The History of Halloween in Spain?

Brian's Spain Domain
Brian's Spain Domain
The History of Halloween in Spain?

Sort of! The popularity of Halloween has rocketed in the past ten years in Spain and has been a hit with kids but a source of controversy among many adults who feel this cultural outsider is invading and pushing out Spain’s traditions. But are celebrations that focus on a relationship between the living and the dead really that foreign? Does Spain actually have of its own kind of festivity? Is there a tradition of jack-o-lanterns and trick-or-treating that goes back way further than this recent newcomer? Listen to this latest podcats from Brian’s Spain Domain and see for yourself. Enjoy!

You can subscribe to our podcasts on Spotify and Castos. Or if you wish to support Brian’s Spain Domain, check us out at

The History of Halloween in Spain?

Sort of! The popularity of Halloween has rocketed in the past ten years in Spain and has been a hit with kids but a source of controversy among many adults who feel this cultural outsider is invading and pushing out Spain’s traditions. But are celebrations that focus on a relationship between the living and the dead really that foreign? Does Spain actually have of its own kind of festivity? Is there a tradition of jack-o-lanterns and trick-or-treating that goes back way further than this recent newcomer? Listen to this latest podcats from Brian’s Spain Domain and see for yourself. Enjoy!

You can subscribe to our podcasts on Spotify and Castos. Or if you wish to support Brian’s Spain Domain, check us out at

Halloween Masquerade 4

Yes I was going to talk about the label; I just needed a little more time.  You see, my other daughter did manage to find a decent skeleton costume at the Chinese 5-and-dime, which was a near miracle because you never know what those things are going to look like until you put them on.  And more often than not your first reaction is, “Skeletons don’t have tails, do they?  Don’t worry, I’m sure grandma can do something about it.”

         Later on I was picking up the cardboard label from the floor where it had been deposited and forgotten about a couple of hours before, when I stopped to take a better look at it.  The pause was well worth it.  It is not often that so little can say so much; almost like a haiku.

         It wasn’t my intention to devote so much attention to something destined to end up in the city dump in the near future, I think I’ll forgo recycling thing, but there was just too much there to ignore.  To begin with, there was an issue concerning the photograph that depicted the costume: a young man dressed up as a glaring skeleton with an arming cap and wielding an executioner’s axe. The model looked about as threatening as a mailman, but he gets credit for trying.  Everything up to that point was fine until I glanced at the vertically printed sign on the side that read “Pink Fairy”.  That didn’t look quite right.  In fact, the full name was “Pink Fairy: Adult Costume”.  That sounded even odder.

         I scratched my cheek and sat down for a little think.   Obviously, there had been a mistake at the assembly line.  The wrong name had been matched with the wrong costume, from what I could tell.  It is my guess that they have probably picked up on this error by now, unless, of course, they don’t know that “pink fairy” does not mean “skeleton with an axe”.  In that case, I am comforted by the thought that should the crisis in Spain rage on so long that even the English teachers will have to abandon the country, and that would be serious because, after all, we are about the only sector thriving in these rough times, since now that no one is working, all anyone does is try to perfect their English so that they can leave country.

         The day we have to go will mean turning off the lights and locking up.

         Oh well, assuming this was a simple oversight back at the factory, I gave them the benefit of the doubt.  But I have to admit that the misnomer did grab my attention, and now that I was nearly reclined with the cardboard label in both hands like an iPad, I decided to move on and study what else the packaging had to say.  The result was the discovery a whole world of curiosities.

         For example, the size category had two points worth remarking on.  You had:

          □      Small/medium

          □      Medium/large

         □      One size fits all

Now I am sharp enough to get the idea of the “small/medium” and “medium/large”, but what was the “one size fits all” all about?  I mean, if you have an all-encompassing outfit, why would you need the others?  And what the heck is “one-size-fits all”?  This wasn’t a bathing cap or a condom, it was a costume to represent Death.  Yet, according to the label, my thirteen-year-old daughter and a friend of mine who weighs 280lbs. could count on the same suit with the same results.  If true, this would be a stunning find in my book, worthy of international recognition.

       Once she tried it on, though, I new no miracle would happen.  It was one size fits all, as long as all sizes were one.

         I moved on.  Just over to the right, down in the corner, I spotted a helpful caveat: Warning! Keep away from fire.  Did it suggest that the outfit was particularly favorable for engulfing the wearer in flames?  Or was this just a simple safety tip for life in general?  After all, fire does tend to be hazardous to anyone who gets too close to it, even if you are buck naked, and most clothes tend to succumb to its heat no matter what they are made of.  This warning is a standard caution for all costumes, but when you think about it, it seems strange to single them out.

