Halloween, like any holiday, is both an historical artifact, and a living, breathing thing. In one form or another, it has spread to many of the nations of the world, often carrying traces of its country (or countries) of origin while also absorbing beliefs and traditions of the adopting culture. The familiar, candy-fueled incarnation best known in North America dates back to the early twentieth century.
By the 1920s, the Christian holiday, first in a three-day period called Hallowmas, broadly focused on honoring the dead, had become a night of senseless destruction in the United States particularly. Various groups, including the Boy Scouts of America, put out a coordinated campaign pushing for a safer celebration of the night. By the late 1930s, the focus had switched from a night of vandalism to a night of “ritual begging” for treats. However, even today, the entreatments of young revelers suggest a mild threat: give us a treat, or we’ll play a trick.
Of the three days of Hallowmas, it’s the first night – All Hallow’s Eve in its unabbreviated version — which has the clearest pre-Christian connections, apparently borrowing many aspects from a Gaelic festival called Samhain: for example, the belief that the division between the world of the living and dead is weaker on this night. The evening is still celebrated as Samhain or its local equivalent in Scotland, Ireland, the Isle of Man and parts of England.
The idea of dressing up as a demon or ghost to avoid the attention of the real demons and ghosts, “guising,” thus has a long history in these Samhain celebrating regions, though a diluted version of the practice did later spread to North America, first in Canada, at least as early as 1911, and later, as mentioned, to the United States. However, though we didn’t invet these traditions, the celebration is by far bigger on this side of the Atlantic.
In Mexico, too, ancient indigenous traditions have merged with later Christian beliefs. The Day of the Dead has a pedigree dating back thousands of years, predating the Gaelic Samhain. Inherited from the Aztecs, the modern holiday is a merger of the original traditions with pieces of Hallowmas brought by Spanish Catholics. Unlike the largely secularized American Halloween, the Mexican holiday is primarily focused on the latter two days of Hallowmas instead of All Hallow’s Eve, and is more focused on solemnity and less on feasting.
During the Day of the Dead (actually two days, one for dead infants, and one for dead adults), celebrants visit gravesites, bringing food and gifts. It’s a day of remembrance, very much of a piece with the traditions of Hallowmas as originally practiced.
Throughout the rest of Latin America, the American version of Halloween has proved enormously popular. One notable exception is Brazil, which celebrates Mexico’s Day of the Dead but largely ignores Halloween.
As part of the wholesale export of American culture, Halloween has also proved popular (along with other holidays like Valentine’s Day and Christmas) in some Asian countries, including Japan and Hong Kong, China. The American incarnation has also started to replace a more traditional version of the holiday in the Phillipines, a former Spanish colony with a high Catholic population.
I’ve witnessed the migration of Western holidays ever outward firsthand. In 2007 and 2008, I was living on Mainland China in a smallish city of two million. At the time, American Christmas celebrations had just begun penetrating outside of Beijing. One December, the nearby mall in my part of the city had their first tentative decorations, and 12 months later, they had graduated to full-blown hall-decking and a massive tree.
Halloween, however, hasn’t much caught on in the greater part of China, nor in Singapore (which also has a high ethnic Chinese population). Instead they celebrate the Festival of the Hungry Ghosts, earlier in the summer. Set for the 15th day of the seventh month, the deceased are expected to visit the living, and elaborate feasts are prepared for their benefit. While places are set for the visiting dead, the living are also allowed to dig in.
Similar traditions are observed on the same date in Japan and Korea. The calendrical disparity of the Hungry Ghost festival and Halloween seems to be too great to allow for a merging of the traditions, but the spirit, if you’ll excuse the pun, is still there, whichever tradition is chosen.
So how will you spend your Halloween?
Image credit: Thinkstock.