28/10/2013 12:59 GMT | Updated 23/01/2014 18:58 GMT

A (Trick or Treat) Free Guide to Halloween

There are a few places where ancient earth traditions hold true. Some countries have new traditions that aren't more sickening than a full bag of jelly Smurfs. There are certain rituals that are just plain worrying - in Brittany, children light candles in skulls to soothe restless spirits.


credit: Jeff Gerhardt

Halloween. Where do you stand on it? Are you enthusiastically cackling at every ring of the doorbell, carved pumpkin lantern on the porch, welcoming all comers to your vast selection of Haribo's finest? Or are you of a more cynical mind: pointing out that a rasher of bacon does not a convincing Lady Gaga make and refusing demands for cash?

No doubt these are more weary times and you'll be lucky to find a pumpkin amongst all the Christmas tinsel and tat by 31 October. The days when Scots wouldn't put a gummy bear your way if you didn't 'give us a tune' are almost gone (a Glaswegian friend of mine claims to have killed this tradition with years of enthusiastic hymn singing). And adult Halloween Parties are best left to deluded celebs rocking the wholly questionable 'sleazy mermaid' look.

There are a few places where ancient earth traditions hold true. Some countries have new traditions that aren't more sickening than a full bag of jelly Smurfs. There are certain rituals that are just plain worrying - in Brittany, children light candles in skulls to soothe restless spirits (Bretons are worried about restless spirits when their children have access to a supply of skulls, really?)


credit: Ampersand72

A chunk of the world acknowledges Christian traditions with grave cleaning, feasts and quite a few chrysanthemums. And, let's be honest, there is still nothing wrong with a couple of cutely disguised five year olds traipsing round to the neighbours for a rousing chorus of whatever the Wiggles are torturing us with these days.

So if you're stuck for some ideas this All Hallows Eve, something wicked this way comes...

Ireland lays claim to the origins of Halloween, hijacked by the US and then exported back to Europe by way of Trick or Treat, pumpkin patches and piles of candy. But it could just as easily have been attributed to the Scots or a few skull-hoarding Bretons, they're all Celts and they love a bit of brooding and restless souls.


credit: James Wheeler

Back in the day, Irish Halloween was a chance to stoke up your bonfire with exploding bones and run around with burning embers clutched in your hands. The Scots liked torchlight processions, ceremonial sacrifices and some wading around in the sea. Nowadays both countries are a lot more sedate in their pursuits. Traditionalists insist on sticking with a hollowed out turnip instead of a pumpkin. You go 'guising' not trick or treating. And if you're invited to a Halloween party in either Scotland or Ireland, be prepared to get wet. Dookin' for Apples isn't done with a fork, it's full face in a big bowl of freezing water and whatever fruit you bite you can keep.

Staying with parties, if you're in and around London and you want something ghastly to delight your guests on the 31st, check out Miss Cakehead's Extreme Pop-Up Cake Shop (www.evilcakehead.com). It's all pretty gruesome stuff. But hey, it's a Halloween party and someone's going to turn up in their underwear - by comparison a six foot edible eyeball or partly decomposed hand sounds fairly appealing.


credit: Miss Cakehead

Anywhere in the world where Halloween is celebrated there's some ritual involving offerings to the dead or placating of spirits. The mild peoples of Belgium simply light candles as tributes to dead relatives on Halloween night. In more rural parts of the Czech Republic, it's traditional to place a chair by the fire for each living family member and one for each departed (not quite the Breton skulls, but getting there). In France they don't technically celebrate Halloween - efforts are concentrated on the big fetes for All Saints Day and All Souls Day. But it's a fair bet that the French will be spending the 31st getting ready to spruce up graves and commandeer the world's supply of chrysanthemums to decorate them.

The Germans are a lot more practical when it comes to dealing with restless All Hallows Eve souls. No offerings or chairs or flowers for them. They simply lock up their knives on the 31st and take to bed, safe in the knowledge that if evil spirits (or creepy clowns) are wandering, they've a limited choice of weaponry.


credit: Alyssa L. Miller

But, if you're looking for an all-out, honour-your-ancestors, feast-like-fury and dress-up-like-you-mean-it Halloween fiesta then of course it has to be Mexico and El Dia de los Muertos.


credit: ovejanegra

Starting on Halloween night and continuing through All Saints Day and All Souls Day, El Dia de los Muertos is a three day celebration. It's joyous and energetic and colourful and technically honours the dead while having a great big party for them. Chrysanthemums are all very well, but in Mexico your ancestors' graves are basically a hang-out spot to share happy stories, have a picnic, plenty to drink and a general good old time. There are parades and parties, people dress up as skeletons and children are at the heart of everything. Give me El Dia de los Muertos over Celtic gloom any day.


credit: Ruben Nitsche

So whether you're carving pumpkins till your fingers bleed, or just ignoring the whole lot and hoping it goes away, have a happy Halloween wherever you are, remember to lock up your knives just in case and under no circumstances send anyone who's still alive a bunch of chrysanthemums.