Halloween, All Saints and All Souls Day in Germany

Halloween, All Saints and All Souls Day in Germany
Until the 18th century witches appeared on German maps, flying over the Brocken peak in the Harz mountains, northern Germany, where those "Forest Goddesses" of pagan Germany were thought to live. They played an important, powerful, and even frightening role in everyday life at the time.

Nevertheless any sign of Halloween, the witches and demons very own celebration, was nowhere to be found in Germany before the late 1990's. Except on or around US military bases.

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. For them it was a festival of light, their New Year, ushered in with light from a large bonfire that served to ward off evil spirits, as well as attract the souls of dead departed loved ones.

All over pre-Christian Europe the festival for the "Lord of the Dead" was the most important celebration of the year for Celtic people, and Halloween's origins were in festivities held for centuries 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 when 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 the cool autumn air, but as a tribute to the dead. While encouraging them to stay at a safe distance.

As the Christian Church moved throughout Europe pagan celebrations were replaced 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.

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

In Germany's predominantly Catholic areas November 1 is a public holiday, and for half of the country's population there is no work or school. Just a quiet day of religious remembrance to visit graves of those who have passed; decorating 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 next day's "All Souls" Day.

Hours are spent tidying graves. Old plants are removed and replaced by new, gravestones are cleaned.

Halloween has never been one of the country's traditional festivals, and is not celebrated throughout the country, but these days it sometimes shares at least some of the week.

The signs are virtually non-existent in some regions, but in others stores have begun to offer 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' 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, who used turnips as lanterns and where children still 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.

Because of the Gulf War in 1991 the German government canceled Carnival celebrations, causing lost sales to costumers and other retailers. To make up the losses, and sell off surplus stock, "Halloween" was imported and heavily publicized. Especially in the Carnival regions.

In some areas an understated Halloween is being included gradually in German holiday celebrations, and, although retailers rejoice, many Germans are unhappy with a commercialized, and artificial, holiday celebration.

Although as the traditional, and popular, St. Martin's Day candle lit processions take place just days later, "Trick or Treat" or "Süßes oder Saures!", Sweet or Sour, as it is called in Germany continues to be something of a rarity. While any acts of vandalism in the name of Halloween are dealt with quickly by police.

It can now be celebrated in medieval "Haunted" Castles, which with their history could really be haunted; at Witches Fairs held in cobblestone towns; in amusement parks that 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.

A Halloween party scene in some areas of the country is enjoyed by children, as well as those who have left childhood behind, and there recently introduced "Grusel Food", Horror Food, is a winner, as long is it only looks but doesn't taste grauenhaft - gruesome.

"Severed Fingers", frankfurters with sliced almond or chopped onion fingernails and tomato ketchup blood; "Edible Eyes", cherry tomatoes filled with white cheese stuffed black olives or lychees with black grapes, are just two that appear with all the other everyday Halloween delicacies like Halloweenkäse. Cheese flavored with ginger and pumpkin.

In general man-made or secular celebrations are not popular in Germany but, despite the reservations of many, and probably because of heavy publicity and hard to escape advertising, as the first real opportunity of the winter season "to party" Halloween has developed into something of a cult.

Especially among the young, and in the Rhineland; the region with the most Carnival season fans. It was because Carnival had been cancelled that year, so suppliers had been left with everything that goes with it, that Halloween was publicized as a way of selling off surplus stock.

But it appears that having returned to Germany "die Hexen - the witches", "die Gheister - the ghosts", and "die Teufel - the demons", show little sign of leaving anytime soon.

Nevertheless in the days that follow it, in what is now Baden-Württemberg, Bavaria, North Rhine-Westphalia, Rhineland Palatinate and Saarland, it is the candlelit graves, church services, memories and lives of those who have passed that are important and celebrated. As they have been for centuries.

A "Festival for the Dead". As was Samhain.

Original sources of images unknown, Brocken Harz Hexe Old Postcard from Antik-Falkensee 1994.

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