebrating and honouring during this season.
Here are also some popular activities for this Halloween season:
Spain: Dia de todos los Santos
With Spain, All Saints' is celebrated among Catholic people. Traditionally, it starts on the 31st of October with Día de las Brujas (Day of the Witches), after that Día de los Santos (All Saints’ Day) and ends on the 2nd of November with Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead). Families will gather and bring flowers to the graves of their loved ones that are no longer among them.
Some traditional sweets that the Spanish Catholics eat during these days are huesos de Santo (Saints’ bones, made out of marzipan), dulce de yena (sweet egg yolks) and buñuelos de viento (puffs of the wind, doughnuts sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar).
Like many traditions, the customs depend on which region you’re in. For instance, in Cádiz, they organise parades, street markets and activities for children. In Costa del Sol, people like to gather for barbecues, roast chestnuts and watch fireworks.
Ireland: the birthplace of the Halloween origins
As mentioned in the introduction, the Halloween tradition originated in Ireland. That is why it is no surprise that Halloween is still celebrated in this country.
One of the most famous habits of the Halloween tradition are the carved out pumpkins, also called Jack-o-lanterns. And since Halloween originated in Ireland, this habit also began here. There are different stories about how the Jack-o-lanterns started. Some people say that people used beets to carry home an ember of the bonfire with the fire still being able to burn.
Another story is that the lanterns are named after an Irish blacksmith who worked together with the Devil. He was denied in Heaven, and condemned to walk around on Earth forever. He asked the Devil for some light, so the Devil gave him a beet with an ember to carry around. Later the Irish believed that hanging a lantern in front of the house would keep Jack’s wandering soul away.
The Austrians celebrate Seleenwoche, or All Soul’s Week. This starts on the 30th of October and finishes on the 8th of November. Every night before going to sleep, people make a little offer for the souls of their beloved dead. They do this by leaving some bread and water on a table, with a little light.
The reason they do this, especially during this week, is because they believe that the veil between the world of the living and the world of the dead is thinnest, just like the Celtics did. On the 1st of November, which is All Saint’s Day, the souls of the dead are waiting. When the church bell rings, they are released. The Austrians go to the cemeteries with lanterns, and put them on the graves of their loved ones, to bring back the spirits to the other side.
Germany: the 31st of October conflict
In Germany some people weren’t happy with how popular Halloween started to become in Europe at one point. The problem for many is that it falls on the same date as Reformation Day.
It is an official religious holiday, as this day commemorates Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation. The fact that the two holidays are on the same date, creates a conflict between a religious holiday and a ‘pagan’ Halloween celebration.
Sweden: Alla Helgons Dag
Originally this holiday was meant to honour all saints that didn’t have their own special day, but later this became a day to remember and honour all people that have passed away.
Families remember their loved ones and close friends on this day that is filled with peace and quiet, usually by having dinner together. Every year, the Swedish All Saint’s Day falls on a different day, with the earliest on the 31st of October and the latest the 6th of November.
Estonia: All Soul’s Day
In Estonia, people celebrate All Souls’ Day between the 31st of October and the 2nd of November. The Estonians light candles and sometimes even leave some bread or vodka at night to remember their loved ones that are not among them anymore. They believe that the souls of their loved ones come by to check on them, and it is considered bad to not light a candle during these nights.
Romania: St. Andrew’s Day
St. Andrew was the one who was responsible for spreading Christianity in the country, and that is why in Romania people celebrate him on the 30th of November. The night before is marked by traditions and habits to protect people and their homes. According to local beliefs, people are supposed to keep the evil spirits away with garlic. The women who want to know who they will marry place basil under their pillow during this night, which is also used to keep the bad spirits away, and is why it is also used a lot with cooking.
On the day of St. Andrew itself, the Romanians like to plant seeds and keep them inside until New Year’s Eve. The person who is responsible for this will be able to tell what the next year will look like, based on what the plant will look like.
