WASHINGTON, Oct. 29, 2015 — Halloween is one of the most popular U.S. holidays, thanks to costumes, parties and candy. Many Americans who eschew the staid traditions of Christmas and Thanksgiving embrace the campy fun of dressing up and celebrating everything from zombies to pumpkins to fairy princesses. More than 65 percent of Americans put up decorations, and an increasing number rank it as their favorite holiday. The explosion of “fright nights” and professionally-done haunted houses have only added to the popularity of the holiday.
Many are uninterested in the ancient Celtic history of the holiday, preferring instead to focus on the fun. Others, however, take it more seriously.
Noted Halloween expert Lesley Bannatyne has written five books on the subject and says, “After talking with scream queens, prop-designers, pumpkin carvers and growers, pumpkin beer brewers, ghost hunters, home haunters, mediums, witches, zombie scientists, dark artists, craft artists, musicians, morticians and many, many others, I can tell you that Halloween is very important to a lot of different people, and for reasons that go way beyond how incredibly fun it is.”
While America has created its own holiday, the United States is not the only country to celebrate Halloween or similar remembrances of the dead.
In Mexico and much of Latin America and Spain, Dia de los Muertos is a three-day celebration honoring the dead. The festival starts on the evening of Oct. 31, when the dead reportedly return to earth, and culminates on All Souls’ Day. Families visit the graves of their deceased and clean and decorate them, often including meals of the favorite foods of the dead. They also light candles to help the dead find their way home. On Nov. 2, families meet at the gravesite for a picnic and to remember the dead.
In Ireland, where the holiday started, Halloween is celebrated much the same way as it is in the United States. Children wear costumes and trick-or-treat in the early evenings. Afterwards, families attend Halloween parties and play games and participate in treasure hunts for coins or prizes. In rural areas, families light large bonfires. Almost all of Ireland partakes in the celebrations.
The English, however, generally stopped celebrating Halloween after the Protestant Reformation. Guy Fawkes Day, which is Nov. 5 and includes lighting fires and burning effigies, has nothing to do with Halloween. Instead, it marks the execution of Guy Fawkes, a notorious English traitor.
Before Martin Luther, children carved designs into large beetroots, which they called “punkies” and carried through the streets while singing the “Punkie Night Song.” They would then knock on doors and ask for money. Rural residents put turnip lanterns on gateposts to protect from evil spirits and lit bonfires to scare away the spirits.
Some English children have attempted to mimic American-style Halloween and dress up and go door-to-door asking for candy, but are usually met with confusion by the residents of the homes.
The Chinese Halloween festival, Teng Chieh, commemorates the dead. Families light bonfires and lanterns to help the dead find their way back to earth on Halloween, and they place offerings in front of photographs of deceased family members.
Yua Lan, or the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts, is the Halloween equivalent in Hong Kong. Residents say that during the festival spirits return to earth.
The Japanese celebrate “Obon Festival” to commemorate the dead. It is a serious commemoration dedicated to the ancestors. The Japanese tidy ancestors’ graves, hang red lanterns and light candles and fires to help ancestors see living members of the family. Families write messages to ancestors, place them on boats with lanterns or candles and set them adrift on rivers or seas.
Korean families pay respect to their ancestors during “Chusok.” The primary purpose of Chusok, which takes place in August, is to thank the ancestors by visiting their graves and making offerings.
Buddhists around the world mark Halloween as a way to remember the dead. They make boats from paper and often write messages to the dead on the boats or on lanterns placed on top of the boats. After dark, they burn the paper boats to remember the dead and to free the spirits of those who have never been buried. Monks also say prayers and present offerings to help those lost souls make it to heaven.
Canada also celebrates Halloween with costumes, trick-or-treating, carved jack-o-lanterns and parties. Historians say the country began the celebrations in the 1800s, when Irish and Scottish immigrants came to the country.
Much of Europe celebrates some form of Halloween, although usually without costumes or candy. Austrians leave bread, water and a light on the table on Halloween night to welcome the dead back to earth for one night. In Belgium, residents light candles in memory of the dead. Germans hide knives on Halloween so spirits are not harmed, and Sweden commemorates the dead during Alla Helgons Dag from Oct. 31 to Nov. 6. Parts of Eastern Europe, including the former Czechoslovakia, place empty chairs around the fire so that the spirits will have a place to rest.