A brief history of Halloween Celebrations

Halloween scene

Halloween Jack o’ Lanterns light the night

On Halloween, I see more of the supermarket than the supernatural.  With my cart full of pumpkins, candy, decorations, and costumes for my kids – and of course my dog Rocko, I contributed to the scary amount of over $8 billion dollars that was spent on Halloween in North America last year.

Halloween was once a magical night for children to dress up as ghosts or superheroes and trick or treat for candy, but has been transformed into an all ages celebration, where adults wear scary masks, not to ward off spirits, but to drink spirits, (pun intended),at the bars and clubs hosting Halloween parties.

I have always felt excitement and anticipation on Halloween.  The anticipation as a child, waiting for my Mom to make my gypsy costume on the night of; as a teen, taking my niece and nephew trick or treating; as an adult, sewing my party costumes; and as a parent, hosting sleepovers with my kids and their friends watching Halloween videos and trading the frightening haul of candy in their pillow cases among themselves.

Halloween fun

Kids ready to trick or treat

Origins of Halloween:

The Asian version of Halloween is The Hungry Ghost Festival, held in the 7th lunar month, usually around July 15th, which the Chinese have celebrated for over three thousand years, coming from The Buddhist tradition, which has a superstitious twist.  Many, but not all Chinese, believe in ghosts, and offer food and gifts to appease their deceased ancestors, and those who have left their physical bodies to return to earth for the day.  They also burn incense to ward off bad luck and cleanse the spirits.  The month long July celebrations take place in many locations, including China, Hong Kong and Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore.

An old Chinese saying is: “If you believe in ghosts there will be ghosts, and if you don’t believe in ghosts, there won’t be ghosts.

When I taught ESL for a few years, some of my Asian students talked about ghosts.  And, they were not the type to tell tales, especially tales from the crypt.  One student said he saw a spook in the library stacks back home in Korea, and another one told me about the village apparition that appeared outside his apartment building in Korea.

Confucius, the revered Chinese philosopher, born in 551 BC, said: “Respect ghosts and gods, but keep away from them”.

Hungry Ghost

Hungry Ghost Festival

In Mexico, the Aztecs celebrated The Day of the Dead for over three thousand years.  When it merged with Catholic philosophy, the date was moved to All Saints Day Nov 1 and 2.  The Aztecs historically used skulls in a ritual honoring death and rebirth, but the skulls used now are made of wood or sugar.  They believed the dead returned to earth during the month long event.

Today, in rural Mexico, people bring flowers and candles to the gravesites of their loved ones, then sit and eat the favorite food of their loved ones.  Many Mexicans in Mexico and America build altars in their homes dedicated to the dead, and place flowers, food, pictures and candles on them.

Halloween is also connected to the Celtic Festival of Samhain, or “summers end” in ancient Ireland, which was held on the Celtic New Year, Oct 31st; the last day of fall, before the start of winter.  The post- harvest land looked like death, with bony skeleton like tree branches poking through the fog, and they believed it was the time when souls from the otherworld could most easily enter their physical world, and they lit bonfires to cleanse the souls.  In the middle ages, Catholic missionaries renamed it “All Hallows Eve”; (All Holy Eve), the night before All Saints Day.

Samhain summer's end

Samhain summer’s end

For thousands of years, people have held celebrations at the end of the harvest, before winter comes, and have been curious about spirit.  Halloween is a harvest of candy and fun for kids, a huge party for many adults, and a boon to the economy.    Ann Hoy


sources:   Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach,   http://www.azcentral.com/, Hong Kong Tourism, About.com, Hungry Ghost

Photo pin/flickr/creative commons.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/professorbop/2984843283/”>Professor Bop</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/”>cc</a>  – Photos – photo pin/creative commons

35 thoughts on “A brief history of Halloween Celebrations

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