Halloween has always been a tradition in Scotland. Here it is all about the witches, spirits and the supernatural. In some areas, people still make bonfires, of which the original intention was to scare away the ghosts, but also common are ‘neep lanterns’, which are lanterns made out of turnips, or beets (instead of pumpkins).
The Scottish children used to dress up and pretend to be evil spirits and go ‘guising’ (disguising). This custom comes from a time when they believed that disguising children as evil spirits would make them blend in with the spirits, and in this way scare them off. Today, children do trick or treat and sing a song or recite a poem in exchange for candy.
UK: Guy Fawkes Day
Although Halloween is something that is celebrated in the United Kingdom, Guy Fawkes Day has always been much more significant. Guy Fawkes Day remembers the failed Gunpowder Plot, which was arranged by the Roman Catholics in 1605. In retaliation for King James I's unwillingness to grant Catholics more religious freedom, an attempt was made to blow up the Parliament.
On the 5th of November, people celebrate this day with bonfires, parades and fireworks. The Brits throw straw effigies into the bonfire to remember the day that the Parliament was almost destroyed, and usually wear Guy Fawkes masks.
Netherlands: St. Martin’s Day
In some parts of the Netherlands, children celebrate St. Martin’s Day on the 11th of November. On this day, children go around the neighbourhood with lanterns that they made in school the weeks before. They ring all the doorbells to get candy in exchange for a song, kind of like trick-or-treating during Halloween. One of the most famous songs the children sing goes like this (translated):
11 November is the day
That my light, that my light
11 November is the day
That my light may shine bright
St. Martin was the son of rich Romans, and he was a soldier in the army of the Roman emperor. On a very cold winter day, he saw a beggar sitting on the street, and gave him half of his red cloak. St. Martin’s day became a ‘beggar fest’, which was necessary in the cold winter months. Slowly it developed into a children’s tradition, where instead of begging for bread to survive, kids would ask for candy for fun. This tradition is not just celebrated in the Netherlands, but also in parts of Belgium, France, Switzerland and Hungary.
France: La Toussaint
On the 1st of November, people in France celebrate La Toussaint. ‘La Toussaint’ comes from tous les saints, which translates to ‘all the saints’.
During La Toussaint, the French bring chrysanthemums to the graves, that’s also why you will see these flowers for sale a lot around the 1st of November. In France, chrysanthemum flowers are associated with death. That is why it’s better to think of a different type of flower to give a French person when you are celebrating something else.
Portugal: All Saints' Day
Portugal also celebrates All Saints' Day on the 1st of November. Schools and companies close on this day, and during the day the Portuguese go to the cemeteries to put flowers and candles on the graves of their loved ones. By the time the sun goes down, the cemeteries are filled with flowers and lights.
Just like many other countries, the Portuguese celebrate this day by having dinner together with family. For children, the best part of All Saints' is Pão Por Deus: bread for God. They ring the bells of the doors in the neighbourhood and ask for snacks such as fruit, bolinho’s (a Portuguese pastry) or candy. The kids bring a textile bag that they usually decorate at school to put the snacks in.
Italy: All Saint’s Day & All Souls Day
All Saint’s and All Souls Day are both celebrated in Italy. On All Saint’s, Italian families gather, have dinner and exchange gifts. The people that are named after saints are also celebrated on this day. Depending on the region, the Italians have different traditional meals when it comes to this day. A specialty is ceci con le costine, a soup made with pork ribs and vegetables. Il pane de morti is a pastry that is also popular on this day.
On All Souls Day, the Italians honour the people that have passed away. They pray, go to the graves, and like in France, they bring chrysanthemum flowers. A special moment of this day for the Italians is meal time: this is when they believe the dead return to visit. They set a place for them at the table to honour and remember them. Some regions have their own traditions on All Souls Day: in Sicily children put their shoes outdoors, and while praying to the dead, their shoes will be filled with sweets.