Read at Your Own Risk: Halloween across Cultures

toa-heftiba- Halloween Article
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Halloween is around the corner, and most of us are getting busy carving pumpkins and deciding which monster we’re going to be to go trick or treatin’.

With its roots in the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, Halloween, today, has evolved into a North-American festival getting increasingly popular around the world. Originally celebrated to commemorate the dead, it has now become more of a fun and commercial event and in fact, according to History.Com, is the second biggest commercial holiday in the U.S. after Christmas. To put this in perspective, the U.S. spends $6 billion annually on Halloween. You read that right, 6 BILLION!

The U.S. spends $6 billion annual on Halloween. Click To Tweet

In a first-of-its-kind multi-authored article for theParentVoice,, we are taking you around five different cultures to introduce you to how Halloween is celebrated in these different parts of the world.

First, let’s head on over to the origins of this day, and explore how other cultures honour and celebrate their deceased.

Samhain, Ireland – October 31
by Aoife de Faoite

Aoife de Faoite comes from Ireland, supposedly a country with two languages, and lives in Brussels, a city of many languages, with two small children.


Halloween Costume
Photo Credit: Jenny K via Pexels.Com

“What’s going to happen at Halloween?” I ask my four-year-old. “Sweeties!” she answers with a big grin. We’ll be going back to Ireland for Halloween and I’m trying to explain to her what it is, or what it was to me as a child: the dressing up as something ghoulish, the excitement of going out in the dark with a small group of friends to knock on doors and bellow for sweets that we’d later gorge on around the bonfire at the end of our road, complaining about those useless people who’d give us more traditional options such as apples or nuts. Nuts!

The brush with the darkness, the ghosts and ghouls and witches is something we took for granted, reveled in even as older children delighted in scaring us with spooky stories of the dead. Now living in Belgium, I run into parents who are horrified by the horrific, the spectacle of a festival that celebrates the grisly and, even worse, seems to be another marketing opportunity come across the Atlantic to sell European kiddies scary costumes and stuff them with more sugar.

Halloween is indeed a real festival, the eve of All Hallows, or in Irish Gaelic, the night before Samhain, the end of the harvest and the start of winter, a time when spirits are unleashed, when ghosts may indeed walk, knock on your door and demand food to be appeased.


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Some of the same Celtic threads are woven into an All Saints’ or All Souls Day, a European day of the dead to pray for those who have gone and put flowers on the graves of loved ones.
It’s a harvest festival of nuts and apples, of the blaze of a bonfire as the evenings start to bite with the promise of winter. When the Irish crossed the ocean to North America, they came across those big orange pumpkins and the Jack O’Lantern, a peasant lamp hallowed out of a turnip, became a grisly grinning pumpkin lantern sitting on a porch to welcome children coming to screech “trick or treat!”

Death is a taboo subject, it doesn’t stalk us today in the rich countries of western Europe the way it did our ancestors. I’m always struck that only two of Mozart’s six children survived to adulthood; death of close family wasn’t the rarity it is now. Maybe it’s no surprise that we’ve also changed how we celebrate the one day a year to remember the dead, the one day we bring them back to our thoughts and remember our own mortality. Halloween has become wrapped in fantasy, in tales of vampires and zombies, plastic pumpkins and sugared spiders.

But there’s still the wintry bite in the air at the end of October as the children leave home in disguise to knock on neighbours’ doors, and there’s also the light and warmth as those doors open, squeals of excitement, shouting for treats. [perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]An Irish Halloween is something I don’t want my girl to miss, not just the fun of it, but also the whisper of an ancient past, a tradition that goes back longer than any of us really know.[/perfectpullquote]

An Irish #Halloween represents the whisper of an ancient past. Click To Tweet


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Halloween, USA – 31st October
By Kerry Schorr

Kerry Schorr is an American hobby linguist and foodie who lives and works in Berlin, Germany. She genuinely enjoys a good Halloween costume and true to her mother’s wishes, does not have a sweet tooth. You can find her on Instagram @kdarnot.

HalloweenI grew up celebrating Halloween in the US where it is a holiday enjoyed by young and old. Unlike in many other cultures, there is little focus on honoring the dead, at least not any personal or family deaths. American Halloween treats death in more camp, cartoonish way, removed from reality. My mother dressed up as the same thing every year at the last minute, a gypsy, basically keeping whatever outfit she already had on and adding a long skirt and some strategically placed scarves. Dad wouldn’t have been caught dead in a costume and instead preoccupied himself with helping us finish ours or by judging whether or not we were believable. Usually this meant more face paint or a wig.

[perfectpullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]When it came to handing out treats instead of participating in the Great Annual American Sugar Overdose, my militantly anti-sugar mother gave out completely embarrassing healthy options like apples or packets of raisins and another year she even gave away toothbrushes. [/perfectpullquote]

Up until about the age of 12, my younger brother and I were chaperoned around the neighborhood, but by high school I was allowed to roam around with my friends and I always tried to avoid my own house, knowing what would be waiting. When we arrived home with our loot, it was quickly confiscated and we were allowed to pick exactly one piece of candy. The rest of the bag, for whatever reason, was not thrown out but “hidden” in some extremely obvious place where we always attacked it later.

On Halloween, I always avoided my own house, knowing what would be waiting. Click To Tweet As an adult, I like dressing up as a pun, internet-meme or political joke. Click To Tweet

For a few years, I think perhaps to eliminate the chances of us even getting our hands on so much sugar, my parents took us to a Halloween festival. Think a European-style Christmas market but for Halloween. In one spooky section there were typical ghosts, mummies and werewolves, but also a whole joke graveyard with tombstones depicting the idiotic ways in which the person under them had died. There was also a brighter more fairytale-like section and pumpkin carving, but on a grand scale, the one I always remember loving was a life-sized version of Snoopy snoozing atop his doghouse.

[perfectpullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]As an adult, I still find Halloween a great excuse to dress up, ideally as a pun, internet-meme, or political joke dreamt up at the last minute and executed with easily procured inexpensive items.[/perfectpullquote]

Typical “scary” costumes are for children, amateurs and Europeans. Now I’m married and have a baby and we’ll celebrate our first Halloween this year as a family. I hope that the holiday will continue to be an intergenerational one for my child. Not just because he’ll see me dressing up year after year, but because I’m still working on getting my German husband to give up the ghost.

Also read:  Guy Fawkes (Bonfire) Night – Why I Will Always Remember, Remember.

Séverine Perronnet worked on coordinating authorship for this article. 

Next up…France, Mexico, and Japan.


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About Suchitra

Suchitra is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief at theParentVoice.Com. In a previous life, she has worked as a journalist, and a professor of Communication Studies before trading professing for parenting full-time. She is the author, co-author, and co-editor of three academic books. She is also a dot mandala artist and runs a small business from her home studio.

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