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Celebrating Halloween as an Expat

27 October, 2011 16:07  Erin Erin

Funny face pumpkin © Sandra Cunningham - Fotolia.comHalloween can get a bad rap for being a commercial holiday crudely pushing candy, tacky decorations, and scandalous costumes. Yes, there is a lot of candy eating. And yes - glowing plastic pumpkins may not be your cup of tea. And YES the "sexy" costumes are over-the-top. Sexy cat, sexy nurse, sexy policewoman, sexy Osama bin Laden!? (Yes - those are all real costumes).

However, this is forgetting the traditional side of Halloween. The name "Halloween" is derived from the 16th century as a Scottish variant of the term "All-Hallows-Even" which refers to the night before All Hallows Day. The holiday roots back pagan traditions of ancient Britain and Ireland. The Celtic Festival of Samhain was observed on October 31 and the souls of the dead were supposed to revisit their homes on this day.

Many of the spooky elements of today's celebration, like ghosts, witches, goblins, black cats, and demons, are said to walk the earth on this day. The festival was held to placate the supernatural powers and it was a favorable time for divinations concerning marriage, luck, health, and death. It was the only day on which the help of the devil was invoked for such purposes.

Today's celebrations aren't quite as dark. Most people celebrate with costume parties, carving jack-o'-lanterns, bonfires, apple bobbing, visiting haunted attractions, playing pranks, telling scary stories, and watching horror films. Celebrations are often centered on community, with a emphasis on creativity. It is one of the few times a year people feel good about being a little bad.

Celebrations Around the Globe

Halloween is popular in the United States of America and Canada, but appears in different formats in places you may not realize like Mexico, Ireland and Scotland.

USA and Canada

American and Canadian celebrations embody the most familiar image of Halloween in media. The traditions here spring from the rituals brought over to North America from Europe during the mass transatlantic immigration in the 19th century. These traditions have since spread to South America, Australia, New Zealand, continental Europe, Japan, and other parts of East Asia.

The holiday is typically celebrated by children being dressed in costumes that are as inventive as their imagination. Once based on supernatural figures like monsters, ghosts, skeletons, and witches, costumes can now be almost anything including popular characters from fiction, celebrities, ninjas and princesses. Chaperoned groups go trick-or-treating at neighborhood houses or - more recently- shopping malls, community centers etc. Children chant "trick-or-treat" at lit houses and are rewarded with candy corn, chocolate bars, and other goodies. The chant is now (mostly) an idle threat, but at one point children were approaching houses with a choice - give them treats or endure a trick like egging or toilet-papering houses.

The fun isn't just for the kids. Adult parties are also common with costumes, treats, and terrifying decoration. Horror films appear on TV and ghost stories run rampant. It is the time of year everyone enjoys a little thrill.


The celebration in Mexico is a three day tribute to the dead, with El Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) beginning on the evening of October 31, November lst honoring children and infants, and deceased adults honored on November 2nd. It is a joyous holiday in which to remember friends and family who are believed to return to their homes on Halloween. During the Autumn, Monarch butterflies return to the oyamel fir trees and it was the belief of the Aztecs that these butterflies bore the spirits of dead ancestors.

Many families construct an altar in their home and decorate it with candy, flowers, photographs, fresh water and samples of the deceased's favorite foods and drinks. A basin and towel are often left out in order that the spirit can wash prior to indulging in the feast. Candles are incense are burned to help the departed find his or her way home. Relatives also tidy the grave sites of the deceased and adorn them with flowers, wreaths or paper streamers. In some areas, a live person is placed inside a coffin and paraded through the streets with vendors toss fruit, flowers and candies into the casket.

Ireland & Scotland

This region of the world is believed to be the birthplace of Halloween. Many of the traditions made popular in the United States began here.

In rural areas, bonfires and lanterns are lit to ward off the phantoms and evil spirits that emerge at midnight. Children dress up in costumes to spend the evening guising (trick-or-treating). Unlike the trick-or-treating in the USA, children would perform a task for their treat or money. However, simply saying "trick-or-treat" has become increasingly common.

Games are also played like "snap-apple". An apple is tied to a door frame or tree and players attempt to take a bite out of the suspended apple. Knock-a-dolly is another game in which children knock on the doors of their neighbors and run away before the door is opened. Treasure hunts are also common with sweets or pastries offered as "treasure".

Barmbrack (báirín breac) is a traditional fruitcake that is said to foretell the future. People bake this traditional treat with objects baked into the bread and as it is eaten, the objects are discovered within each slice foretelling a person's fortune.

