Although Europeans might not celebrate Halloween with quite the pomp and circumstance that some other countries do (I’m looking at you, USA), what it lacks in enthusiasm it makes up for in history. Halloween has its origins in ancient Celtic harvest celebrations, and as such, many European countries have their own unique Halloween practices and traditions, some of which carry on to this very day.
Of course, that’s not to say European Halloween has remained uninfluenced by North American traditions – you’ll be hard-pressed to find a child anywhere in Europe who doesn’t see 31st October as an excuse to eat sweets, dress up and persuade their parents to let them trick-or-treat (I was never allowed and I’m still bitter). But, dig a little deeper, and traces of the holiday’s historical roots still remain, if you only hang up your sexy cat outfit and go out to take a look…
Here are just some of the places where Halloween has a fascinating history:
Ireland has a long history of celebrating Halloween, which stretches back all the way to its Pagan routes. Modern-day revellers might have swapped turnip jack-o’-lanterns for pumpkins, but many other Irish Halloween customs remain very much alive. Common games involve fortune-telling and bobbing for apples, nuts, fruit and coins. At lunchtime, people traditionally eat Colcannon – a mashed potato-based dish – served with a ring and thimble, or small coins, hidden inside as prizes for the person who finds it. Bonfires are also common, as are fireworks which, although illegal, are frequently smuggled in from Northern Ireland.
In the past, it wasn’t Halloween but ‘All Saints’ Day’ and ‘All Souls’ Day’ that were celebrated at this time. Families would stay up late together on All Souls’ Eve and eat ‘soul cakes’, then burn candles in silence at midnight to guide the ghosts of their loved ones home, where they’d find wine waiting for them. The tradition of giving people soul cakes – ‘souling’ is believed by some to be the origin of modern-day trick-or-treating, with the practice of children going door to door singing songs and saying prayers in exchange for cakes or coins going on until as late as the 1930s in some parts of England.
Spain has Halloween roots that go back far, thanks to the Irish Celts who migrated to Spain and brought their festivals with them. As in much of Latin America, Halloween in Spain is a three-day celebration that includes Dia De La Brujas (Witches Day), Dia De Los Santos (All Saints Day), and Dia De Los Muertos (Day of the Dead). If you’re in Spain at this time, expect to drink quemada – a slightly alcoholic mixture of sugar, orange peel, coffee and aguardiente.
As you might expect, Halloween in Romania is a very Dracula-focused affair. Actors recreate infamous witch trials in Dracula’s supposed birthplace, and a massive party takes place in Sighisoara AKA Vlad the Impaler’s citadel. Romanians also traditionally light candles in cemeteries to honour the memory of the dead on this day.
In Austria, Halloween doesn’t go on for a day but a week, with Catholics celebrating ‘Seleenwoche’ (All Souls’ Week) from 30th October to 8th November. During this time, respects are paid to the dead, and on Halloween night itself lamps are lit to guide lost spirits home to a table set with bread and water waiting for them.
In Germany, all knives must be put away on Halloween night, to prevent the living from hurting and dead and the dead from hurting the living. Germans also celebrate Martinstag on 11th November – traditionally a feast to mark the end of the harvest, it’s not the start of the infamous Christmas markets!
So, there you have it. Happy Halloween, ladies!