29 October 2019
But curious things happen when you transplant a holiday
When I moved to Germany over 30 years ago, nobody had heard of Halloween. I had a hard time explaining why people get dressed up as ghosts, goblins, Shrek or a Superman and go from house to house asking for candy. Not only was there no Halloween, the jack-o-lantern pumpkins were not sold anywhere, either. When nostalgia inspired me to throw a Halloween party, my American girlfriend Ruth laughed her head off when she caught sight of my muscat pumpkin jack-o-lantern. Never heard of a muscat pumpkin? Me neither.
There was no trick-or-treating, either, but I was determined to recreate the Halloween experience as closely as possible. I relabeled red wine as blood, stuck slivered almonds into the ends of pink sausages to make them look like severed human fingers and served salad out of an (unused) organic garbage bucket. I passed out little treat bags full of candy and when I left the room to fetch more wine from the kitchen, my guests launched a candy exchange, just like kids do back home in the U.S.
It was music to my ears.
“Trade you a Twix for a pack of gum!”
“Who wants these gummy bears?” (Gummy bears are inescapable in Germany. I swear they eat them for breakfast.)
“Peanuts anyone? I can’t eat peanuts.”
“I’m looking for more chocolate. Who wants to get rid of theirs?”
Then in the 1990s, along came an enterprising American who decided it would be a good idea if Germans celebrated Halloween, too. After all, there was a lot of money to be made and Americans are nothing if not marketeers par excellence. Over the course of just a few years, stores started to sell pumpkin lights, ghost napkins, fake blood make-up and pumpkin carving kits. To think I had just been using a kitchen knife all those years! Horrors! Of course, Halloween costumes also came onto the market: witches, skeletons, ghosts and more.
The costume angle was easy since Germans were already accustomed to celebrating carnival or Fasching here in Bavaria, an occasion on which people get dressed up and party. Halloween was a big improvement over Fasching since it’s in the Fall, whereas Fasching takes place in the dead of winter and a lot of the partying takes place outdoors. Unless you’re dressed like a grizzly bear you’re likely to freeze to death. Let’s face it, that sexy nurse costume is useless under a down coat. There are parades with imaginative floats and in Munich the entire Viktualienmarkt, the traditional produce market in the heart of the city, is wholly converted into a party scene. The highlight is the dance of the Marktfrauen, the women who work there.
Customs don’t transplant smoothly, though, often morphing into a vaguely recognizable version of the original. The Celts were the first to celebrate Halloween. It was believed that on that night, the last night of the year, ghosts and other creepy creatures from the underworld were able to travel the earth, thus the origin of the scary costume.
When Halloween made the trek across the Atlantic from the UK, it underwent a major marketing overhaul. It became much more of a commercial event (surprise!) and jack-o-lanterns became popular. Since the pumpkin comes from North America, the original Halloween celebrations saw candles placed in hollowed-out turnips.
Turnips? Most Americans wouldn’t recognize a turnip if it landed in their lap. They are completely solid, sort of like oversized radishes, and I wouldn’t have a clue how to get started carving one. In comparison, pumpkins are practically ready to go – prêt-à-carver, so to speak. Not to mention the fact that orange is far more festive than the pale purple-and-white colored turnip. Yes, the bright orange, hollow pumpkin was a definite improvement.
Several decades after its arrival in Germany, however, Halloween has only partially taken hold. In areas where there are families with small children, such as areas with rows of townhouses, trick-or-treating has become very popular. But if the trick-or-treating thing is going to work, the whole neighborhood has to be in on the game. For Christmas or Thanksgiving, celebrating all alone with a tree or turkey works fine, but Halloween relies on team effort. People have to be at home with a ready stash of candy to distribute to any goblins and supermen who come knocking.
There’s an element of trust, too, to walk around a dark neighborhood, ringing doorbells of people you might have never seen before. If residents are not familiar with the custom, they might wonder why a little girl dressed as a ladybug is wandering the streets in the dark ringing their doorbell. Isn’t that little Sabine from down the street? That’s strange; She’s dressed up for Fasching in October! Is that her brother dressed up like Darth Vader? And why are they holding out bags at me with an expectant look?
In my neighborhood, Halloween has not made much headway. It consists of old houses, some of which are now apartments, and there are not enough young families to reach the trick-or-treating tipping point. Every year I see a few scattered teenagers wandering the streets dressed up ringing random doorbells, but most people here don’t have a clue why.
The Germans have translated Trick or treat into Süsses oder saures. This is a clever play on words. Sweet or sour refers not just to candy, but also to trick since sour in German can also mean nasty. The idea of give me candy or I’ll play a trick on you comes across perfectly.
Unless you have absolutely no idea what Halloween is. This can lead to a hilarious misunderstanding, especially in light of a German tradition called Heilige Drei Könige or Three Kings Day, known more commonly as Epiphany, the 6th of January. This is celebrated throughout Germany in a very special way. Three children called Sternsänger, sponsored by the church, dress up as the three kings and go around neighborhoods knocking on doors. When people answer, the children sing a song, after which people are expected to donate money which goes to charity. This is a well-established custom that everyone is familiar with.
So Germans answering the door on Halloween often misinterpret the purpose of the visit.
“Trick or treat!” say the kids, holding out their treat bags expectantly.
“Is that all?!” says the guy at the door. Man, what a pathetic showing, he thinks. They just come here and brazenly ask for candy. Just like that, they want me to give them something for no Gegenleistung at all – no quid pro quo.
Nein, they’re not going to sing. They don’t even know any Halloween songs (because there are no Halloween songs). They just want you to hand over the goods.
Go ahead, you’ll get used to it. Millions of Americans have.
One element of Halloween has, however, become firmly established: the pumpkin. Beginning in September, every street corner has an unmanned stand brimming with pumpkins for sale. It is also common to see jack-o-lanterns at people’s doorsteps or at their gate. As for me, I’m very happy that pumpkins have become so readily available, not just for Halloween but to make pumpkin pie on Thanksgiving – since canned pumpkin (known in my family as “pumpkin stuff”) is nowhere to be found in Germany. You make your own pumpkin pie filling or go pieless.
Thus Halloween stumbles along, integrating somewhat into German culture, but not quite. Many of the nightclubs and restaurants have Halloween parties as do expat groups. They focus more on the costume part and skip the candy.
At least it’s better for everyone’s teeth.