A Thriller Flashmob in St. Petersburg Russia, 2010. While the holiday has made inroads, especially amoung younger people, it remains a controversial, niche holiday in Eastern Europe.

Russian MiniLessons: Halloween as a Cultural Rift

Published: October 4, 2012

The following bilingual text is meant to help you build your vocabulary by providing Russian phrases within English text. Hover over the bold Russian to reveal its English translation.

One of the most interesting things about learning more about other cultures is the opportunity to learn more about your own.

Every culture is different, and what is acceptable or even fun in one culture can seem вульгарный and оскорбительный in another. The ideas behind these cultural differences are often very difficult to translate, and instead of explaining something using one word, you must often explain the history or theory behind a concept to make it more understandable. For example, Хэллоуин is a widely popular holiday in the United States, and is becoming more well-known around the world. In Russia, however, it is still looked on with some скептицизм, if not отвращение, as it is seen as a прославление смерти and thus possibly even сатанинский. When explaining America’s observance of Halloween to Russians, it’s often helpful to углубиться в историю or провести сравнение with similar holidays in other countries. This may make the holiday seem less strange and offensive, or at least more understandable.

Halloween in the United States is also known as Канун Дня всех Святых, and “Halloween” is actually a сокращение of that name. It occurs the night before День всех Святых, also called “All Hallows Day.” The грустный Catholic holiday of All Hallows Day is a time for вспомнить, чествовать, and молиться за those who had recently been received in небеса. All Hallow’s Eve, however, became a time for remembering all those who had died, whether or not they had attained entrance to heaven; it was thought that prayers and remembrance could помочь заблудшим душам пройти через чистилище. In some areas, it was believed that the неуспокоенные души бродят по земле and needed similar help in their переход в духовный мир.

Halloween is a порог. The threshold is a важнейшая concept in many cultures and фольклор, including Russian and represents a time or place where there are расплывчатые границы between two things that are thought to be separate, thus allowing a way to pass between them. Russian folklore, for instance, contains many stories and beliefs about bridges, которые служат как места перехода между двумя континентами – carrying a bride across a bridge is still a rite of passage for newlywed Russian men, although the tradition has deep roots. The hour of midnight and the break of dawn are оба примера перехода из одного временного измерения в другое, and оба времени невероятной силы в фольклоре многих стран, including Russian. Halloween was seen as a threshold in which the barrier between the physical and spiritual worlds размыт, when actions on earth could affect events in чистилище and assist loved ones who were suffering.

Thus, the day was spent praying by могилы and at special church services. At night, prayers would be held at the local charnel house – a special place for keeping the останки of those not yet buried or too poor to be buried. However, thresholds, while offering significant power that can be used for good, can also be very dangerous – for if earthly actions can повлиять на events in purgatory, then purgatory can also affect events on earth. Thus, it was generally considered dangerous to go out late at night on this day.

Elements of карнавал entered Halloween likely in the sixteenth century in Scotland and Ireland after Queen Elizabeth, then Head of the Church of England, запретила All Hallows Eve in her kingdom. Carnival is also a concept held in many cultures – a time of увеселения, often with переодевания, and a time when можно подвергать сомнению авторитеты, both светские and духовные. Sociologists theorize that such times allow “venting” in society and thus actually contribute to overall stability. Scotland and Ireland were particularly attached to Halloween traditions, which had been merged with those of ancient Celtic holiday called “Samhain.” Samhain involved cleansing rituals and acts of thanksgiving for the recent harvest and for the food that had been consumed that year and took place on the same day as Halloween. After Elizabeth’s ban, the peoples of Scotland and Ireland responded by making their celebrations even larger, and sometimes using it as time to наносить ущерб as акты протеста or in the context of merriment.

Many of the traditions of Halloween also have исторические корни. Trick-or-treating, for instance, comes from the tradition that on feast days, which All Hallows Eve and All Hallows Day are in Anglican and Catholic traditions, the needy could pass от дома к дому asking to taste the щедрое угощение that lay on the tables inside. As another example, the jack-o-lantern, although today traditionally carved from a pumpkin and left on the doorstep or in a window, was originally carved from an easier-to-carry репа and was used by those who had to go outdoors on All Hallows Eve to light their way and protect them from any spirits that may be in the area. In both cases, the process involved извлечение мякоти of the vegetable, вырезание лица into the outside, and placing a candle inside so that the light glows out through the carved face. Костюмы использовались for a similar purpose: so that spirits might think the person to be a spirit and allow the person to pass нетронутый. Of course, costumes also came to be used so that humans might think that a mischief maker was, in fact, a spirit.