         Not yet satiated, I turned the label over and found more.  Here was another piece of advice: Not Recommended for Children under Age 3.  Well, that surely cleared up things.  It was an adult-sized costume, albeit called Pink Fairy, but I guess this notice must have been the result of some prior lawsuit, like “Do Not Dry Your Pet in the Microwave Oven”.

         The very last item got another chuckle out of me: it was the part that said 100% polyester right above the green recyclable symbol.  There is something about polyethylene plastic and making the world a cleaner place that makes me think they shouldn’t even be in the same room together, let alone complement each other.  But as it turns out, polyester is apparently quite recyclable and even coveted by many companies.

         Oh, well.  I conceded that point.  They weren’t perfect, but nor was I.

Halloween Masquerade 3

Up until recently the likelihood of getting pleasure from a costume package label seemed remote to me.  That was until I decided to read one.

         You see, one of my daughters was unable to find a good skeleton outfit at Maty’s, so we resorted to the local chino to solve our problem, as is so often the case.  Chinese run businesses have risen exponentially over the last decade.  They have expanded in both number and sectors.  Once they cornered the cheap 5-and-dime and convenient store markets, but now they have moved on to clothes retail.  For a while there no one went to these places because it said you were cheesy and couldn’t afford something better.  That was until everyone started running into all these people they knew.  Suddenly everyone realized everyone else was apparently just as cheesy as them, and like a bull charging out onto the bullring, cheesiness was cool.

         These places are like miniature department stores.  Rare is the occasion when you catch them off guard by asking for something they don’t have. It’s mindboggling.  It’s like what they say about the alphabet.  You have a finite number of letters with can produce an infinite number of words.  Here’s the same thing.  The owners are limited in space, but they seem to manage to get everything they need onto those shelves.

         Try something like: “Do you have those tiny screws you use to fasten eyeglasses?”

         And you’ll hear without the blink of an eye:  “Aisle four, next to the colanders.”

         “Thanks,” you say, somewhat rattled and unsure of the relationship between a strainer and a small metal fastener, “I was just going to check there.”

         The employees at these stores always talk in aisles.  Talking aisles appears to provide just the right comfort in their lives, as if by doing so they were trying to say, “I have everything under control here.  I know where everything is.”  It’s what they know best. It keeps everything in order.  Heck, they even feed you with information on aisles even when they have no reason to send you down one.  From time to time I like to put them to the test and requested a product that I’m sure they won’t have, like a lacrosse ball or a Neil Sedaka anthology CD, just to see the look of disappointment on their faces.  I’ll say, for example, “I’m looking for a dishwasher for my car?”

         Much to my frustration, they often respond completely unfazed by the failure.  They just say they don’t have one without a flinch, as if owning an automobile without a dishwasher weren’t important.  “No dishwasher.  No car.  I have dishwasher soap.  Aisle 7.”

         “I don’t want the soap if I don’t even have the machine.  And I certainly don’t care what aisle it’s in.”

         I used to think they didn’t care if they didn’t offer something I was looking for because it wasn’t an item they felt was necessary to have in their inventory.  But maybe it isn’t that way.  Sometimes my fruitless orders end up on those shelves.  Maybe they are like oriental Zara’s, where customer requests are noted and sent to the main factory and if there is enough of an oral demand they can have a specimen out in just two weeks.  Somehow I get the feeling the same thing happens here. They mull over my request and a week later have a massive dishwasher on sale, “aisle five, next to the toothpicks and the flower pots.”

         Naturally.  Anyplace but next to the dishwasher liquid.

         Did I say I was going to talk about costume package labels?  Oh, well.

Halloween Masquerade

Ever since Vicente Rico’s closed down a few years ago, the choices available for getting a halfway decent costume in Madrid have been reduced drastically, by about 50%, I’d say.  Now there is only one place that I can think of that offers any serious range of costumes without having to resort to the Chinese 5-and-dime stores, which is where you end up going in the end.  But we will get to them later.  Vicente Rico had a store just off Serrano.  It had been there for as long as I can remember before it suddenly disappeared.  I guess the crisis got the best of it.

         So, now my daughters and I slip down to the center to Maty, another classic in town.  Maty opened its doors in 1943, right smack in the heart of the crude post-Spanish Civil War days.  It originally sold dance slippers, but later expanded into marketing outfits related to dance and ballet as well.  It eventually diversified its offer to include costumes to cater to the growing demand at Carnival and Halloween.

