European Halloween traditions and festivals

Ever wonder how European Halloween is celebrated? I do! For this reason, I decided to feature quirky European Halloween traditions and festivals for this week’s Cultural Tidbits Monday post.

European Halloween poster

Halloween poster by Giovanni, Flickr

Learn more: Halloween origins, myths debunked

European Halloween traditions are not even a mix of the original neopagan, Roman and/or Celtic celebrations anymore. If any practical rites take place at all, none of them have any ties to the aforementioned backgrounds. Moreover, certain studies affirm that the holiday is simply an American import nowadays, emphasizing hyper-consumerism, particularly in middle Europe (Wikipedia). It all depends where you go, though! Some places turn spooky — while others simply get sexier. How so? Let’s take a look at some Halloween traditions in European countries I have visited:

Austrian Halloween traditions

Many European Halloween traditions involve rituals in order to call dead souls back. In Austria, a lamp is lit up, bread and water are left on the table on Halloween night to welcome these spirits. In fact, many Catholic Austrians remember the dead for an entire week period between October 30th and November 8th. This “holiday” is known as Seleenwoche (All Souls’ Week).

European Halloween traditions, Austria

Halloween flyer in Vienna (nozoomii, Flickr)

English Halloween traditions

The origin of American trick-or-treating traces back to one of the oldest English Halloween traditions. On All Saints Day eve (October 31st), small soul cakes are baked and given away. Families gather and stay up late, burning candles in all rooms of the house to guide souls and even glasses of wine to refresh them (Wiki). This tradition was called souling, and children not only went door-by-door for cakes, but they also had to sing songs and even prayers to the dead in order to receive them.

European Halloween, soul cakes

“Soul cakes for Samhain” (Samantha, Flickr)

German Halloween traditions

Some may call it a superstition, but it is a German Halloween tradition to put all knives away on the night of October 31st. It is done to prevent the living from hurting the spirits (and vice-versa!). On the other hand, while kids don’t usually go trick-or-treating, Halloween parties are common. Costumes and decorations are imported from the USA.

Now comes the real German tradition: Martinstag. While it is celebrated on November 11th instead, it was still much like Samhain: Feast marking the end of the harvest season. Nowadays though, it marks the start of Christmas shopping (and markets!) and it commemorates “Sankt Martin (c. 317-397), Bishop of Tours, one of the most revered European saints” (German.about.com).

Stankt Martin, German Halloween equivalent

“St. Martins Day in Halle (Saale)” (gynti_46, Flickr)

Icelandic Halloween traditions

Halloween in Iceland is not that popular (as of 2012 at least!). You may find the odd expats or locals dressing in costumes, trick-or-treating or using the day as another excuse to party. However, they do not comprise the majority.

The Icelandic do have a similar tradition, though, held on Ash Wednesday. Kids have the day off from school, go out singing and even dress up (but not like witches or vampires) in exchange of candy (Iceland Review).

Italian Halloween traditions

Interestingly, the Catholic Church was pretty successful at purging most Italian Halloween traditions and pagan feasts in the 17th century. Yet, many customs came flooding back from the USA in the 90’s. American pop culture and TV shows such as The Simpsons are to blame for the rekindling of costumes, decorations, and traditions. Personally, I think we can blame the New World for most European Halloween traditions nowadays. Just go to a US online costumes store and see how many international shoppers try to ship costumes this month!

Spanish Halloween traditions

Irish Celts migrated to Spain, taking their customs with them. For this reason, Spanish Halloween has strong Samhain roots. Celebrations in the Iberian peninsula are somewhat different from other European Halloween traditions, though.

Like in most of Latin America, Spanish Halloween traditions are celebrated throughout a 3-day period in October & November. It all starts with Dia De Las Brujas (Witches Day) on October 31st, followed by Dia De Los Santos (All Saints Day) on November 1st, and culminating with Dia De Los Muertos (literally meaning “Day of the Dead,” but known as All Souls Day) November 3rd. The most popular custom on Halloween Day is to drink quemada: A mixture of aguardiente, unground coffee, orange peels or lemon rind, and sugar (Culturaldevices.blogspot.com).

European Halloween, Spanish quemada

“The original [Spanish] queimada only contained lemon rind, coffee grains and between 100 and 120 grams of sugar per litre of alcohol. In some areas of Galicia, the traditional way of preparing the queimada is within a pumpkin, which is cut at the top and the insides are scooped out. The queimada acquires the taste of the pumpkin, which can be very tasty. ” (Culturaldevices.blogspot.com)

Switzerland Halloween traditions

As a local website accepted, Halloween has “crept” into Swiss culture. Kids dress up, go trick-or-treating, and even carve pumpkins. What many are not aware of, though, is that Switzerland has a long-time history with the fruit.

Pumpkin lanterns were “like batteries supplying energy […] So to have a pumpkin in your house gave you this energy,” says Sergius Golowin, a writer from Bern (Swissinfo.ch). Also, according to folklore, the strong winds in the Swiss valleys during this season are thought to be “ghostly processions” — the traveling spirits of the dead.