Samhain and Halloween both occur as winter is setting in and after сбора урожая. Both are связанные со смертью. Both are also generally understood by those who currently celebrate them to be признание of the powerful and natural force of death as a part of the более широкого процесса жизни.

While Halloween, as it is now celebrated in America, is connected with traditions that began in Great Britain, similar holidays are celebrated in other cultures. День мертвых is very similar in some aspects to Halloween and is very popular in countries like Mexico, Spain, and Brazil (where Catholicism is the dominant religion). День мертвых is celebrated on November 1 and 2, and is a государственный праздник, so all banks and government offices are closed.

Like Halloween, День мертвых is associated with All Saints’ Day, and serves to honor and remember the dead. Families собираются вместе to молиться за умерших родственников. Sometimes they leave small gifts, or even the departed’s favorite food on a small alter or at the могила to honor the deceased relative. Some cities have large шествия and celebrations during the day, which, like Halloween, often involve disguises and decorations representing монстры, смерть, and скелеты.

Those who celebrate Halloween in Great Britain and America usually associated it more with увеселение than anything else. However, traditions of acknowledging and, in some ways, храбриться по поводу того, чего мы боимся remain. In the US, many celebrate Halloween by gathering friends to watch страшные фильмы. Visiting haunted houses, where actors will portray scenes or personages of horror, is also popular, as are кукурузные лабиринты. These лабиринты are carved from parts of не убранные поля and challenge the visitor to найти дорогу оттуда, often with actors roaming within them to add to the Halloween atmosphere by scaring (or helping) the participants along. Many other traditions, like hay rides, where participants ride on beds of свежее сено, often pulled by a tractor, also восходит к сельскохозяйственные традиции.

While it is becoming rarer today as communities in the US become less permanent and neighbors often don’t know each other well, children also sometimes still go от двери к двери saying “trick or treat!” to receive candy. It is more common now for костюмированные вечеринки to be held, in which children receive candy and prizes, often by participating in various games. For example, bobbing for apples is an ancient game that likely originated with Celts, who made apples part of their Samhain celebrations. In this game, apples are placed in a ванну с водой and the participant must вытащить яблоко с помощью только зубов. To protect costumes, a version of this game is often played where apples are hung from strings and must be bitten using only the teeth with no assistance from the hands.

Costumes today include not only scary costumes such as ведьмы, монстры, зомби, привидения, скелеты, страшные маски or разрисованное лицо, but also fun or cute costumes, such as фея, принцесса, ниндзя, or знаменитости из сферы политики или поп-культуры, such as Barack Obama or Justin Bieber.

Modern Halloween has древние корни. Many Halloween traditions can be traced back to America’s roots in ancient England and отражать a culture that can подвергать сомнению авторитет, ценит сельское хозяйство, and принимает или пытается принять смерть as a normal or at least неизбежный part of the жизненного цикла. However, Halloween, in touching on the subjects of death and evil, can itself seem scary and dangerous, especially to those who were not raised in its traditions. While Halloween is gaining a wider following in Russia, particularly among young adults, many Russians are deeply offended by Halloween’s imagery and traditions. Thus, cultural sensitivity should be used when discussing the holiday abroad.

About the author

Andrei Nesterov

Andrei Nesterov

Andrei Nesterov leads SRAS' Research Services, performing remote archive research and consultations for researchers around the globe. Andrei graduated from Ural State University (journalism) and Irkutsk State Linguistic University (English). He also studied public policy and journalism at Duke University on a Muskie Fellowship and taught Russian at West Virginia University. As a journalist, he has reported in both Russian and English language outlets and has years of archival research experience. He has travelled Russia extensively and penned many stories on the “real Russia” which lies beyond the capital and major cities. Andrei also contributes news, feature stories, and language resources to the SRAS Family of Sites.

Program attended: SRAS Staff Member

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