Halloween, also known as All Hallows Eve has long since been a big part of Western culture and tradition. Dozens of countries have celebrations on October 31st that include dressing up, trick-or-treating, Halloween candy, and carving pumpkins.
But some of these traditions have weirder and more sinister roots than you might think. Things like ‘Why do witches ride broomsticks?’ or ‘How did Halloween become so big in America?’ The bizarre answers make these fun Halloween facts seem even spookier.
Samhain and Nos Calan Gaeaf: The Origins of Halloween
In ancient Britain, where the Celts originated, a festival was held on October 31st. This signalled the end of harvest season and the beginning of the ‘darker half’ of the year on November 1st, known as All Saints Day.
In Ireland, this was known as ‘Samhain’ and in Wales ‘Nos Calan Gaeaf’. When the Romans marched in and took over, they assimilated the two festivals into a new tradition. It was their way of appealing to the locals, while also removing their belief system and instilling their own. It also made for a spooky Halloween for future generations…
The fear of Halloween is called Samhainophobia
The term ‘Samhainophobia’ is derived from the Gaelic roots of Halloween and the Irish festival of ‘Samhain’. People who suffer from Samhainophobia are usually anxious on and around October 31st.
The Welsh Predicted Who Would Die on Halloween
Fun fact: One of the old Welsh traditions during ‘Nos Calan Gaeaf’ was to write your name on a stone and throw it into the fire. When the fire burnt out the ashes were inspected and the stones collected.
If your stone was missing it was believed to be an omen that you would die in the next 12 months. No one mentions what happens if you simply don’t participate though. It’s possible Stingy Jack comes for you anyway…
Halloween Around the World: 5 Countries’ Traditions
Halloween in UK & Ireland
As boring as it may sound, Halloween night in the UK and Ireland isn’t much different from in the States. Although their Halloween celebrations are notably much more low-key. There are far fewer big parties, festivals, and events around Halloween in the UK, and many adults don’t celebrate the holiday at all.
However, given Halloween’s roots, there are still some spooky traditions and ideas around Halloween that come specifically from British culture. Like bobbing for apples, wearing DIY Halloween costumes, and trick-or-treating.
Halloween in Mexico
Halloween festivities in Mexico are mainly for children. The much bigger and more culturally significant festival of Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) occurs 2 days later on 2nd November.
Typically associated with Halloween, Day of the Dead is actually a totally different tradition, steeped in thousands of years of history. It’s believed that on the Day of the Dead the living are reunited with family and friends who have passed.
Halloween in China
As Halloween is a Western tradition, many Asian countries don’t celebrate the festival, or do so on a miniscule basis. Although its popularity has increased in recent years with the influence and influx of Western culture.
In China, however, the festival held on the seventh month of the Chinese calendar bears a staringly close resemblance to Halloween.
Known as the Hungry Ghost Festival, Zhongyuan Festival, or Yulanpen Festival, it is believed that during the seventh month, ghosts of lost souls are free to roam the world as they wish. The living pay tribute to these ghosts, and offer food and drink. On the day of the Hungry Ghost Festival, a huge feast is arranged, and lanterns are lit to guide the spirits to the afterlife.
Halloween in Russia
Halloween in Russia is not officially sanctioned or recognized. But in the 1990s there was an increased interest in American culture that meant younger generations like to celebrate. They will often dress up in Halloween costumes and have parties, despite restrictions.
Russia follows the strict teachings of the Orthodox Church, meaning Halloween is generally frowned upon. This became even stricter in 2019 when lawmaker Vitaly Milonov linked Halloween to occult activity and tried to ban it, calling it an illegal holiday.
Halloween in Saudi Arabia
In 2021, for the very first time, Saudi Arabia publicly celebrated Halloween. The Crown Prince, Mohammed Bin Salman, allowed people to celebrate the festival as part of his attempt to modernize Saudi Arabia.
Although it wasn’t popular with all citizens, thousands came out in spooktacular outfits, really embracing what modern day Halloween celebration is all about.
Witches flying ointment
Witches have long since been associated with Halloween, as are their broomsticks, pointy hats and black cats. But why it’s believed witches could fly is one of the weirdest Halloween facts all on its own…
The story comes from the use of something called “witches flying ointment”, a drug used in the medieval and early modern period to get high.
The witches’ flying ointment had strong hallucinogenic properties and would make the user feel as though they were flying through the air. That is if the witch trials or highly toxic plants used in the ointment didn’t kill them first.
Texts from the period describe women who had used the ointment as “going on a journey”. Nowadays we just call it a trip.
While this just sounds like a historical hallucinogen, its association with broomsticks has a far more nefarious origin. Some believe that the best way to feel the effects of the drug is to absorb it quickly through areas such as the mucus membrane…
Soon, people believed women would rub ointment on broomsticks and sit astride them sans underwear to absorb the ointment. And so, the name ‘witches flying ointment’ was born.
The Impact of the Irish Potato Famine
What was truly awful luck for the Irish, led to Halloween becoming one of America’s biggest and most beloved holidays. Originally a British festival, but now seen world-over as an American tradition; the popularity of Halloween might not have spread without the Irish Potato Famine.
In the 1840s, Ireland was struck with a blight that infected their crops (and those across Europe) causing starvation, disease and death that numbered in the tens of thousands. During this period millions of people fled the country, with a large number heading straight to North America, bringing Halloween and its traditions with them.
The World’s Largest Pumpkin
Of all the root vegetables, the one you’re most likely to see on Halloween is unquestionably the bright orange, grinning face of the pumpkin Jack o’lantern. Long before pumpkin carving, however, people would carve turnips or swedes with the unsettling smiles, placing a candle inside.
These all fell out of favor in place of the pumpkin. Although it took a lot longer for the fervor of pumpkin-spice-everything to take hold. Nevertheless, a time-honored Halloween tradition is an annual attempt to grow the world’s largest pumpkin. In 2023, Travis Gienger beat the previous pumpkin growing world record held by Stefano Cutrupi of Italy; with his vegetable reaching a huge and hefty 2,749 pounds.
Imagine the grin on that Jack o’lantern.