While we typically associate Halloween with costumes and candy these days, the holiday is actually rooted in spiritual beliefs from more than 1,000 years ago. Many trace Halloween back to the Celtic pagan celebration of Samhain, in which observants would wear costumes and light fires to ward off the souls returning back to their homes on November 1. As All Saints’ Day became a Christian take on Samhain, along with it came the festivities of the night before, or All Hallow’s Eve, which evolved into Halloween.
The costume-wearing and trick-or-treating traditions popularized in the U.S. in the 1950s have turned into an annual $2.5 billion industry. But around the world, many other countries have their own sorts of similarly spirited occasions that recall the original intentions of Halloween. Here are 20 such celebrations and the stories behind them.
The Celtic pagan celebration of Samhain, or Samhuinn, dates back to the Iron Age and is often referred to as the predecessor to Halloween. With the Celtic calendar divided into a light and dark half, the November 1 festival ushers in the beginning of the dark part of the year between the autumn equinox and winter solstice — it’s considered one of its fire festivals marking the change. (Samhain means “summer’s end in Gaelic.)
During this time, the gods become visible on earth and play tricks on mortals, leading to widespread fear and supernatural occurrences. Over the course of time, myths about shape-shifting monsters and carved turnips called Jack-o-lanterns emerged, as well the tradition of “Dumb Suppers,” where deceased ancestors would join in on meals while children entertained them. The tradition of guising, where kids would go door-to-door in costumes to accept offerings after reciting a poem or joke, eventually developed into trick-or-treating.
While Mexico’s tradition of Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) has gained popularity in recent years — in part because of its inscription on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity list in 2008 — its tone is quite the opposite of Halloween, which is rooted in terror. Celebrated over a two-day period on November 1 for All Saints’ Day and November 2 for All Souls’ Day, it’s a colorful and lively celebration to honor “the transitory return to Earth of deceased relatives and loved ones,” according to UNESCO.
Day of the Dead is also synced with the end of the maize harvest, and the origins of the holiday date back to the Aztec, Toltec, and other Nahua people several thousand years ago, who “considered mourning the dead disrespectful,” according to National Geographic. Nowadays, ofrendas (altars) are set up with offerings to welcome back the dead, including sugar skulls, which originated with 17th century Italian missionaries. Poems poking fun at the living called calaveras (literary skulls) are also read, and revelers often dress up as skeletons with their faces painted.
The Haitian take on Day of the Dead, Fet Gede — which translates to Festival of the Dead — is a voodoo festival, similar to Mardi Gras. One of the biggest celebrations during the November 1-2 festival happens at Grand Cimetière in Port-au-Prince, where dancing, feasting and drumming take place to honor ancestors.
With black, purple, and white as the celebration’s official colors, offerings are made to spirits, including the god of death Baron Samedi, and a dance called the Banda is performed. While the connotation of voodoo is often misassociated with dark practices, the festival is rooted in the spiritual side of the culture.
According to an ancient Chinese legend, the monk Mulain was worried that his mother was hungry in the afterlife, so he turned to Buddha, who suggested offering food and clothing to the monks. In appreciation, the monks prayed — and since ghosts can’t eat, Mulain’s mother was born again as a human, ending her hunger. Thus the Hungry Ghost Festival began, celebrated as a Buddhist and Taoist tradition during the entirety of the seventh month of the Lunar calendar, which usually starts around late August to early September. The festivities peak on the 15th day with the Yulan Ji festival.
Nowadays, the offerings include money, dim sum, and iPhones, passed along to the otherworld by burning paper versions of the items. Empty seats are also left at operas and family dinners for the ghosts. The festival is commemorated in many Asian countries, including Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia, Singapore, and China.
Japan’s take on the Hungry Ghost Festival is known as the Obon Festival, or Bon Festival. Families return to their hometown for a three-day ritual around the 15th day of the Lunar calendar’s seventh month. Specific traditions vary, but most start with lantern lightnings (mukaebi) to lead the spirits home, while others also clean and decorate ancestors’ tombs (ohakamairi) and create altars for both the ancestors and spirits (shōryō-dana).
The pinnacle of the celebrations comes as revelers dress up as folk characters for folk dances (bon odori) around taiko drummers and then use floating lanterns and bonfires (okuribi) to send the spirits on their way. Dating back to the Asuka period from A.D. 552 to 645, the celebration is rooted in Buddhism but celebrated by all.
Cambodia’s 15-day Pchum Ben Festival is also a nod to the hungry ghosts, who direct the king’s servants and soldiers to offer food to the one among who demonstrate morality. The first 14 days of the Khmer month of Pheaktra Bot make up the celebration of Kan Ben, where the Buddhist monks are offered candles and food and recite protective prayers in return.
It all leads up to the 15th day of Pchum Ben. Pchum means “meeting,” and Ben means “a ball of rice or meat” — rice balls known as bay ben, made of sticky rice and sesame, are offered to the ghosts at dawn on this day. The celebration is also intended as a day to reunite with families to honor ancestors.
Kids dress up in costumes and go door-to-door for Fastelavn — but the similarities to Halloween end there. Celebrated in February, the Carnival festival is the feast before fasting for Lent. Originated in Denmark, the holiday is also celebrated in other Roman Catholic countries, often by eating a bun called a fastelavnsboller.
