In modern times, only Christmas tops Halloween in terms of holiday spending. Yes, a cultural event unlike any other, Halloween has really taken on a life of its own. Interestingly, however, is that Halloween actually goes by other names in different cultures and, often, is not a single-day event, but can last up to a week!
Like many contemporary holidays, Halloween's roots can be traced back to pagan rituals and events. In the case of Halloween, its origins are linked to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain, which was an end-of-harvest celebration. During this time, the Gaels in Ireland took stock of their harvest and made other necessary preparations for the coming winter. First, however, they had to make sure they were ready for October 31st, a day, they believed, when the boundaries of the living and the dead coincided and the dead could return to life and damage crops, cause illness and, in general, makes things very unpleasant.
Samhain often involved bonfires, which drew insects and, naturally, bats. This could be were our current use of bats came from in Halloween decorating. Further, the Gaels would don costumes and masks as a way to either mimic or pacify evil spirits.
Many nations around the world associate Halloween with the Catholic holiday of All Saints Day, which occurs on November 1st. In Germany, we see a unique combination of the holidays and traditions. In Germany, as a whole, the holiday is celebrated as All Saints Day. In Southern Germany, however, the celebration is not just on a single day, but rather it extends from October 30th through November 8th.
Typical celebration includes attending church services, as well as trips to the cemetery to remember and honor family members and other loved ones who have passed. As an interesting aside, Germans also hide their knives during this time. Just infer what you will from that.
Even with a tradition that is so richly engrained in European history, Halloween remained largely unknown in France until 1996. In fact, it is still largely seen as an American holiday that was brought to France via U.S. ex-pats and American movies. Still, the French, always willing to embrace celebration that includes costumes and social gatherings quickly embraced the holiday and, in the last two decades, it has become quite popular.
Today, the French celebration of Halloween is less about spooks and spirits and more about dressing up and having fun.
While not technically Halloween, Mexico's Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) has a lot in common with Halloween celebrations around the world. First, the celebration is consistent on the calendar, being celebrated for three days spanning October 31st through November 2nd.
This celebration is marked by remembrance of the deceased that includes stories, libations, dancing, music, feasts and, yes, even dressing in skeleton costumes. Unlike some celebrations that are honored in some parts of Mexico and not others, Dia de los Muertos is celebrated in every corner of Mexico.
In the United States, there has been a unique evolution in the way we celebrate Halloween. Early observances started in the mid-nineteenth century with Irish and Scottish immigrants who held overnight Masses in graveyards, complete with candles placed on headstones.
The tradition of trick-or-treating came decades later in the spirit of older church traditions known as "mumming" and "guising" wherein children would dress in masks and costumes, then parade around the streets playing games and going door to door to ask for food or coins, respectively.
Halloween, since it can be traced back 2000 years, has been shaped by both history and geography. In that time, its spread has grown to incorporate religious aspects and local flavors that make it unique and special to the each geography where it is celebrated. This type of adaptation ensures that Halloween will continue to be a global celebration for centuries to come.