If you ask those who have not been back to Germany since the 80s, their perception would be that Halloween is not recognized in Germany. But times have changed!
Although there are no roots in Germany, Halloween’s roots actually existed in Europe way before it became “a thing” in America; it’s probably a good idea to understand the origin of Halloween.
Halloween is for the Celtic peoples (Scotch, Irish, and part of the English) the eve of the festival of Samhain (pronounced Sah-ween), Lord of the dead. The Celtic year ended on October 31, the eve of Samhain, and was celebrated with both religious and agrarian rites. For the Druids, Samhain was both the “end of summer” and a festival of the dead. It was the period for threshing and food preparation for the winter season. People believed that on this day the spirits of the departed visited their kinsmen in search of warmth and cheering as winter approached.
It was the biggest and most significant holiday of the Celtic year. The Celts believed that at the time of Samhain, more so than any other time of the year, the ghosts of the dead were able to mingle with the living, because at Samhain the souls of those who had died during the year traveled into the otherworld (a concept in religion that refers to other worlds such as the home of the deities or spirits or a realm of the dead). People gathered to sacrifice animals, fruits, and vegetables. They also lit bonfires in honor of the dead, to aid them on their journey, and to keep them away from the living. On that day all kinds of beings were present: ghosts, fairies, and demons – all of them part of the dark and dread.
In addition to causing trouble and damaging crops, Celts thought that the presence of the otherworldly spirits made it easier for the Druids (philosophers, teachers, judges, the repository of communal wisdoms about the natural world and the traditions of the people, and the mediators between humans and the gods), or Celtic priests, to make predictions about the future. For a people entirely dependent on the volatile natural world, these prophecies were an important source of comfort during the long, dark winter.
To commemorate the event, Druids built huge sacred bonfires, where the people gathered to burn crops and animals as sacrifices to the Celtic deities. During the celebration, the Celts wore costumes, typically consisting of animal heads and skins, and attempted to tell each other’s fortunes.
The Christian Church tried to wipe out “pagan” holidays, such as Samhain, through its missionaries. The Druid festival of Samhain was meant to be replaced forever with Hallowmas, or All Saints’ Day, on November 1. This did not happen, but the status of the traditional Celtic deities diminished substantially.
All Saints Day, otherwise known as All Hallows (hallowed means sanctified or holy), continued the ancient Celtic traditions. The evening prior to the day was the time of the most intense activity, both human and supernatural. People continued to celebrate All Hallows Eve as a time of the wandering dead, but the supernatural beings were now thought to be evil. People continued to please those spirits by setting out gifts of food and drink. Subsequently, All Hallows Eve became Hallow Evening, which became Hallowe’en.
Halloween in America
The custom of Halloween came to America in the 1840s with Irish immigrants fleeing a potato famine. At that time, the favorite pranks in New England included tipping over outhouses and unhinging fence gates.
As the beliefs and customs of different European ethnic groups and the American Indians meshed, a distinctly American version of Halloween began to emerge. The first celebrations included “play parties,” which were public events held to celebrate the harvest. Neighbors would share stories of the dead, tell each other’s fortunes, dance and sing.
The celebration of Halloween was extremely limited in colonial New England because of the rigid Protestant belief systems there. Halloween was much more common in Maryland and the southern colonies.
The commercialization of Halloween started in the 1900s, when postcards and die-cut paper decorations were produced. Halloween costumes started to appear in stores in the 1930s and the custom of 'trick-or-treat' appeared in the 1950s.
Borrowing from European traditions, Americans began to dress up in costumes and go house to house asking for food or money, a practice that eventually became today’s “trick-or-treat” tradition.
Halloween in Germany
“In 1994, Halloween was largely unknown in Germany!
Dieter Tschorn is a public relations consultant who went into business for himself in 1982. He is also the spokesman for a division in Germany’s toy-making industry association responsible for Carnival, that annual season of costumed mayhem that culminates 40 days before Easter.
Back in the early 1990s, Carnival was cancelled in Germany as a result of the first Gulf War — and those who make their living selling costumes and party supplies took a major hit. But the industry also had another important design flaw. Whereas the Carnival season always begins on Nov. 11, the timing of Easter can vary widely. “The shorter Carnival is, the lower our turnover — each week less represents a 5-percent drop in sales,” Tschorn said. “We needed some consistency, which led to the idea to introduce Halloween in Germany.”
