When you think about it, the modern celebration of the Halloween holiday will baffle curious anthropologists hundreds of years from now. After all, throngs of happy Halloween revelers do celebrate ghosts and monsters by dressing up as the latest viral Youtube star, and receive candy in exchange for not covering someone's house in textiles used to remove human fecal matter. So, it's not unreasonable to assume that different cultures have their own unusual Halloween traditions that may puzzle the masses, like in these 13 odd examples below.
Wearing Animal Heads
Thousands of years ago, agrarian Celtics didn't have our modern tools for food production. Whereas we have soil reports and weatherpeople, the Celts only had "some guys who claimed to be magical" and "gods who only appear when we eat really old bread."
Therefore, ensuring a plentiful herd and harvest was more a matter of trial-and-error. Of course, the scientific method hadn't been developed, so for "trial" they had "do some random thing and hope it appeases the food gods." By "error," they had "pretty much everything we do to ensure a good harvest."
Eventually, someone got the bright idea to cut the head off of various farm animals and stick their domes through the gaping neck wound, because... I don't know, man. What I do know is that I own some cats. I am a god to them. But if they ever came around wearing the severed skull of a tuna fish, the last thing this would make me want to do is give them another tuna fish.
Another tried-and-trusted Celtic method of horticultural divination involved throwing a bunch of animals into a big bonfire. Then, in a ritual lamer than any Dungeons and Dragons campaign, they would have a druid examine the charred bones to determine if they predicted a big influx of food.
Spooky Graveyard Ritual
In Romania a lot of money comes from tourists arriving during the Halloween season to find Dracula. So, we can't really make fun of a lot of their Halloween customs, as they are probably entirely fabricated to enchant the imaginations of dumb, garlic-wearing tourists asking directions to the nearest vampire district.
The list of traditions include: Lacing everything they eat with holy water and something called "holy basil," turning mugs upside down so that ghosts cannot hide in them (we do too, except replace "ghosts" with "dust"), burying a huge hunk of salt in the stables, pretending to talk to wolves, and scattering breadcrumbs on their lawn to distract spirits (spirits are very duck-like in nature).
Also, in Romania, it seems there is a tradition of waiting until nightfall, going into graveyards, and placing lit candles on the graves of loved ones. We have no idea why Romanians would want to interrupt the sweet peace of eternal slumber for their loved ones, but there it is.
Freaky Torch Parade
While Halloween is primarily an Anglo-Saxon tradition, the Sardinian tourism board is all over it in an attempt to capitalize on festival dollars. When your country doesn't have a lot of fun stuff to do, glomming on to Western traditions is a great way to get locals and tourists spending money. "But wait," you may be saying, "Sardinia has a rich cultural heritage and landscape, and you're kind of being a jerk." Rest assured, I am not making the claim that Sardinia is boring based on some ridiculous prejudice, my information comes straight from the Sardinia tourism board. Activities on their THREE day All-Saints festival in the town of Seui include:
- A demonstration of how soap is made
- An exhibit of home-made knives (this is part of the celebration for all three days, because the science of making prison shanks is a deep one)
- A "lethargy of customs" competition (I'm not sure what this means, but I'd never associate an exciting contest with the word "lethargy")
Lest you think all of the festivities are boring, let us link you to this article. It's in the native language of Sardinia, and does feature some Sardinian youths lighting giant bundles of sticks for a torchlight parade, in a ceremony that must be as exciting as it is dangerous.
Waiting for Ghost Attacks at Midnight
So, despite being closely geographically connected with the Celtic origins of Halloween, the U.K. does not have a big relationship with celebrating its modern traditions. Of course, I could have guessed that by the fact that Halloween isn't called something infantile and cutesy, like "ghosty-nighty," or "stubby tin wheelie bin." or whatever.
One place where the Brits (AND the rest of the U.K., I get that it's not all Britain) have the New World Yankees beat is in doing really creepy stuff. For instance, it is a Halloween tradition for British, at the stroke of midnight, to turn off all their lights and sit silently. We call this "sleeping," but apparently it's a U.K. way of summoning the spirits. It also sounds like a great way to encourage people to freak everyone out by breaking the silence with a blood-curdling scream.
In early 1900s America, Halloween night became a general night for teenagers to take to the streets in mobs and riot and vandalize everything.
The children-friendly traditions of modern Halloween celebrations have their roots in something much darker. But it's not satanism, it's the rampant practice of large groups of young 'uns terrorizing towns in packs.
As such, communities and newspapers came up with strategies to fight against this miniature version of The Purge. A lot of these ideas worked marvelously at curbing teenage debauchery. Parents and children would take to the streets and go door-to-door receiving candy, community centers and public schools that would hold chaperoned parties to attract teens that could otherwise be out rioting.
Apple Peel Fortune Telling
Oddly enough, one old-timey method of divination involves peeling an apple and tossing the peel onto the floor. Now, if we tried this, we could make a seemingly-psychic prediction that the result would be our death at the hands of the dozens of large, hungry rats which live within our walls. Nevertheless, it was once believed that a woman could peel an apple, toss that skin over her shoulder, and the peel would fall in such a way as to form the initials of their future husband. To us, this seems like a shameless way to market apples by capitalizing upon women's desire for love and the general illegibility of all cursive letters. But, to a woman in the 1850s, this was probably the only way to pass the time while the menfolk were out fraternizing at pubs, fighting in wars, and/or voting.
