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Halloween, All Saints and All Souls Day in Germany


Witches played an important and powerful role as Forest Goddesses in the Germany of pagan times, and until the 18th century German maps pictured them flying over North Germany's Brocken peak, in the Harz mountains, where they were believed to live.

However any sign of Halloween, the witches and demons very own celebration, was hard to find in the country before the late 1990's.

The Celtic fire festival of Samhain, (Sah-ween), on 31 October 'All Hallow's Eve' marked the end of the Celtic annual calendar for our ancestors, an agricultural community, and their New Year was ushered in with light from a large bonfire. All over pre-Christian Europe the festival for the Lord of the Dead was for the Celtic tribes the most important celebration of the year, and Halloween's origins were in these festivities held on the eve of Samhain.

Summer's end, the final harvest, animals brought in from the fields and a time of preparation for winter. A brief few hours during which it was believed that, along with ghosts, fairies and demons, the spirits of the dead could return from what the Celts called the "Otherworld", unnoticed by the living, to visit those relatives and friends they had left behind.

Bonfires were lit not only as part of the Samhain celebrations, and to warm up the cool winter air, but as a tribute to the dead while hopefully encouraging them to stay at a safe distance.

As the Christian Church moved throughout Europe it replaced pagan celebrations with Christian festivals, and November 1st, Samhain, became Hallowmas, All Saints Day or All Hallows, a celebration of the lives of saints and martyred Christians.

Nevertheless that did not stop All Hallows Eve, ultimately Hallowe'en, continuing to be a feast for the "un-dead", and throughout the ages October 31 continued to be the focal point of tradition and festivity in both Scotland and Ireland.

In Germany's predominently Catholic areas November 1st is a public holiday.

For half of the country's population there is no work or school, just a quiet day of religious remembrance to visit the graves of those who have passed, and decorate them with fresh flowers, wreaths and special candles that are lit and burn throughout the night into Allerseelen, All Souls Day.

Traditionally the days leading to the holiday are used to prepare for "All Saints", Allerheiligen, and "All Souls" Day.

Hours are spent tidying graves while plants are removed and replaced by fresh ones, but although it has never been one of the country's traditional festivals, and is not celebrated throughout the country, these days the week is sometimes shared with subtle signs of Halloween.

Stores offering everything from luminous plastic skeletons and ghosts to Halloween sweets and chocolates, decorated in shades of orange and black with swinging black bats, spiders in webs, and of course witches' pointed hats and brooms.

While pumpkins, until recently known only as a popular vegetable in Germany, appear hollowed out, carved and illuminated, on doorsteps, gateposts and in windows.

This sudden recognition and embracing of a centuries old tradition was not inspired by longtime Halloween celebrating neighbors the Scottish and Irish where turnips were used as lanterns, children go "Guising", dressing up and singing, telling a joke or reciting a poem in return for gifts of candy or fruit. And where there is no tradition of playing "tricks".

Instead the German toy industry introduced the US version of the festival, as it has been portrayed by Hollywood films and seasonal specials of imported television serials and soap operas, and in some regions an understated Halloween is gradually being included in German holiday celebrations.

Although as the traditional St. Martin's Day candle lit processions take place just days later, "Trick or Treat" or "sweet and sour" as it is called in Germany continues to be a rarity, and any acts of vandalism in the name of festival are dealt with quickly by police.

Halloween can now be celebrated in genuine medieval "Haunted" Castles, at Witches Fairs held in cobblestone towns, in amusement parks which turn October 31st over to horror nights, ghosts and ghouls, watching "back to back" horror films at the cinema, or at private or communal celebrations.

The Halloween party scene in some areas of the country is enjoyed by children, as well as those who have left childhood far behind, but unlike German "Karnaval" even at a private Halloween theme party it is not necessary for the guests to wear costumes, although the idea is catching on among children.

However the recently introduced and obligatory Grusel Food, "Horror Food", is a winner, as long is it only looks but doesn't taste grauenhaft - gruesome.

Severed Fingers made from frankfurters with sliced almond or chopped onion fingernails and tomato ketchup blood, and Edible Eyes from cherry tomatoes filled with white cheese stuffed black olives, or lychees with black grapes, are consumed with enthusiasm together with all the other everyday Halloween delicacies such as Halloweenkaese. A cheese flavored with ginger and pumpkin.

In general man-made or secular celebrations do not become popular in Germany but despite the reservations of many, and initially because of clever marketing by Germany's toy industry, as the first real opportunity of the winter season "to party" Halloween has developed into something of a cult, and is becoming more popular, especially among the young and in the Rhineland. The region with the most Carnival season fans.

It certainly appears that having arrived back in Germany "die Hexen - the witches", as well as "die Gheister - the ghosts", and "die Teufel - the demons", show no signs of leaving anytime soon.

Nevertheless in the days that follow it in what is now Baden-Wuerttemberg, Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland Palatinate and Saarland it is once again candlelit graves, church services, memories and lives of those who have passed that are celebrated, just as they have been for centuries and in a way a "Festival for the Dead". As was Samhain.




Illustrations: "Brockenhexen, die zum Blocksberg fliegen" an illustration from 1732 by L. S. Bestehorn, "Allerheiligen auf dem Stadtfriedhof der Stadt Wuerzburg", courtesy Unterfrankes Welt. Sources of other images unknown.

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Content copyright © 2014 by Francine McKenna-Klein. All rights reserved.
This content was written by Francine McKenna-Klein. If you wish to use this content in any manner, you need written permission. Contact Francine McKenna-Klein for details.

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