LAST HALLOWEEN, I STUMBLED into the town of Puente la Reina, in Spain’s Navarra region. I had just walked 30 kilometers from Pamplona on the Camino, the pilgrim’s road to Santiago de Compostela.
While leaving Pamplona that morning, I noticed university students had posted flyers all along the roadway announcing a huge Halloween party on campus that night. People were urged to wear outrageous costumes and were enticed by promises of door prizes, strong elixirs, and general good cheer.
By the time I made my way to that night’s camp in tiny Puente la Reina, I was so exhausted that I forgot what day it was… until three miniature ghouls, a witch, and a pumpkin swooshed by.
They were local kids dressed up for the night and they were going from shop and café to shop and café along the main drag in town, which just happened to be the millennia-old pilgrim’s road to Santiago.
In Puente la Reina I learned that while Halloween involves the familiar costumes and trick-or-treating, it all revolves around local food shops and cafes rather than homes. Café and shop owners all had baskets of candies at their doorways, ready for the little ghosts and goblins.
The Old New Halloween in Spain
An import more or less, Halloween is still a pretty new phenomenon in Spain. But the north seems to celebrate it more than the rest of the country, and the reasons are profoundly ancestral.
Many regions in northern Spain claim archaeological evidence for early Celtic-speaking inhabitants who arrived anywhere from 3,000 to 2,500 years ago in Iberia and mixed with the indigenous Iberians, or made their way into remote reaches of the north and northwest and created their own cultural region there.
In these regions today there is a growing Celtic revival that couples with interest in related holidays imported from other Celtic-loving lands.
One is Halloween, better called Samhain, Noche de los Muertos (Night of the Dead), or in the farthest northwest of Galicia, Noite dos Calacús (Night of the Pumpkins). Other Celtic-inspired holidays found in spots in the north are Lughnasad and Beltane, the latter overlapping with summer solstice and St. John’s Day.
While Halloween throughout Spain is mostly celebrated in the manner I discovered in Puente la Reina, there are some communities, such as Cediera along Galicia’s northern coast, where locals carve pumpkins, light bonfires, and imbibe quemadas—the local fire water infused with herbs and set aflame—a proclaimed ancient drink of their Celtic ancestors.
It is linked symbolically to the act of burning off bad luck and clearing dark energies at this dangerous time of year. In these areas you might discover modern-day druids and priestesses taking the “thinning of the veil between worlds” very seriously.
How to Join the Halloween Festivities in Spain
If you are not in the cities, Halloween really is a children’s holiday. But in the big cities, and especially in the university towns, there are bound to be costume parties with cauldron themes posted about town on walls and lightposts. Most will have some nominal admission fee plus the mandatory costume.
And whether you find yourself in a big town or small, you can always do what the adults do when the 31st rolls around: continue your daily enjoyment of the shops, bars, and cafes over a steaming café con leche or a deep glass of earthy Rioja red to take off the chill as the little devils home from school swirl about.
If you go to Spain during Halloween, be sure to stick around a few more days and take in the more traditional Dia de Todos los Santos (All Saints’ Day). Unlike Halloween, this holiday is more traditional and is observed everywhere in Spain as a time to honor the dead.
People head to cemeteries with magnificent flowers and gather around the tombs as they do in a café, celebrating life and enjoying being there. Afterwards, most head to a café or restaurant or family home to soak up the rest of the afternoon over food, wine, and conversation with family and friends.