Home Halloween in the UK and Abroad

Halloween in the UK and Abroad

Posted by on October 31st, 2023.

Halloween background group of spooky pumpkin halloween design 3d illustration
Halloween as celebrated in the UK is an amalgamation of traditions from around the world. The occasion has many different interpretations: to some it is a festival of mourning while others know it as a superstitious holiday.

For many, the associations are with chocolate and sweets. In Britain, children in fancy dress go door-to-door begging for treats from their neighbours and threatening to play a ‘trick’ if left empty-handed. Few are familiar with the Celtic origins of Halloween; much less practice sacrificial rituals.

Samhain – Feralia / Pomona – All Hallows Eve

Samhain (SAH-win) is the Celtic iteration of Halloween: a festival to mark the end of harvest and beginning of winter. Many consider Samhain to be the original version of today’s Halloween celebrations.

Unlike today, however, Samhain was not typically upheld via spooky costumes and candy-collecting. Instead, Druids – or Celtic priests – built sacred bonfires, where people gathered to burn crops and offer animal sacrifices to their deities.

While Samhain never died out entirely – indeed, some people still celebrate it today – it was largely replaced during the rule of the Romans by the separate festivals of Feralia and Pomona. The former commemorated the passing of the dead, while the latter celebrated the goddess of fruit and trees – a clear nod to earlier harvest rituals.

As Christianity spread in Britain around the 6th century, the Catholic holiday of ‘All Martyrs Day’ soon outpaced the harvest celebrations that preceded it. ‘All Martyrs Day’ then became ‘All Souls Day’ in the year 837AD as Pope Gregory III requested saints be included. On all Souls Day, people were encouraged to dress up as saints, angels and devils for seasonal parades and bonfire gatherings.

‘All Souls’ is preceded by ‘All Saints Day’ in the Catholic calendar, on the first day of November. All Saints Day was also known as ‘All Hallows’ after Middle-English Alholowmesse, derived from the adjective ‘hallowed’ meaning holy or sanctified. The evening before the holiday became known as ‘All Hallows Eve’, which was subsequently contracted to ‘Hallow’een.’

Halloween traditions worldwide:

Different cultures around the world have different interpretations of Halloween, given each country’s historical belief systems.

The Halloween recognised by many is a version exported from Britain to America and repopularised with the addition of horror movie tropes. Nevertheless, distinct traditions differentiate the occasion from Austria to Mexico, keeping the spirit of ancient ritual alive.


German children are familiar with the practice of going door-to-door for festive treats, although for them the activity is associated with the Catholic holiday of St Martin’s Day. Halloween traditions, meanwhile, include carving Rübengeister – or ‘root monsters’ – from beetroots or turnips.

The former is similar to the British and American pumpkin carving tradition. In the United States, carved pumpkins are known as Jack-o’-Lanterns – a moniker for the now-redundant job of night watchman.

North America

Other US Halloween traditions vary by state. In Manhattan, a grand parade is held in which anyone wearing a spooky costume can participate – in true all-out fashion, giant animatronic puppets mingle with parade-goers.

Other states boast similar rituals and displays – South California hosts a more traditional harvest festival – while those with a more diverse population from all over the Americas hold events aligned with different cultures: in Houston, the Day of the Dead festival is the main event.

Portugal & Italy

In Southern Europe, Halloween is likewise associated with the passage of loved ones. Civilians may be given a day off to mourn, which is typically spent reciting prayers and tending to the graves of those who’ve passed away.

In a nod to the bounty of harvest time, Portugal holds chestnut festivals – or Magusto – whichborrow traditions from the coinciding All Saints or St Martin’s Day with people singing and playing practical jokes.

It is also customary for special foods to be prepared, including bone-shaped cookies flavoured with cloves or bean-shaped Fava dei Morti cakes. The fava bean holds a special significance, as ancient civilisations believed that the souls of the dead could be stowed within them.


Spanish Halloween traditions also revolve around festive food. As with Portugal, parts of Spain hold chestnut festivals featuring sweet potatoes, almond panellets and muscatel wine alongside the roasted nuts.

Again, mortality is a key theme; although unlike in the UK and US, death is treated with respect rather than horror. In the past, bell ringers would stay up all night, tolling in remembrance of those who have passed.

In the Galician region, pumpkin parties hearken back to vegetable-carving traditions elsewhere in the UK, Europe and the US. Meanwhile, the ritual of reciting a spell to protect against evil carries older spiritual associations not dissimilar to ancient British rites.

Czech Republic, Poland & Slovakia

In a similar vein, several Eastern European countries have their own superstitious rituals: in Slovakia and the Czech Republic, it’s customary to toast the dead with a cold glass of milk to cool the souls roasting in purgatory.

In Poland, meanwhile, houses and graves are scrubbed clean, doors left open and food and toiletries put out to welcome back the deceased as they revisit Earth for the historical Slavic holiday, Dzaidy.

Households in the Eastern European region also share Halloween traditions with those of Italy and Portugal, decorating the graves of loved ones with flowers and candles to show enduring remembrance and affection.

Celebrating Halloween

While some people find the idea of Halloween scary, threatening or even irreligious, to condemn the whole occasion is reductive and ignores the diversity of meanings and histories associated with the holiday.

This year, you might like to focus on an aspect of the occasion that resonates with your personal beliefs. Perhaps spookiness and spell casting aren’t for you – but cleaning the home and taking time to be mindful of departed relatives could easily become a valued and nourishing ritual for this time of year.

Moreover, as the days get shorter and the nights colder, it’s important to enjoy opportunities for togetherness and collective celebration. Without further ado, don your autumn garments – witch’s hat or not – and raise a glass to the spirit of Halloween and whatever that means to you.

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