         Halloween has no place in Spanish tradition but it is growing in popularity, and in part English teachers like me are to blame.  It was supposed to be a fun way of incorporating culture from the English-speaking world into the classroom.  But you don’t just mention getting dressed up as a monster and raking in 5lbs. of candy and expect children to passively sit back and accept it as an entertaining curiosity of faraway lands.  Eventually one child stands up and demands in a low voice, “I want that too!  And I want it now!”

         Wearing a witched costume and getting a muffin doesn’t mean the kids get any closer to the true spirit of the day.  Halloween just sort of comes and goes in the psyche of the children here, and they don’t seem to know when or how or why.  That sppoky, eerie, haunting feel you sense in the days leading up to that magical night, doesn’t take hold here.  It’s simply not deeply rooted enough, which is why you get scenes like the following.

         I’ll write a date on the blackboard and ask, “O.K. kids, what does October 31st mean?”

         Most will stare back with blank looks on their faces and three will shout, “Thanksgiving!”

         “All right, let’s try that one again.  October 31st.  October 31st!  Come on!”

         One raises his hand and announces, “My birthday is on the 28th.”

         “Fantastic Pedro.  That wasn’t what I had in mind but God bless you.”

         How could they not know this?  They love the ay but they can never recall when it is.   Back home that date is ingrained in your memory before you even learn the names of brothers and sisters.  It’s simply that important.

          I’ll need to change strategies.  “Let me give you a little hint which I think will help out.  I’ll slowly spell it on the bored and you can guess when you think you know the answer.  Here we go:  H-A-L-…”

         “¡Hala Madrid!”  One screams with delight, proudly under the impression that he has gotten the answer right.  He has just called out Real Madrid’s victory cry, and the class has suddenly been interrupted by an ensuing heated debate about what the best soccer team is.   There tale doesn’t end there.

El Movimiento anti – 31 O

Este es el año de los movimientos.  Y de movidas, macho.  La gente no para de movilizarse.  Dios, ya no me acuerdo de que si se escribe con “b” o con “v”.   Creo que con “v”.   Vale acabo de comprobar porque no me fío mucho de mí mismo en estos asuntos.  Pero ya está.  Es que la ortografía española no es especialmente complicada sobre todo para un angloparlante, o angloescribiente en este caso.  Sé que no existe esa palabra, pero como me mola invitar vocablos en este idioma…

     En fin, al grano.  Es que el otro día estaba tomando algo con unos amigos y llegó el tema de la semana, que no solo era que iba a nevar en Nueva York en estas fechas por primera vez desde que registrasen todos estos datos, sino porque era Halloween y que con al llegada de cada año su presencia es mayor.  Para los niños, esto ha convertido la tradición en un sueño hecho realidad.  Disfrazarse e hincharse de caramelos.  ¿Qué más se puede pedir?

     Pues…que se vaya, dicen muchos. Para ellos, esto es una pasadilla que se ha hecho realidad.   No cabe duda de que Halloween es una fiesta anglosajona (más bien irlandesa) y que hasta hace poco apenas existía en este país.  Pero hoy en día se ha hecho popular.  Pero muy popular.  Eso es lo que revienta a la gente.  Te hablarán, delante de los niños, de lo muy divertido que es para los peques, pero en el fondo muchos lo ven como una auténtica amenaza a su cultura, como si se arraigase, significaría el principio del fin y que el mundo ibérico tal y como lo conocemos desaparecía de por vida.

        O como poco…una pena.  Y yo les entiendo porque es verdad que es una tradición que no tiene nada que ver con la España de los últimos, digamos, 1.000 años, y que las cosas que se hacía antes ya no se hacen.  El famoso lamento por la pérdida de Todos los Santos resulta algo traído por los pelos porque tampoco es que se mantenga de todas formas.  En mi casa, celebrábamos el Halloween por todo lo alto pero al día siguiente ahí nos tenían nuestros padres en misa para lo religioso.  Eso es la responsabilidad de cada familia.

      Pero al margen de eso, es normal que se sienta cierta frustración.  Comparto el sentimiento totalmente.  Yo también pienso que aquí queda poco natural porque falta la totalidad de la cultura de Halloween que solo se encuentra en una tierra que lleva siglos celebrándolo.  Y es que el Halloween es una noche mágica, algo fantástico, pero hay que pasar una tarde / noche en las calles de Nueva Inglaterra para palpar esa magia.  Aquí queda algo hueco.  Pero la culpa es nuestra como profesores de inglés.  ¿Quién decía que no somos una influencia sobre nuestros alumnos?

