Refor-what? or My True Feelings About Halloween

Courtesy of J-Me Photography
Courtesy of J-Me Photography

I’ll admit it: I pretend I’m not home on Halloween. You can call me a Halloween-Scrooge if you want (and some people have), but there are reasons for my darkened doorway. Halloween has never been a favorite time – the word “holiday” seems too festive and important, both of which Halloween is not – although the old photos are sweet. Little clown Dora with a painted red nose standing against the orange-accented green and yellow plaid wallpaper, usually with big brother clown next to her. Although my mother is a brilliant seamstress, costume-making was never her forte. She could have made some extravagant costumes (which she has since done for her grandchildren), but with the whole family lacking in Halloween-enthusiasm, why bother?

A brief aside: I have inherited my mother’s absence of costume creativity. When I was a child, I was a clown every year. Unfortunately I do not have clown costumes for my children, otherwise I would certainly pass along that tradition. But we’re developing our own rut – we have pirate costumes in varying sizes. By now I’ve got the red-kerchief-tying and moustache-drawing part down.

I have very few memories of Halloween. In one vivid scene I remember being scared when a gorilla jumped out in front of our car on our way to trick or treat. It pounded once on the car’s hood, then disappeared into the dark. I’m certain the rest of my family would deny it ever happened, but I know it did. Vaguely I remember slimy pumpkin innards and roasted seeds. As a teenager it was cool to attend a non-Halloween party on Halloween in a neighboring high school. That idea appealed to me as a costume was not necessary. In college my creative friend (now J-Me Photography) sewed M & M costumes for the five girls in our house. As one M & M in a bag of five, the costume-wearing thing was bearable.

Obviously I’ve never connected to the idea of Halloween. Coming from a Christian background, my church and parents were always unsure about Halloween – should we encourage participation; should we not? It was always made into a demonic, spirit-worshipping festival, which sort of took the joy out of eating candy. Certainly my issue with wearing costumes added (and continues to add) to my uneasy relationship with Halloween.

Imagine my relief when I arrived in Germany thirteen years ago to discover that Halloween was not practiced. I knew there was a reason I loved Germany! (Of course I had yet to discover the late February / early March tradition of celebrating Carnival or what Americans might know as Mardi Gras in New Orleans. During those four days of celebration most of the country is in an Ausnahmezustand, meaning a state of emergency or exception. People run around in costumes the entire time and listen to horrible speeches and annoying music. Halloween looks pretty tame compared to that!)

Over the years, however, the commercialization of Halloween apparently could not be avoided. Carved pumpkins began appearing more often; super gory eyeball candy conveniently packaged in hand-sized plastic made its debut in late October. Always looking for a good excuse to throw a party (and make an extra buck), the radio programs grabbed the opportunity and invited radio-land to Super Grusel parties, their idea of what Halloween should be – scary, eerie, spooky. The biggest town in these parts now has a “traditional” (after five years?!) Halloween parade; each year more ghosts, witches and monsters participate.

“Gel, so macht ihr das in Amerika?” (“This is how you do it in America, right?”) How often have I heard this question and how many times would I have loved to yell, “NOOO!” I was appalled the first time our doorbell rang on Halloween (has it really come to this?!) and even more so when the kids just stood there and didn’t say anything.

Und?” I finally asked after we looked at each in silence.

Ja, was ist? Es ist ja Hello-veen?” (Yeah, what’s wrong? It’s Halloween!)

Aaahhh! I stomped away leaving Patrick scrambling to fill their bags. He gave them the good advice to say something when the door is opened, but unfortunately “trick or treat” does not translate well. Instead the kids say, “Süßes oder Saures!” (sweet or sour).

It’s entirely wrong. The whole German Hello-veen thing just seems so phony. These kids have no idea what they’re doing, except getting free candy, which I could even accept. What kid doesn’t want free candy? But the reasoning “that’s what they do in America!” just does not cut it for me. And in Germany it has to be a spooky event with creepy costumes. I always try to convince people it’s not really like that – I was always a clown! – but no one believes me that Halloween is more like Carnival than what the Germans have made of it.

However the irony of it all is sometimes too much. I read a bit about Halloween on Wikipedia, that unreliable wealth of information, before I began writing this post. Most people know Halloween has its roots in Celtic-traditions, although which exactly seems up for grabs. Some say it was originally a festival celebrating specific gods; others say it was more of a harvest or summer’s end celebration. It did have to do with a certain time of year when spirits and fairies found it easy to come into our world, making them more active. Costumes developed out of the need to hide from these spirits.

Halloween began in the US as Irish and Scottish immigrants moved to the new country and brought their traditions with them, which I know provides comfort in a foreign place (I can attest to that!) and is therefore good and necessary. New interpretations on old traditions can’t be helped, however, and in the early 1900’s trick or treating evolved in North America out of the Scottish and Irish tradition of guising.

So here’s the ironic part: Halloween as is practiced in the States is a development from very old traditions. Isn’t this in reality what’s happening in Germany? They’re taking a form of celebration from another place and working at making it their own.

But I still have a huge problem with it and I believe it to be this: the tradition is missing. According to Wikipedia (sorry, I was too lazy to check out other sources) Halloween activities were first recorded in 1999 in Germany. When the event began in North America, there were Irish and Scottish immigrants who had a relationship to the rituals they were passing on. It was a piece of their Heimat (for more on this word, read this post) that they had brought with them. Here in Germany it’s just an event that people have heard about, certainly with help from marketers and “entrepreneurs” who see an opportunity to make money. A relationship to the event does not exist. There is a long-standing tradition that surrounds Halloween, but not in Germany.

I was proud of my husband this morning when I heard him say in response to our youngest’s proclamation, “Today is Hello-ween!”

“Today is Reformation Day!”

Refor-what? On October 31st, 1517 it is said that Martin Luther made his 95 Theses known, thus starting a revolution of the Christian world that he never intended. He actually only wanted to stimulate a discussion, among other things, about the sale of indulgences in the church. (It was believed by buying these indulgences from the church, one’s sins could be forgiven.) Throughout Germany and other parts of Europe during this time there were many others who were finding fault with the structures of the church and were daring to think outside the given lines and start something new. It was exciting, exhilarating and reckless, but these pioneers plowed on, eventually changing the face of the church forever.

That is what I call tradition. And a tradition well worth being proud of. Its celebration does not involve silly costumes or even free candy, but I can’t help but believe falling back on a tradition of individuals willing to ask difficult, sometimes damaging questions, despite the very real risks involved might be a more powerful one. Now we just need to figure out a way to make this legacy interesting to celebrate….

For all my disliking Halloween in Germany, I’ve already agreed to allow my children to walk up and down our street, ring doorbells and say, “Süßes oder Saures!” Yes, that in and of itself is ironic. But don’t be surprised if my light is not on after the kids are in bed. I’m probably pretending not to be home.