Halloween Around the World

WITH Halloween right around the corner, we take a look at how other countries celebrate their version of Halloween. Faridah Wu investigates. 


Photo: Rob Sheridan via Flickr

Dressing up in costumes, going trick-or-treating, eating pumpkin-based cakes and sweets… these are all trademarks of the Halloween we know.

Many of us are familiar with these festivities and the entertaining events that occur on Halloween, but what about the Halloweens of other countries?

What of Obon festival? Day of the Dead? Pchum Ben? These are the variations of Halloween that the rest of the world celebrates and though it may not fall in line with what most consider to be a traditional Halloween, it nevertheless contains the same amount of spooky fun.

Japan’s Obon Festival


Photo: MIKI Yoshihito via Flickr

The Bon or Obon Festival (Festival of Souls) is usually celebrated by Buddhists in mid-August in Japan, although it varies in different regions. The Japanese believe that their ancestors’ spirits would return to Earth for a visit during this time.

A mukaebi (welcoming) fire would be lit at the entrance of homes to guide their ancestors’ spirits to them, where they spend the next three days together.

A Bon-Odori dance would also be performed to welcome the dead, although different regions in Japan would have their own style of dance.

Meanwhile, graves would be cleaned and a butsudan (Buddhist altar) would be constructed in the house. Vegetables and fruits would be offered to ancestors, along with traditional chochin paper lanterns and flower arrangements.

On the last day, some regions would light okuribi (sending off) fires to bid the spirits farewell. Others would send off their ancestors’ spirits down the rivers with lit candles in floating lanterns (toro nagashi).

Needless to say, Japan’s version of Halloween is one that seems to be quite steeped in religion though that isn’t to say that there isn’t a variety of entertainment outlets to enjoy.

Though not naturally recognised as a public holiday, many offices and businesses take the day off to celebrate. Temples serve as entertainment venues where people can come and watch Bon-Odori dancing, musical performances with traditional Japanese instruments and other live entertainment.

Mexico and Ecuador’s, Day of the Dead


Photo: Rob Sheridan via Flickr

In Mexico, El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated. Mexicans believe that death is not the final stage of life, but merely another journey, and should be celebrated instead of feared.

On the Day of the Dead, which falls between October 31 and November 2, the memories of those who have departed from this world are honoured, and graves are cleaned and decorated with marigolds.

It is believed that spirits would return to be with their families on Earth for one day. Spirits of babies and children (called little angels) would arrive on October 31 to spend the day with their families, followed by adult spirits the next day.

Altars would be constructed, and offerings of traditional food would be made for the spirits to enjoy.

These offerings include pan de muerto (Bread of the Dead), round sugary rolls with bone-shaped patterns on top. Coloured sugar skulls are also popular, and are made out of sugar and decorated with icing and coloured beads. The name of the deceased would be written on the forehead of the skull.

Our friends in Ecuador call the Day of the Dead, “Día de Difuntos”, and celebrate it with guagua de pan, sweet rolls in the shape of infants and animals. They would also drink colada morada: a drink made from black corn flour, blackberries and Ecuadorian fruits such as naranjilla and babaco.

Families would also visit the graves to clean the debris, burn candles and bring flowers and food.

Generally large, boisterous outings, the Day of the Dead celebrations are generally quite celebratory as families and friends are meant to be welcoming the dearly departed back into their lives for a day of fun and excitement.

Cambodia’s Pchum Ben


Photo: Mark Roy via Flickr

Our friends in Cambodia celebrate Pchum Ben, or Ancestors’ Day. It spans 15 days, beginning on the first day of the tenth month in the Khmer religious calendar.

In 2013, it began on October 3. The first 14 days is referred to as Kan Ben (holding the offering), while the fifteenth day is Pchum Ben (gather for the offering).

While Buddhist Cambodians believe in reincarnation, some souls would be stuck in the spirit world because of bad karma. It is believed that during this time, ghosts are released from the spirit world to wander the Earth and look for their relatives.

Monks at the pagodas would begin their chants from as early as 4.00am to pray for the ancestors’ ghosts. Cambodians would go to pagodas to ask the monks to pray for their late relatives and friends.

They would also make offerings of Bay Ben, sticky rice balls cooked in coconut milk, and dedicate the food to their ancestors. The rice balls can also be thrown around temple grounds for lost souls who have no living relatives.

On the last day, a collective offering would be made with the Bay Ben, as well as other food, flowers and presents.

Prayers would be made to gain positive karma, and help the ghosts to reincarnate.

Festivities enjoyed at Pchum Ben include water buffalo racing, traditional Khmer wrestling and other special events.

China, Malaysia, Singapore, Taiwan’s Hungry Ghost Festival


Photo: Thomas Fan via Flickr

The seventh month of the traditional Chinese calendar marks the Ghost Month, where spirits would be allowed to roam the Earth for the month.

In 2013, the Hungry Ghost Month began on August 7. On the first day, offerings of incense and food such as Mandarin oranges would be made on altars constructed outside the house. Paper money would be also burnt at the altar.

On the fifteenth day, the Ghost Festival (also known as Hungry Ghost Festival) is celebrated, and a feast is held the night before for the ghosts. In order to avoid interactions with ghosts, people would refrain from certain behaviours such as swimming or whistling at night. They would also avoid getting married or moving houses to avoid hostile ghosts and bad luck.

In Malaysia and Singapore, song and dance shows called “getai” are held in outdoor locations. However the front row of chairs are left empty as they are reserved for the ghosts.

In Taiwan, a ceremonial procession would be held on the thirteenth day, followed by the release of water lanterns into the ocean the following day. The owners of the lanterns that float the fastest are believed to prosper the most in the coming year.

Norway’s Julebukking

Photo: waferboard via Flickr

Photo: waferboard via Flickr

While Julebukking is a tradition for Norwegians celebrated between Christmas and New Year, the customs are similar to Halloween. Julebukk (or Christmas buck) originated from the Norse god, Thor, and his goat.

Norwegians would dress in disguises and go from door to door to be invited into the house. As the purpose of the disguises were to avoid identification, they would not wear costumes, but instead dress in masks and outlandish clothes. They would also sometimes carry a goat’s head or even dress as a goat.

Neighbours would attempt to identify their guests while providing coffee and food. In order to make it harder, the Norwegians would disguise their voices or simply stay silent.

Once successful, the neighbours would join in disguising themselves and the party would move to the next house. Pranking is also common, where julebukkers would burst into a neighbour’s house and turn the furniture upside down.

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