Spirits, Spooks and Sacred Rituals Go Much Deeper than Trick-or-Treating
Today, it’s mostly fun and games. Costumed children decked in everything from witches and ghouls to superheroes, princesses and the occasional infant dressed in a pumpkin suit that mirrors his chubby cheeks. In the U.S., adults get in on the Halloween fun, too – a wonderful excuse to throw a costume party with spiked punch and watch scary movies. All in the name of fun and the pursuit of candy. But Halloween’s origins, and its modern iterations in certain areas of the world, are serious business.
Celebrations similar to that in the U.S. are held in Canada and France, though the latter’s la fête d’Halloween didn’t become a thing until the mid-1990’s. In Romania, October 31 takes on a fittingly vampiric theme, with festivities also including costumes, parties and more candy. The country’s most famous vampire, Dracula, is not relegated to these mundane celebrations, though. He gets his own day – Dracula Day – every May 26, when revelers gather at Bran Castle, which may or may not have been home to Vlad the Impaler.
In Ireland – thought to be the birthplace of our current version of Halloween more than 2,000 years ago – the rituals of Samhain are still reenacted. Today’s bonfires are more symbolic than sacred, and are burned without animal sacrifices, but the costumes that originated in these times remain.
Other international traditions run much deeper, spanning the year, often connecting the spirit world to the living in meaningful ways to those who observe. El Dia de los Muertos in Mexico and Spain is famous for its brightly painted skulls and other symbols of those who have passed. If you visit one of these countries during the annual festival, prepare for parades of people dressed as skeletons, feasts of spicy meats and savory breads and street vendors tossing flowers and fruit to passersby. Spirits are said to be unleashed from the afterlife on October 31, reuniting with their loved ones for 24 short hours the next day.
Also bringing people and spirits back together is India’s Pitru Paksha, held in September and October, when souls in purgatory are allowed to return to their families, who must perform the ritual of Shraddha to keep their wandering spirits from wandering indefinitely. If you travel to India during this time, you’ll likely witness this traditional practice and food offerings to ancestors cooked in silver or copper pots and including very specific ingredients.
Honoring, celebrating and showing gratitude for the dearly departed is the central tenet of other countries’ annual “Halloween-esque” holidays, replacing the spooks with a reverent nod and holy focus. Catholic factions in countries around the world celebrate All Saints’ and All Souls’ days (November 1 and 2), visiting gravesites of family members, lighting candles in remembrance, and gathering with those living. In Poland, the celebration is called Dzień Zaduszny, and it sees cemeteries adorned with glittering candles. In Italy, the national holiday brings color to the graveyards in the form of chrysanthemums, while the candles are displayed in home windows.
Cambodia’s homage to the dead is called Pchum Ben, lasting 15 days from mid-September to early October. Gifts of sweet foods and flowers are offered at temples, family feasts are served, and buffalo races are held, and on the final day, monks spend the night chanting to signal the opening of the gates of hell.
Holidays around the world offer fascinating perspective into destinations’ history and spiritual traditions and how they influence modern life. Respectfully observing or even participating in these traditions during your travels is a wonderful way to immerse yourself in the culture. Explore these facets of culture and many others on the journeys most intriguing to you.