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Localising Halloween: spooky traditions from around the world

Dia de los Muertos, Halloween around the world, traditions and localisation

The season of Halloween is upon us again, with all the ghouls, pumpkins and mystery it entails. But is Halloween a global tradition? Does everyone celebrate it the same way, and does the festival even mean the same thing from one country to another?

These are all things you will need to know if you want your Halloween campaigns to hit the mark. Climb aboard the SwissGlobal ghost train for a tour of Halloween festivities all around the world.

Ireland and Samhain: where it all began

The modern concept of Halloween has its roots in the Celtic pagan festival of Samhain (pronounced ‘SAU-en’), held to usher in the ‘dark half of the year’. Celebrants believed that the barrier between the world of the living and the spirit world broke down at Samhain, allowing people to invite the spirits of their ancestors to join them for a meal known as ‘dumb supper’.

The tradition of carving Jack-o-lanterns also began in Ireland; they were originally carved from turnips packed with coal and suspended from strings, before being replaced by the pumpkins we see today. The mood was festive but also cautious: people would leave offerings outside villages to prevent faeries and other spirits kidnapping them.

Costumes, street parties and haunted trains: Halloween in Japan

Halloween is a recent trend in Japan, more or less launched by Tokyo Disneyland in 2000, but is taken very seriously nonetheless. The key to a successful Halloween in Japan is a good costume. People devote an enormous amount of time and effort to creating their Halloween outfit, and it does not even have to have a supernatural theme: although witches, wizards, devils and black cats are popular disguises, many people also dress as TV, anime or movie characters.

Street parties are also a good, inexpensive way to experience Halloween in Japan. One of the largest takes place in Shibuya, Tokyo, and the annual Halloween parade in Roppongi Hills always turns into a street party afterwards. Finally, Japan’s usually very sober trains are given a full facelift for Halloween and turn into party venues in their own right.

Sugar skulls and celebrations of life in Mexico

Unlike the Western Christian view of Halloween as something frightening and morbid, the Día de los Muertos or Day of the Dead in Mexico is seen as a joyous remembrance of loved ones and good times past.

The Mexican attitude to death can be traced back to the Aztecs, who believed that death was the start of a journey to Mictlan, the kingdom of the dead and the underworld, which had none of the Western religious connotations of heaven or hell. The elegant ‘skull lady’, or ‘la Calavera Catrina’ as she’s known locally, has become the signature image of the Día de los Muertos – and is now a popular costume and make-up choice for Halloween celebrations globally.

People honour their deceased relatives by building home altars called ofrendas and giving each other gifts such as sugar skulls (alfeñiques) and pan de muerto or ‘bread of the dead’, a sweet bread usually baked in the form of a grave or decorated with a skull and crossbones. Another tradition is for people to compose humorous ‘epitaphs’ for their living friends and acquaintances, in the same vein as our comedy ‘roasts’.

Ognissanti, or chrysanthemums, candles and chestnuts

In Italy, the atmosphere at Ognissanti, or the Day of the Dead, is somewhere between the pious commemorations of Ireland and the cheerful abandon of Mexico. People lay bouquets of chrysanthemums on the graves of their ancestors, as the flower, which blooms at the same time as the festival, has become synonymous with death and mourning in Italy.

A red candle or lumino is traditionally lit on the windowsill and a table is laid for the spirits of the deceased, who may visit and leave confetti and green beans for the children as proof that they are watching over them. On 1 November, everyone tucks into the first calderroste or roasted chestnuts of the year.

Pumpkins are, interestingly, also part of Ognissanti. In Lombardy, you are supposed to put a pumpkin filled with wine on your windowsill on 2 November. In Veneto, pumpkins are transformed into lumere lanterns. The custom in Orsara, Puglia, is to line the streets of the town with pumpkins, representing the souls of the departed who have returned to Earth, and to light bonfires to appease them. 

The importance of localisation in finding the right tone for your target market

This little cultural expedition has shown that Halloween is celebrated in almost as many different ways as there are different countries in the world. If you are planning a promotional campaign, product launch or other event based on a specific theme and want to know whether the theme is right for a particular market, SwissGlobal is here to help.

SwissGlobal offers both content localisation, to ensure you send the appropriate message for your target market, and SEO, so that the hottest trending keywords in your target market will appear in your materials and maximise your reach. Contact us today for a free, no-obligation quote for how we can work with you to make sure you are speaking your clients’ language – including culturally.