Soul Cakes for Prayer
In England during the Middle Ages, hard-working folk frequently encountered the same problem. Their dead relatives needed prayer to become at peace, or cross over into the afterlife, or maybe not rise up and create a zombie apocalypse. But ancient British folk were too busy working, plus being drunk 24/7 to deal with the pain of serfdom, plus rocking out to the minstrel version of Led Zeppelin. So they did what capitalistic-minded folks have done since the beginning of time, and got some poor people to do it.
In exchange for these prayers, the impoverished would receive something known as "soul cakes." Now, the main purpose of soul cakes was for them to be used as offerings to the dead on the eve of All-Saints Day. But some entreprenurial starving person realized that, for mysterious reasons, a lot of these soul cakes went unconsumed. So they began the practice of going door-to-door and offering to pray for dead relatives in exchange for these day-old soul cakes. Frankly, we would've tried to get the jump on all the other impoverished by dressing up as a ghoul on the eve of All Saints' Day, wandering into people's houses, and eating their soul cakes while making scary ghost noises and pocketing silverware when no one was looking.
Foreign Objects in Mashed Potatoes
If you're like me, you've had a loved one propose marriage by hiding a ring in some cooked potatoes, then experienced searing pain upon placing the overheated metal upon your finger. But in 18th Century Ireland, cooks liked to go beyond even this for a Halloween tradition we like to call, "putting a bunch of random junk in the mashed potatoes."
Traditionally, whomever found the ring in their mashed potatoes was supposed to be the "next one to be married." But cooks also put various other objects in their smashed spuds. A thimble was a common item inserted and we assume the recipient would be the "next one to sew a blanket." Also placed in the potatoes were coins, the recipient becoming the "next person to sue the cook for almost choking them to death."
Bloody Mary, Candyman, and Your Soul Mate
We've touched on how women from the past often loved to divine the identity of their soul mate. But, what we haven't mentioned is that the forecasting methods sometimes crossed over into the threshhold of "downright creepy." As everyone knows, Halloween is a holiday devoted to romance, which is why women for hundreds of years have sat in front of a mirror and tried to see the face of their future husband.
One popular method is conducted as follows: On Halloween, around midnight, light a candle next to a full length mirror. Turn around so your back is to the mirror, and hold up a hand mirror so you can see the reflection of the back of your head. Then brush your hair in front of your face with one hundred strokes. Then, in your reflected reflection, you should be able to see the horrifically disembodied, floating face of your dead future spouse, and can rejoice.
My wife tried this: After brushing her hair over her face for like ten minutes, she said she saw the reflection of Cousin Itt from the Addams Family. I am heartbroken.
Trapped Chinese Spirits
If Asian horror movies are any indication, a lot of ghosts have trouble moving from death into the afterlife, and are unreasonably angry about this. Take, for example, the Chinese spirits known as "pretas." Pretas are people who died as the result of drowning, or some other accident which results in their bodies not being buried.
Fortunately, freeing these spirits is a simple process which only has a few ridiculously convoluted steps. Start off by building a large model boat. Once that is finished, take the boat into a Buddhist temple on Halloween. Make sure this temple is familiar with the custom of pretas, otherwise you might cause a big scene with the next step, which is lighting your boat on fire. There's also some sacred verses that monks have to recite, and you may need to give an offering of fruit so bring plenty of that. Consult your local temple for a full set of rules and regulations.
It's a tragic fact that the leading cause of death in Germany is "getting slashed up by ghosts on Halloween." Hopefully, by adhering to tradition, this death rate can be tempered and heart disease can regain its rightful place at the top.
This is why it's a German tradition to hide all knives for Halloween. Some sources say that this is done to prevent any harm befalling the returning spirits. But who are we kidding here? They're already dead.
Mexico is second only to Egypt in terms of national love for all things dead. So it's no wonder that celebrating Halloween is a big deal for those south of the border (For you foreign readers, that's the American border. So we still mean Mexico.).
Parades are held, people pull out their favorite skeleton costumes, and much mirth is had. Now, skeletons at parades are not inherently creepy (unless it's like an anorexia awareness parade). What is unnerving is the coffin being paraded down the street bearing a live person. We're not sure if the person in the casket is supposed to pretend they are dead, or wave to the crowd, or toss poison candy, or what.
It's important to note that Day of the Dead festivies are not just celebrated in Mexico, but in many American border states as well. Otherwise, it would seem weird for us to link this badass Day of the Dead parade from Tuscon, Arizona.
Another ritual among traditional ghoul-fearing English cultures was lighting a bonfire to frighten away spirits. Now, ghouls have seen the horrors of death and, as such, a bonfire alone isn't really going to make their knees knock. So, English people would up their game by tossing nuts, vegetables, and stones into the blaze. This left me confused as to exactly how it was supposed to scare anyone, let alone ghastly apparitions. As I see it, the logic must have gone something like this, "if you throw a bunch of random stuff into a giant fire, ghouls will think you are crazy and will leave you alone."
This bonfire also led to some fun games, such as using the ashes to determine who was going to die, soon. If a stone thrown into the ash was not visible the next day, the person who threw it was going to die within a year. Probably from severe malnutrition because they were mistaking nuts and vegetables for stones.
That's it for our bewildering list of Halloween customs and traditions. Do you practice any intriguing rites or rituals on All Hallow's Eve you care to share?