Halloween in Spain and around the world

In October, when the first autumn leaves begin to fall, a peculiar mist spreads slowly through the globe. Wooden stairs produce a slightly different sound, almost as if someone was stepping on them; rainy days darken the windows; a solitary candle glimmers gloomily in an empty manor… Televisions screen old horror films, and the viewers curl up under a blanket, which seems to protect them from the monsters and spectres crawling in the dark.

No house in the world can escape this global phenomenon that has been given many names over the years, but is currently best known as Halloween. Nevertheless, traditions vary significantly depending on the country and culture we look at, and it is precisely that divergence on the way this event is celebrated in different places worldwide which we will discuss in the following lines. In short, we are about to explore how Halloween is celebrated in Spain and around the world.

Halloween in Spain: Noche de Difuntos and Día de Todos los Santos

The moon hidden behind some clouds and gloomy tree branches

Noche de Difuntos is a ghostly night in Spain. | Envato

Spanish Romantic author Gustavo Adolfo Bécquer wrote a short story called “El Monte de las Ánimas” (“The Spirits’ Mountain”) where he perfectly portrayed the gloomy atmosphere of Noche de Difuntos: the night of the 31 October. This spooky story paints a picture of dismal forests, mists, church bells piercing the silence of the night and spectral apparitions. The religious nuances of the Spanish Halloween become apparent in the text as well.

Unlike in other countries, Halloween takes up two days in Spain: Noche de Difuntos, or “The Night of the Dead”, also called Víspera de Todos los Santos, on the 31 October; and the Christian feast of Día de Todos los Santos (“All Saints’ Day”) on the first of November. This way, a night of horror and ghosts precedes a day where religious people attend mass and visit the graves of their loved ones. The most popular sweet on All Saints’ Day is the dessert known as huesos de santo.

Pumpkins of different shapes and colours on a table with autumn leaves

Samhain is a pagan festival celebrating the end of the harvest season, and the predecessor of Halloween. | Envato

The pagan roots of this event manifest in different traditions, and we can see that in the way it is celebrated in northern regions like Galicia. This land remains deeply connected to its ancient past and it has resisted, to a large extent, the influence of the North American customs, whose globalizing patterns tend to step over old regional and Celtic traditions. In Galicia, however, the way they experience this celebration is focused on nature and harvests, the main events being Noite dos Calacús (“The Night of the Pumpkins”) and the pagan festivals of Samhain.

In contrast, big cities like Madrid celebrate the 31 October through spectacular parties and shows. Bars and nightclubs embrace the influence of the US Halloween, brightly glowing in the dark of the night, blending colours and music in the most immersive amalgam. There are no few cultural events either, like the Horror and Fantasy Film Festival that takes place in Donostia-San Sebastián every year.

Día de los Muertos in Mexico, a colourful ode to the past

A pumpkin decorated with Mexican motifs with an orange background and flowers

The Mexican Día de los Muertos is beautifully unique. | Envato

In contrast to the Christian solemnity, in Mexico we will find a warm celebration of life and death. This perspective, which draws from indigenous sources, has nothing to do with the dark, gruesome connotations most of Western countries approach death with. Indeed, the Mexican Día de los Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, celebrates the annual return of the deceased, who visit the land of the living to meet with their friends and family for a day.

An altar of offerings with candles, food and flowers

An altar of offerings for the deceased. | Shutterstock

This is why Mexican families decorate the graves of their deceased relatives and bring them gifts, offerings and food. The streets flood with flowers, vibrant colours, bright makeup and music, for this is a time for gatherings and joy: a different way of acknowledging the gift of life, of celebrating it even when it comes to an end.

Halloween in the United States: films, skeletons and pumpkins

Children in Halloween costumes on a porch with pumpkins

Some kids in Halloween costumes. | Envato

No matter where we are from, the North American Halloween aesthetic is certainly present in our perception of this spooky celebration. It is so mostly due to the massive influence Hollywood productions have all over the world, which many countries end up mimicking. As we mentioned above, Spain is one of those countries that have incorporated elements of the US Halloween into its own traditions, particularly when it comes to big cities.

Frontyard of a house with Halloween decorations, like skeletons, graves and pumpkins

Frontyard of a house with Halloween decorations in the US. | Envato

In fact, trick-or-treating has become quite popular in Spain too. However, the Spanish name for this activity opens up a considerably peculiar debate, since it involves a faulty translation. In Spanish, “trick or treat” turns into “truco o trato”, which could be translated as “trick or deal”. The use of “trato” here does not make much sense, since it has nothing to do with the candy mentioned in the original expression. The deal could be the exchange of sweets, but this interpretation is still rather ambiguous. Cinema is to blame for this confusing expression, since it was first translated this way in films such as Tim Burton’s The Nightmare Before Christmas or E.T. by Steven Spielberg. “Trick or treat” became “truco o trato” to imitate the phonetic wordplay of the English expression, which makes sense in the context of dubbing, but not so much in real life. The Spanish language assimilated “truco o trato” and, whether this translation is faulty or not, it does provide an interesting anecdote for a dinner party.

Japan in Halloween, always a step ahead

Halloween decorations in a Japanese shop

Halloween decorations in Shinjuku, Japan. | Shutterstock

Celebrating Halloween is a serious matter in the United States, but Japan just takes it to the next level. Like always, this festivity arrived at the island of Japan as a gift from the United States. More specifically, it made a grand entrance when Tokyo Disneyland hosted its first Halloween event in the year 2000. The Japanese society, which has been strongly westernised in different areas, quickly embraced this new tradition.

People in costume celebrating Halloween in a nighclub in Japan

People in costume celebrating Halloween in Japan. | Shutterstock

For instance, Halloween created a new space for cosplay, a hobby that is considerably popular among Japanese people, consisting of dressing up as characters, mainly from anime, manga and videogames. It also led to arranging impressive artistic and technological exhibitions of all kinds. Nowadays, Japanese cities get dressed in the most eccentric costumes with astonishing settings for Halloween. For example, they perform a spectacular parade in Roppongi Hills, Tokyo, which eventually turns into a vibrant street party.

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