  • Pea - the person would not marry that year
  • Stick - "to beat one's wife with", would have an unhappy marriage or continually be in disputes
  • Cloth or rag - Bad luck or poverty
  • Coin - Good fortune or riches
  • Ring - Be wed within the year

Other possible articles include a medallion (usually of the Virgin Mary) to symbolize going into the priesthood or to the Nuns. Commercially produced barmbracks for the Halloween market still include a toy ring.


13 Creepy Places to Enjoy Halloween

People around the world seem inexplicably drawn to the sites that give them chills. Haunted houses and corn mazes spring up in any place that celebrates Halloween, but there are other sites around the world that offer organically scary experiences.

1. Transylvania, Romania is the land of Dracula and it has become a spooky place to reflect on Halloween. Sighisoara, Count Dracula's birthplace, is one of the best-preserved medieval towns in Europe. Designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the town is a wonderful setting for the re-created witch trials that are put on around Halloween.

2. Bran Castle in Brassov is another national monument and creepy reminder of a dark past. The legend of Dracula was forged here as ruler Vlad Tepes became known here for his known for his brutal impaling.

3. Catacombs of Paris offer a spooky environment in which to enjoy the season of spooks. The catacombs are lined with piles of over 6 million bones. The attraction was created as graveyards were overrun in the 18th century and bodies had to be moved to old quarries to protect the city's inhabitants from the plague.

4. London has it's own set of scary attractions. One of the best is the Tower of London which was the site of many beheadings, executions, and gruesome imprisonments. Queen Elizabeth was imprisoned here, but had a better fate than the martyr Anne Askew who was burned at the stake. Unlucky Sir Everard Digby had it even worse as he was hung, drawn and quartered.

5. The Cuchi Tunnels in Vietnam offer a great caving experience with a spooky history. The VietCong used this tunnel system during the Vietnam War. Now it is a terrifying reminder of war and a truly chilling experience.

6. New Orleans, USA is best known for it's Mardi Gras celebration, but the city is also well known for it's mysterious atmosphere and dabbling into the dark arts of voodoo. Haunted hotels and stories of ghosts in the French Quarter abound, as do cemeteries. St. Louis Cemetery offers the tomb of the voodoo Queen Laveau. Go to her grave side to talk with the spirits.

7. Hostels in former jails have sprung up around the world and can provide a truly eerie atmosphere for a special Halloween experience.
The Ottawa Jail in Canada was closed in 1972 due to its inhumane conditions and has since been turned into an unusual hostel.
Hostel Celica is a former prison in Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Now an art gallery and hostel, each cell is designed and furnished by a different artist.
Langholmens Vandrarhem in Stockholm, Sweden was a Crown Prison on its own island. It is now an accommodation option for travelers wanting a little excitement.
Jailhouse Accommodation in Christchurch, New Zealand was once the Addington Prison. It has been renovated and is both relaxing and interesting.

8. The Mummy Museum in Guanajuato, Mexico offers a haunting experience examining mummies. The bodies were originally exhumed when families were unable to pay a burial tax due each year for deceased relatives.

9. Bhangarh, India is a ghost town in the Rajasthan state of India. Ruins of a once prosperous town that was mysteriously and abruptly abandoned. Today the place evokes the heebie-jeebies after dark with the Archaeological Survey of India placing notices to protect the spirits that state "Staying after sunset is strictly prohibited in this area".

10. The Sedlec Ossuary near Kutna Hora, Czech Republic is world renowned for it's bone decoration. It is one of the largest, most ornate and spookiest ossuaries in the world. There are 40,000 - 70,000 human skeletons in this church. The ossuary has been the backdrop for the movie Dungeons and Dragons, Blood and Chocolate and the novel The Black Angel.

11. The Valley of the Kings in Egypt has served as the burial place for kings and powerful nobles of Ancient Egypt. Standing on the west banks of the Nile, there are thousands or ornate tombs within a complex chamber. Many of the tombs have curses written upon them, warning any who enter may suffer from death. This legend was given validity when several members of the team that first opened Tutankhamen's tomb died mysteriously. Enter, if you dare...

12. The Stanley Hotel in Estes Park, Colorado, United States was the setting for Stephen King's book, The Shining. An impressive setting, visitors can check out room #217 where King stayed and the book was born.

13. Old Changi Hospital in Singapore is rumored to be the most haunted place in all of Asia. The run-down hospital offers ghostly voices as the presence of past patients are said to still roam the halls.


Wherever you find yourself this Halloween, indulge in a little chill and think to yourself

"Shadows of a thousand years
Rise again unseen,
Voices whisper in the trees
'Tonight is Halloween!

Dexter Kozen



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