Halloween in Switzerland

Halloween painting on a building in the old town of Lucerne, Switzerland (kara brugman, Flickr)

Conclusion? Even though Halloween originated in Europe (Ireland, to be exact), many of the festivities are not celebrated in most countries of the Old World. If costume parties and decorations are found, they are typically American imports. It is more likely to find an analogous festival or celebration (in which Europeans go trick-or-treating) on a different day of the year.

Know of any other quirky European Halloween traditions? Share!

36 thoughts on “European Halloween traditions and festivals

  1. I perfectly agree! In Romania, where I come from, Halloween was not celebrated at all until a few years ago, when it became a sort of commercial holiday. Ever since, supermarkets started to fill the shelves with plenty of decorations and the clubs started to organize costume parties. Besides that, Halloween doesn’t mean anything in Romania. Oh, I forgot about the Bran Castle. It looks like people still believe that Dracula has its roots here:).
    Good post!

    • very interesting about Romania, Miruna! Thanks for telling us about the Halloween “traditions” (or lack thereof) in your country 😉 cheers!

  2. Wow, such a fascinating post! I find it so ironic that the catholic church tried to purge all the pagan rituals since most catholic holidays directly connect to traditional pagan celebrations. Dia de los Muertos is my favorite. I usually do an alter with lots of sugar skulls.

  3. Those Austrian cakes look goooood! I’ll have to report back on how it’s celebrated here in Korea. My students tell me they are going to dress up, but I don’t think trick-or-treating is a big tradition.

    • you mean the soul cakes? Me not big fan of them… Unless they are stuffed with chocolate and/or nuts, then… then…!

      and please do report back about the Korean Halloween–I’m interested! I actually just applied for a marketing manager position over there last month (!), so trying to learn as much as I can about their culture. Not that I’m getting the gig or anything just yet (they are still reviewing applications) but still! 😛

    • I would like to hear more about the Halloweens you’ve spent in Europe. Did I leave any “traditions” out?

  4. Maybe if some Aussies read this post they’ll finally stop bitching that Halloween is too ‘American’! Good job!

  5. I LOVE Halloween and have been wondering which places celebrate here in Europe! I think Prague would be awesome if it “adopted” our Halloween traditions!

    • I’m sure there will be some Halloween parties held inside of castle-like clubs in Prague! 😉

    • indeed. Although I used to think European Halloween came from Austria or Italy for some odd odd reason (haha)

  6. What an interesting post! I never really thought of how Halloween is celebrated in Europe since it seemed so America centric with all the costumes and trick or treating. We didn’t have any of this growing up in the Philippines which was similar to Spain’s customes. That building in Lucerne is too cool!

    • yeah, the only reason we celebrated it in Puerto Rico growing up is because in addition to our Spanish heritage, we’ve been a U.S. territory for more than 50 years.

      ah, I love history! 😀

  7. I am very impressed. Good research, great pics. Australia is not big on Halloween. In recent years it has taken on the American customs. Some people partake, but not all. The shops have taken it on – more sales, more money making.

    • thanks for appreciating my hard work! It did take me some time to confirm my observations and findings 😉

      it is surprising how Halloween wasn’t really popular as we know it today around the world until American exports reached those countries — quite recently! I thought other countries have been celebrating Halloween this way for many years, but is just starting to catch up globally

  8. This was very interesting about the American Halloween has kind of crept into different European countries. I just wish that Halloween wasn’t so overly-promoted in the stores here in the U.S. It starts way too early. Fun post!

    • *every* holiday is overly-promoted in the US, let’s be honest here haha 😉 😛

  9. Very interesting, Maria. Most of these traditons are new to me. I laughed when I read that the Germans hide their knives.

    When I was a kid in Canada all we worried about was how much candy we would get, and where to find the best treats!

    • oh, it’s a Puerto Rican thing, too, to worry about how much candy we get and which house gives away the best treats! 😉

      the German tradition of hiding the knives made me laugh, too. So superstitious, so funny

  10. Very interesting! In Malaysia, I get the feeling that Halloween is only celebrated by the American expats and their friends, not the locals. There’s a Halloween candy display at the expat grocery store (super expensive compared to the US), and a few costumes available. One mall will have trick-or-treating. A group of friends and I are planning to do trick-or-treating at our condo buildings, but we have to plan ahead for which homes are willing to have us stop by.

    • just go door by door and see what happens. Who knows, perhaps some Malaysians will be introduced to the idea of trick-or-treating and you’ll be responsible for making it popular there! 😉

    • dressing up is fun!

      I must admit though, what I most look forward to this season is the pumping-spice-flavored EVERYTHING 😀

  11. Very cool post! Here in France, Halloween really isn’t a big deal at all aside from some junky masks in the supermarket. I really miss pumpkin picking and haunted houses. Maybe one day…

    • that is pretty much the case all over Europe, Diane: Halloween isn’t really a big deal. Although it is catching up quite rapidly, “thanks” to American imports.

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