I can’t resist the opportunity to expose my children to cool customs from different countries. This week, we’ve been exploring Halloween and its many variations around the world.
The origins of Halloween date back to pagan times, as a way to revel in the dark side before a holy day restored order. This was interpreted in Christian lore as All Hallows Even, the day before All Saints Day. Different countries had their own take on this celebration, often making it an occasion to reflect on deceased loved ones. Through time, many customs have morphed the holiday into more of a fun festival for families.
North American traditions of pumpkins, costume parties and trick-or-treating have been adopted by many countries worldwide, at least in a commercial sense. However, many cultures have their own unique spin on the concept.
Here’s an overview on a few different ways these Halloween(ish) holidays are enjoyed in different parts of the globe. If you and the kids happen to be in any of these countries in October/November, try to participate in the local festivities – or incorporate a few of the international foods or customs into your own celebrations.
Ireland is considered the birthplace of traditional Halloween, with many customs being imported to the United States and Canada through immigration. Their turnips and beetroots carved with spooky faces were the forerunners to jack-o-lanterns (American pumpkins being much easier to carve). Similar to the holiday across the pond, children dress up in costumes and go door-to-door playing pranks and collecting sweets. Communities often gather around bonfires and host treasure hunts and games. A traditional fruitcake called barnbrack is baked with small tokens inside that foretell the future of those who find them, such as a ring for love or a coin for prosperity.
If you find yourselves in the UK (or assorted colonies) on November 5th, look out for Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night gatherings – most communities have them. The holiday came about in 1605 when Guy Fawkes unsuccessfully tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament along with King James I. People lit bonfires and burned straw effigies of Guy to symbolize his failure.
Granted, a festival involving burning effigies to celebrate a terrorist’s botched attempt to incinerate the king doesn’t sound very kid-friendly, but it is a 400-year-old tradition with lots of fun, food and fireworks. Just like with Halloween, the less you analyze its wicked origins the more merriment you and the kids can have. Children go door-to-door asking for a “penny for the guy” so they can buy wood to build a bonfire – the bigger the better. Baked jacket potatoes, toffee apples and other fire-cooked foods are eaten. In Barbados, a former British colony, the tradition is to make conkies for Guy Fawkes Day.
Mexico, Latin America, Spain
October 31 to November 2 is a special time to be in Mexico, Latin America or Spain as these countries have a different approach to the holiday. They celebrate El Dia de los Muertos, the Day of the Dead, with candle-lit altars, picnics at the cemetery and skeleton-themed parades. As macabre as it sounds, it’s actually a happy time for families to enjoy good food, drink and company as they reflect fondly on friends and relatives who have passed. Special food such as Bread of the Dead and sugar skulls are eaten.
When I lived in Mexico, I remember being a little apprehensive about being invited to a party in a graveyard, but it was a really special, uplifting occasion. I helped sweep the headstones and decorated them with marigolds while my friend’s children ran around laughing – no tears were shed for the dearly departed. It’s rather refreshing to see that in this culture death is confronted as a natural part of the life cycle rather than a rarely discussed taboo.
India, Malaysia, Nepal, Trinidad & Tobago etc.
Diwali, the Indian Festival of Lights, is part of a five-day holiday around the new moon in October/November. It’s more like an Indian equivalent to Christmas or New Years, but it occurs around the same time as Halloween. People clean their homes, open their windows and decorate with candles and diyas (clay oil lamps) to welcome a visit from Lakshmi, the Godess of Wealth. Special clothes are worn, festive meals are prepared, gifts are exchanged and visits with family and friends are enjoyed. Fireworks are often part of the celebration, as well. Try sampling some delicious Diwali sweets, such as kheer, lapsee and my personal recommendation (if your kids can get over the name) coconut barfi.