The Ghosts of Everyone’s Past, Present, and Future

All Saints Day (source: Britannica)

All Saint’s Day (source: Britannica)

Eons before the advent of American Halloween, there was Samhain which marked “the end of summer” for the Celts. It was a Pagan celebration completely unrelated to the socialists of modern-day who stick out their grubby digits unabashedly for sweet treats. According to the blog Pumpkin Patches and More, the Celtic New Year celebrated both the dead and the harvest, and as far back as 5 B.C, Celtic priests known as Druids would light bonfires to repel malevolent spirits and provide warmth for the people. They often wore masks to avoid being recognized by the occasional lurking ghost, and notably, they would bring a spark from the bonfire in hollowed turnips as makeshift lanterns. Pope Boniface IV attempted to spoil the Pagan merriment by moving the date of All Saints’ Day to November 1. The day before November 1 would be a hallowed day, thus the name would change from its Middle Eastern translation, All-hallowmas, to All Hallow’s Eve before its most beloved appellation, Halloween. All Souls’ Day would commence on November 2 as a day of prayer for the souls stranded in limbo. 

When the Protestant Reformation declared an end to certain religious holidays, noted that Halloween was no longer celebrated religiously in the colonies, so contrary to popular opinion, it would not establish its beloved traditions in America until the 1850s after the Irish fled the Potato Famine by immigrating to the United States. They spread their iconic jack-o-lantern traditions, and after the British handed out “soul cakes” on All Souls’ Day in exchange for prayers, Americans developed the Halloween most loved today. Today, in America, it stands to be the second most commercialized holiday, with an average of two billion dollars spent on candy alone, and it is cherished across the globe in unique ways.

Across the world, numerous countries celebrate holidays similar to Halloween with their own cultural touches. The Celtic founders, the Irish, eat Colcannon or mashed potatoes mixed with cruciferous vegetables while a common sweet bread, barmbrack, contained charms for fortune-telling as detailed in In Italy, All Saints’ Day is known as “Ognissant,” and people from all parts of the country respect their ancestors’ spirits with a gift of mournful chrysanthemums, blooms that blossom with hundreds of petals all centered around their precious pistils. The Scottish value their sausages, and every year, the Samhuinn Fire Festival is a pivotal event for the entire community. The Polish celebrate their All Souls’ Day, Zaduszki, with wreaths and garlands, while the Austrians prefer to light candles and lay comestibles for their journeying ghosts. The Belgians, similarly, leave a trail of lights for their ancestors’ ghosts while the Czechoslovakian people place a chair for each living and dead member of the family to express unity across states of being.

The Germans subtly nod to the dead by sheathing their kitchen knives, while the Swedish “Alla Hellons Dag” lasts from Oct 31 to Nov 6 with a joyous day off for students. In contrast, the French perceive Halloween to be an American holiday, so they do not quite participate in the festivities. Though the British used to celebrate Halloween, they currently have rather morbid festivities because, on Nov 5, they host Guy Fawkes Day in memory of the executed turncoat, Guy Fawkes, who was burned alive on a stake. During the day, children would walk around requesting “pennies for the guy,” which is quite a clever way to nab an allowance.

Across the North Atlantic Ocean, South Americans opened their hearts to the thin line that exists between life and death. In Mexico, people dance to the beat of life, both existing and extinguished during El Dia de Los Muertos. Loved ones shower their ancestors’ spirits with vibrance and treats because even though their ancestors might not walk the soil anymore, they always have a place within the hearts of their families and friends. The three-day festival encourages families to design altars, distribute tequilas, and host mariachi bands with elaborate parades attended by the masses. Traditionally, a live person would be hoisted in a casket, and the crowd would shower flowers onto the casket. At home, people would eat the “Bread of the Dead” and light fragrant candles as acts of love. For the past three thousand years, their neighbors, Guatemala’s citizens, have always expressed their love for all life through their kite festivals because, in South America, life is both a cycle and a gift.

In Asia, nations bow down to their ancestors’ specters during their revelries. In Japan, their “Obon Festivals” consist of people dressing up in delicate yukatas and traveling in tight-knit groups to sweep the gravesites. Every night, there is a bonfire kept aflame to guide their ancestral spirits, and the Japanese gather around to share food and dance the bon. The three-day celebration lasts during the middle of summer, around the same time as the Chinese Zhongyuan Festival. Perchance, the festival has faded from the public’s memory, but as stated in, in the past, the holiday started in the middle of the seventh month of the lunar calendar. Zhongyuan Festival was also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival, and sacrificial altars would be lined with various cattle donated by the villagers to honor the dead. The smell of incense would waft in the air, and people would chant pious hymns after the leading monks. Nepal pays homage to its lost ones through Gai Jatra, the “Festival of Cows,” in which the cows guide the ghosts of the dead to their paradise, and Cambodians especially delegate 15 days to Pchum Ben when families feast and race buffalos to mark the days before the gates of purgatory open.

Stories lie behind each country’s Halloween, and throughout the years, traditions have shifted and adopted new meanings. In America, the secular holiday might not have much spiritual depth, but in the hearts of the public, Halloween is the day when children can dress up as whomever they want to be, and adults can surreptitiously snatch candy from their children’s buckets, it is quintessential to American culture despite its rude beginnings within the colonies, and it has grown to envelop people’s love for the breathtaking autumn change. Therefore, whenever people think of pumpkins and cinnamon and apples, their hearts naturally wander back to the spooky decorations and nostalgic tall tales that frighten the young but elicit chuckles from the old. Halloween has become so dear to the hearts of Americans that 480 million dollars each year disappear in favor of pet costumes, and without a doubt, it is for an exceptionally legitimate reason.