While past traditions have reportedly included riding horseback at full speed to put a lance through a ring, yanking off a goose’s head, and smashing a bat while blindfolded, the only animal antic remaining is having kids knock a cat out of a barrel. While actual black cats were used in the past, now barrels painted with cats are used, similar to piñatas filled with candy.
If credit went to where it was due, Guy Fawkes Day should actually be called Robert Catesby Day. Now also known as Bonfire Night, the November 5 celebration honors the failed attempt in 1605 to destroy King James I and Parliament, who were intolerant toward Catholics. The effort, known as the Gunpowder Plot, was led by Catesby — Fawkes was actually just one of four other co-conspirators.
When the plot was revealed, bonfires were lit in London to celebrate, and November 5 became a day to give thanks. Now it’s hailed as a time to reunite with family and friends while lighting bonfires, fireworks and effigies of Fawkes. Children often went around with their effigies asking for a “penny for the Guy,” in a tradition similar to trick-or-treating.
Rooted in a pre-Colombian tradition, colorful kites fly high in the Guatemalan skies on November 1-2 for Barriletes Gigantes, meaning “giant kites.” Originally, they were flown to show the connection between the otherworld and the human one, but eventually the kites became part of the All Saints’ Day celebrations.
The kites, many which are more than 40 feet wide, are hand-painted and flown over the graves of ancestors in cemeteries in Santiago Sacatepequez and Sumpango. These days, the messages are no longer intended for the deceased, but to show peace and companionship for the living.
Fleeing from the devil carrying fire may sound a bit extreme, but it’s all part of a tradition called correfoc, which translates to “fire-running.”. Held all over the Catalonia region in Spain, the Balls de Diables (devil dances) involve jumping and running over people dressed as dragons and devils; the tradition started as far back as 1150 to show the fight between good and evil.
In the port city of Tarragona, it’s part of the two-week celebration in late September called the Santa Tecla Fiesta, which originated in 1321 to honor the patron saint. In Barcelona, it’s celebrated at the end of the month for the Nuestra Señora de La Merced Fiesta, first held in 1871.
For the Polish, traveling to see family on Zaduszki, their version of All Souls’ Day on November 2, is just as essential as on Easter and Christmas. Many of the traditions — like baking bread and leaving it at graves for good luck or going to bed early to avoid meddling with the spirits — trace back to Slavic traditions, when they were focused on pleasing the spirits who appear closer to our world during this period. Today, it’s more about family time to honor the deceased.
The preceding day, All Saints’ Day on November 1, has long been an official holiday in the country, with many using the time off to tend to their ancestors’ graves. In some parts of the country, candles are melted into walnut shells and set afloat down rivers to send messages to the deceased.
The English nun Saint Walburga, who became an abbess at Germany’s Heidenheim monastery, was believed to cure many of the locals, while also converting pagan Germans. She was canonized on May 1, 870, which happened to be the same time as a spring festival that Pope Adrian wanted to Christianize.
While that didn’t happen, Walpurgis Night is still celebrated on its eve, April 30, in many northern European and Scandinvanian countries. In Sweden, spring folk songs are sung around bonfires, while in Germany, people leave butter-and-honey bread (or ankenschnitt) for “phantom hounds” and dress up and play tricks on one another, since loud noises are thought to fight off evil.
Finland celebrates a similar tradition as Walpurgis Night, but the festivities coincide with May Day, a holiday similar to Labor Day. Known as Vappu, the two-day celebration on April 30 and May 1 is one of the nation’s major holidays.
What started as an upper class celebration then became one mostly indulged in by students — now, everyone is involved. On April 30, toasts are made over alcoholic beverages, especially sparkling wine, and then the first day of May is celebrated with park picnics (often decked with balloons) and drinking of a homemade mead called sima, as well as reveling in the streets.
The Čarodějnice festival, also known as the witch-burning festival, is the Czech version of Walpurgis Night, also held on April 30. As part of the legend, it’s thought that witches convene on mountaintops on this night, so bonfire smoke can get rid of the black magic. But it’s also a time to get bid adieu to the cold and welcome spring.
These days, the biggest celebration is at Prague’s Ladronka Park, where people dress up as witches for costume contests and enjoy live music. But all over the country, Czechs roast burty sausages and witch effigies.
The people of Nepal’s Kathmandu Valley remember their loved ones in a brightly colored celebration called Gat Jatra, or the Festival of the Cow. Also known as Saya, the festival is usually held in July or August. Cows are believed to guide the dead to heaven, so families are meant to send a calf in a procession to guide those who died that year, but many send children dressed as cows instead.
While it marks a solemn occasion, the atmosphere is light-hearted and fun, with people dressed up in costumes and performing dances, plays, and comedy in the streets. The reason: Back in the Malla era, from the 10th to 18th centuries, a queen mourned for her son’s passing for so long that the king asked everyone who had suffered loss to join a procession to show that she wasn’t alone.
Imagine Halloween if every single person dressed up like a Viking. To mark the return of the sun after the winter solstice, the town of Shetland, Scotland, celebrates Up Helly Aa on the last Tuesday of January to honor its Viking heritage. Called a “northern Mardi Gras,” the day-long celebration culminates in a procession led by torchlight to a burning of a galley.
While the celebrations only last one day, the committee starts planning in February for the following year’s celebration, as dozens of squads design their own costumes — much of it in secrecy. One of the biggest secrets each year is which Norse Saga the festival head, the Guizer Jarl, will portray.