It seems to have worked. In 2007, 4,600 tons of pumpkins were sold in Germany, says Tschorn. One can buy Halloween bread at the baker’s, Halloween sausage at the butcher’s, Halloween cocktails at the bar and, of course, Halloween candy in the nation’s supermarkets. Tens of thousands of German children now go door-to-door, holding out their bags and saying “sweet or sour,” the German version of trick-or-treat.
The Halloween promoter says that the holiday has become an industry worth around €160 million in Germany, in third place behind Christmas and Easter. In 1994, that number was close to zero.
“By the end of 1998, Halloween had become something of a cult,” Tschorn said. “It began growing all on its own.”
Nevertheless, many in Germany aren’t nearly as excited as Tschorn is about the place Halloween has managed to carve out for itself in the country’s social calendar. The Protestant Church is particularly irked that October 31st, the day on which Martin Luther launched the Reformation, is now more associated with a pagan holiday imported from Ireland via America than for Germany’s own contribution to religious history.
"Süß oder saueres!" is what you might hear children trick-or-treating in Germany say when they knock on your door; the translation is “Sweet or Sour”. Just like in America, German children can determine which doors to knock on by whether or not there are lights and/or yard decorations to welcome Trick-or-Treaters; households that do not wish to participate keep their homes dark on October 31st!
Though many Germans are unhappy with Halloween's growing popularity in Germany, retailers rejoice: Costumes go on sale in department stores and Halloween-themed candy shows up on supermarket shelves.
For the most part, German Halloween costumes are spooky or gruesome, such as a witch* or ghost. Children will not dress up as a princess for example, because in Germany Halloween is considered a spooky event and “Fasching” (Carnival) is reserved for non-Halloween costumes that are more colorful and joyful - such as clowns or cowboys. In southern Germany, however, these costumes can take on a scarier appearance.
The oldest and most revered Halloween event in Germany takes place at Burg Frankenstein near Darmstadt. Visitors are free to wander the ruins, while actors dressed as ghouls, ghosts, and other gruesome creatures; flickering lights; and an uncanny soundtrack make the castle ruins feel like a truly haunted house.
"The oldest and most revered Halloween event in Germany takes place at Burg Frankenstein"
There are more notable Halloween events that happen annually in Germany. The Movie Park Horror Fest has been, as of 2018, going on for 20 years. Located north of Essen, this event has plenty of zombies, monsters, and mazes. Finally, the Mayen Market "Festival of Magic" in the Eifel region includes a parade, pumpkin carving, costumes, and beer. Recently even the LEGOLAND Deutschland Resort and theme park began a Halloween event where costumed children receive free park admission on October 31st.
Halloween in “The Rest of Europe”
Between Expats and the presence of American military in Germany, it’s easy to see how Halloween has become so popular here. When we lived here from 2008-2012, it was the ultimate holiday for an American friend of ours (who is still here and lives in a predominately German community); even back then her yard was filled with gravestones, bones and cobwebs, and her German and American friends could get to know one another while enjoying ghoulish treats washed down with a deadly punch!
However, in the parts of Europe where the American military plays no role in Halloween’s growing popularity, it’s likely attributable to a combination of Expats, Retailers hoping to capture a piece of the action, and partiers who are always looking for another occasion to celebrate!
· London, England
· Limoges, France. ...
· Prague, Czech Republic. ...
· Transylvania, Romania. ...
· Amsterdam, The Netherlands. ...
· Edinburgh, Scotland. ...
· Dublin, Ireland. ...
· Venice, Italy.
BTW, here's their link that tells you why all those places are incredible Halloween Destinations in Europe!! It's worth visiting the link!
With the thousands of castles, medieval legends, and ancient history, I find it surprising that there aren’t more European countries with roots to this spooky festivity, however there are many where Halloween plays little to no role in their culture as most (even those who do celebrate Halloween) prefer to reserve their costumed celebrations for Carnival/Karneval/Fasching!
2020 has been pretty scary without Halloween and haunted castles; I suspect it will be much different this year even though it's the only time when 99% of the party-goers will be WEARING MASKS!!!