      Pero también es necesario no olvidar que la vida española tal y como lo se conocía hace 20 años no era “la de siempre”.  No existe un “la de siempre”, por los costumbres cambian y evolucionan y no paran de moverse.  La inmensa mayoría de las tradiciones españolas (salvo el tapeo, gracias a Dios)seguramente procedieran de otros paises, y es posible que no todas se aceptaran con agrado al principio.  Es posible que dentro de 50 años, cuando los niños que lo celebran ahora tengan sus hijos, ya no se vea como algo tan diferente, tan foráneo, tan extraño…como un ghost.

Halloween 2011

I went to get my pumpkin yesterday.  I had checked out the local market last Saturday but they weren’t ready yet.  The greengrocer wasn’t going to have his available until Tuesday or so.  Amateur.  That was no way of doing things.   I needed my pumpkin and I needed it right there and then.   It turned out my luck was similar everywhere that day.

      So last night I went out around 8:30 looking for something to do and decided it was time to pick mine up before it was too late.  I decided to walk over to the Corte Inglés and get one there, because for once some of the cheapest pumpkins in town can be bought there.  They are also some of the smallest.  This would also give the chance to poke my head into the newly revamped supermarket.  I have always had a weakness for this grocery store.  It is a step up from the rest of the competition, though generally for a price.  The pumpkins there, somehow, were an exception.  This comes as a particular surprise to me because the fruit is pretty exotic in these parts and you’d think a place like the Corte Inglés would want to cash in on the rising popularity of the Irish-American festivity.  For once it decided to have mercy on our pockets.

     When I arrived, I could tell the store was down to its final dozen.  I’m sure the will be restocking for the  weekend, but that was what I had to work with. They were a sorry bunch, all scarred and beat up, and I had to examine them carefully before selecting two that seemed worthy of my knife.  We are not talking about large pieces of fruit here. Some were no bigger than a cantaloupe at best.  They would have been laughed out of town back in Connecticut, but for my small Madrid apartment needs, I found them manageable and convenient.

      I dropped them in the carriage and took a look around the new environs.  They had certainly done a solid job of making the place more spacious and inviting.  The old supermarket was cramped and hostile.  This version was open and inviting and had toned down light to make shopping for food more soothing.  I need that because I can get stressed out about these things.

    It also sold a helluvah lot of alcohol.  I mean it was there by the barrel-load.  These people weren’t just supporting the sale and consumption of beer, wine and spirits, they were encouraging it.  The minute you walked in, you had the zucchini, green peppers and Golden apples on you left, and cases of Rioja and albariño on your right.  And then further beyond, aisles and aisles of libations.  But it didn’t end there, the place was peppered with stands prmoting this red and that white throughout…next to the pork, beside the olives, between the tomato sauce and the muffins.  There was so much booze around I was hard pressed to find some of main staples in my diet.  I had to go up to one employee and say, “Excuse I’m looking for a kind of food called bread. Do you have any?”

     “Oh, I think so.  I think it’s right by the rosé.”

     “Great, thanks.  I’ll check there.”

     Boy, if you are just recently on the wagon, this is not the place for you, trust me.  But if you are looking to make a jack-o-lantern for next to nothing, go for it.


So Halloween is as popular as ever in Madrid and some people are just plain unnerved by kids with vampire getups prowling around the neighborhood begging for candy.  What could rattle you more? 

             Why do the Spanish get uneasy about Halloween?  Well, a whole slew of reasons come into play here, but in short, to some this festivity represents to an invasion of old Spanish traditions by a crackpot commercialized Satan-driven pagan American invention polluting the great customs of the country, and those of Europe for that matter.    This is not some kind of conjecture on my part.  I have actually heard and even read these things.  There is the fear All Saints’ Day will fade into oblivion due to all those six-year-olds dressed up as witches and ghosts pandering for a few sweets. 

             Yeah, right.  All Saints’ Day has been slipping from most people’s minds for years, and it ain’t the Americans’ fault.  If anything, it’s the Spanish’s fault.  It’s a shame, but it was on its way out with or without the English teachers’ help.   For many, just about the only thing sacred about the day is that you can sleep in…unless of course you are a father, in such case, the rule does not apply…ever.  Ironically, celebrating Halloween in this country makes more sense because you are guaranteed a day off on November 1st

           That doesn’t mean Halloween hasn’t contributed to its obscurity.  Nowadays that’s nearly all young people talk ab0ut, which explains why the religious members rush out in force to save their day.   Ironically, with any luck the holiday, it may just be thanks to Halloween that All Saints’ Day enjoys renewed popularity.  That would be especially good news for the florists. 

