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German Halloween, All Saints and All Souls Days


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 are brought in from the fields and it's 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 31st October continued to be the focal point of much tradition and festivity in both Scotland and Ireland.

In Germany, especially in the Catholic areas, November 1st is a local holiday. For over half of the country's population there is no work, no school, just a quiet day of religious remembrance in which to visit the graves of those who have passed, and decorate them with fresh flowers, wreaths and special candles which 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 and plants removed to be replaced by fresh ones, but although it has never been one of the country's traditional festivals, and is still not celebrated throughout the country, these days the week is often shared with Halloween.

Shops, offering everything from luminous skeletons and ghosts to Halloween sweets and chocolates, are 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 has not been inspired by longtime Halloween celebrating neighbors the Scottish and Irish, where turnips are used as lanterns, children go "guising", dressing up and singing, telling a joke or reciting a poem in return for gifts. And where there is no tradition of playing "tricks".

It is instead the US version of the festival, as it has been portrayed by Hollywood films and in the seasonal specials of imported television serials and soap operas, which is gradually becoming part of the German holiday celebrations.

However, 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 is still a rarity, although there begin to be acts of vandalism in the name of festival which are dealt with very quickly by the 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 one of thousands of private or communal celebrations.

A Halloween party scene has taken off in some areas of the country and 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 with 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, which is "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 possibly because of some 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 increasingly popular, especially amongst the young and in the Rhineland which is the part of the country 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 is once again the candlelit graves, church services, memories and lives of those who have passed which are celebrated, just as they have been for centuries and in a way a "Festival for the Dead", as was Samhain.




Illustrations: "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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