If you’re a U.S. resident, you’ll notice that Halloween traditions in Europe are extremely different than the ones celebrated stateside. Head to any suburb in America, and you’ll find little ghosts, goblins and witches (and these days plenty of commercial cartoon characters) running from porch to porch in search of sugary treats.
While American Halloween is becoming increasingly popular overseas, a traditional Halloween in Europe also features a few traditions that transcend the mania over those mini candy bars. They range from culturally intriguing to downright spooky. If you happen to be lucky enough to experience Halloween in Europe, we recommend asking around about a few of these celebrations.
All Hallow’s Eve/Samhain in the UK
Before there was Halloween, there was All Hallow’s Eve. Many historians hypothesize that modern-day Halloween is deeply rooted in Samhain, a Celtic harvest festival celebrated by the pagans.
It’s widely believed that when the Christians converted the pagans, the old celebrations were loosely adapted to fit the new holidays. Thus, All Hallow’s Eve falls on the same day as the celebration of the old harvest festival.
And modern-day Halloween happens the day before.
These days, you’ll find the festivities in the UK are a bit mellow compared to those of the pagans (or Americans, for that matter). In fact, there are plenty of Brits that don’t celebrate Halloween at all. And if they do, it’s a tamer version of the one celebrated in the U.S.
Another popular holiday that piggybacks Halloween is Guy Fawkes Night. Historically, this holiday commemorated a failed plot to assassinate King James I. These days, you’ll find residents celebrating with fireworks and hoisting a scarecrow (representing the king’s would-be assassin) into a bonfire.
Germanic Halloween Traditions
Things don’t get any less interesting the further east you travel. Head to Germany, Sweden or Austria if you really want to see the darker side of All Hallow’s Eve.
Here, little ones participate in an activity similar to pumpkin carving: root vegetable carving. Many children carve faces into root vegetables (such as turnips) to keep the demons at bay. In Austria, families light a candle that burns all night to ward away evil spirits (similar to lighting a candle in a jack-o-lantern).
In Germany, a much larger holiday is celebrated just after Halloween: St. Martin’s Day. Historically, children would spend the day caroling and collecting handouts from wealthy estates to help tide their families over until work resumed on farms in the spring. These days, children still walk from house to house, asking for treats (which is where America’s Halloween ‘trick-or-treating’ may have originated from).
Protestants in Germany celebrate Martin Luther’s birthday around this time. Not to be confused with Martin Luther King, Jr., Martin Luther was a theologian, priest and monk who rejected many of the teachings of Catholicism. His birthday is observed by protestants in Germany.
Traditions in Eastern Europe
Just as in most of the world outside of America, it’s all about Halloween’s religious cousin All Saints Day in Eastern Europe.
The good news is that one night of debauchery is exchanged for an entire week of celebrations here.
Starting on November 1, families begin decorating the graves of the dearly departed. They string lights on tombs and illuminate graves with lights and candles. Essentially, graveyards become a magical world of fairy lights for the first week of November in Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.
While this one isn’t based on Halloween, it does have its roots in a festival called Dzaidy, where locals would light the graveyards on fire to offer their loved ones warmth as they wandered through our world for a few days. The word Dzaidy translates directly into English as ‘Grandfathers’ and generally means ‘Forefathers Day.’
Deceased family members also wander into homes of loved ones, so residents place chairs along streets and near fireplaces.
The entire week is all about remembrance and connecting, so any type of work is heavily discouraged.
Halloween Traditions in the Iberian Peninsula
Spain and Portugal have their own Halloween traditions.
If you head to Spain on Halloween, you’ll find a tradition similar to the more famous Dia de Muertos in Mexico. Spain celebrates three crazy days of honoring the dead. The first day is Day of the Witches; the second, All Saints Day and the third is Day of the Dead.
Just as they do in Latin America, Spanish citizens head to bakeries before honoring their dead. In Spain, you’ll find cylindrical, skeletal cookies that represent saints’ bones on and before All Saints Day.
In Portugal, you’ll find similar (albeit quieter) ceremonies honoring the dead and the saints. The younger Portuguese generations celebrate an American-style Halloween on October 31 and then All Saints Day and Day of the Dead in the days following.
If you’re traveling to northern Spain, you’ll find some Gaelic traditions still alive and well. On October 31, you might forget you’re not in the states. Kids run around in costumes, trick-or-treating while adults attend costume parties. Officially known as ‘Night of the Pumpkins,’ you’ll also find the titular pumpkin carvings all around towns.
Halloween Traditions in the Mediterranean
You might find a few festivities if you head to Greece in October. But most of the traditions aren’t traditional in Greece at all. They stem from other countries’ Halloween celebrations. If you want to party down with Athenians, you’ll need to head here for Apokries, a celebration that has more in common with Carnival than Halloween.
In February, locals dress up in costumes before hitting the streets —one last party before the restriction of lent.
Similarly, American Halloween has made its way to Croatia’s larger cities, including Zagreb. You won’t find many trick-or-treaters, but you will find adults heading to parties, dressed up as zombies and ghouls.
Many French families have begun dressing up for Halloween and trick-or-treating. Yet, the more religious ceremonies still reign supreme here.
Instead, the French observe the more widely celebrated La Toussaint and Fête des Morts (All Saints Day and Day of the Dead, respectively).
Italy’s Halloween celebrations are more closely related to Spain’s. Sicilians have their own version of saint bone cookies. Italians all over the boot buy and sell fava di morte—or, beans of the dead—which aren’t beans at all. They’re cookies.
Like in most of Europe, Italians celebrate All Saints Day (Tutti I Santi) and their own versions of Day of the Dead.
If you really want to go all out in Italy, head to Venice, where you can see the Show of Mystery. Medieval towns, such as Corinaldo, host their own spooky celebrations. Night of the Witches features festivities that include a witch beauty pageant, music and dancing. This is also the perfect time to take a tour of the catacombs or cemeteries in Italy.
In Rome, men surprise women with engagement rings hidden in cookies and cakes.
For more seasonal jetsetting inspiration, read up on these nine fall festivals worth traveling for.