           Others are wary because it is foreign and not really a part of the culture, and I can certainly sympathize with that.  But a little research proves that there are many traditions here in Spain which are considered uniquely Spanish but whose origins actually go back to another country.  The ubiquitous nativity scene at Christmas is an importation from Italy, for example.  So, Halloween is not a joint-venture created by the Coca-Cola Company and MacDonald’s Corporation, as some practically believe here.  It is a complex web of traditions and cultural twists and turns that has ended up with a product as we now it today.  Its origins of Halloween predate the Roman occupation of Great Britain.  The custom went over from Ireland and Scotland to the U.S. where the young children learned they had a sweet goldmine on their hands and embraced the new idea with immense joy – and its popularity increased.  Then it started spreading elsewhere.  My parents confirm that as early as the 1930s they were knocking at doors and performing a little lightweight extortion.    But it was in the 1950s and dawn of the TV era that the practice really took off. 

            Commercial interests do abound, no doubt about that, but that can be said of nearly many special days, except for maybe Labor Day.  On top of that, in a sense, this is just an Old World custom being bounced back from the New World.  If you listen and read enough about spooky traditions you learn that in some places in the north like Asturias and Galicia, ghosts and witches and goblins and such things were commonplace in folklore.  The use of the pumpkin to ward of the feared Santa Campaña in Galicia was practiced and probably still is in some of the more remote nooks of the regions.

           So there you have it.  Thanks to us English teachers and new technologies, we are returning to Europe a little bit of its past.  An emerging ancient tradition thanks or because of globalization and grammar!


Well, everything has been stuffed back into the upper cabinet in a big sack like a bag of bones, and the Halloween season has finally come to an end.  Thank God.  I need another 365 days to recover.  And to think that it’s one of my favorite days of the year. 

         Years ago, no one celebrated the terror-filled day practically at all.  That makes sense because Halloween is not a Spanish tradition, much to the disappointment of those back home who feel that everything American should be core-curriculum in other cultures.  “What do you mean they don’t celebrate Halloween?”  I have heard on more than one occasion.   “What are they retarded or something?”

            “No.  They just aren’t Irish.”  Which of course produces a whole slew of reactions which have nothing to do with what I said.

            The fact is, nowadays, the younger Spanish generations do whip it up on this day.  More than ever.  But it has been a development as recent as iPhones.  Back in October of 1991, the festivity was even more remote to the poor Spaniards, mostly because they didn’t understand why we celebrated it.  Still, they enjoyed my parties and didn’t care how they dressed as long as they had enough to drink. 

             Then there was the issue of a jack-o-lantern.  I remember begging the fruit-stand guy at the supermarket to find a pumpkin for me to stab, disembowel and disfigure, and the guy produced something large, gray and oblong which reminded me of a tick that had been parasiting on a hippo for a week.  The poor fruit looked like it had been dead for several years.  “What the hell do you want me to do with that?”  I gawked. 

           Well, I did with it what I could, and crafted an illuminated monster so grotesque it actually worked perfectly with the spirit of the evening.   I fared little better in the following years as markets rarely had a ready supply of pumpkins.  

            At some point, though, someone caught on to the idea that importing this festivity of sorts (when you think about it, there really is not satisfactory word to describe exactly what kind of special day it is…because “holiday”, I’m sorry, does not suffice.) and especially saw there was a lucrative angle there that had been overlooked. Naturally, for any business to thrive what you need is demand, and that is where people like me came into play, I’m afraid to say.  

           In our attempt to bring our pupils closer to the English-speaking world, we used Halloween as a cultural bridge.  We could also try to use some fine structures in the meantime.  And I hate to admit, we’ve done a pretty good job of it.   Of course, what can you expect?  The concept is just ripe for widespread acceptation among young kids:  get dressed up in scary costumes, pretend you are a monster for a few hours, and haul in a nice bag of candy to boot.  Not bad, when you think about it.

           At the school where I work, on more than one occasion I have encountered resistance towards the commercialized pagan tradition that is penetrating the young Spanish mind.  This is no exaggeration.  I have literally exited a class only to cross paths with a priest, who was on his way in and prepared to remind those innocent striplings that what those days were all about was All Saints’ Day, a real Catholic holy day, not holiday, mind you.  Fair enough, until I tell them that Halloween means “The Eve of All Saints’ Day” and that the feast’s origins go back two-thousand years.   But that makes no difference to them.  It’s pagan!

           I can certainly feel for the Spanish wanting to preserve their own traditions and I understand the reservations of some of them to want to reject odd influences from abroad.  And I have to admit that there is something contrived about the way it is celebrated here.  And I would love to do something about stopping this rising tide where flower store owners who otherwise could not give two hoots about the day are urging their customers to get their pumpkins quick while they last.  I mean, it’s just a bit over the top.  But then again, there are a couple of factors that make the fight both pointless and absurd.  I’ll tell you about them later!