Ever wonder how European Halloween is celebrated? I do! For this reason, I decided to feature quirky European Halloween traditions and festivals for this week’s Cultural Tidbits Monday post.
Learn more: Halloween origins, myths debunked
European Halloween traditions are not even a mix of the original neopagan, Roman and/or Celtic celebrations anymore. If any practical rites take place at all, none of them have any ties to the aforementioned backgrounds. Moreover, certain studies affirm that the holiday is simply an American import nowadays, emphasizing hyper-consumerism, particularly in middle Europe (Wikipedia). It all depends where you go, though! Some places turn spooky — while others simply get sexier. How so? Let’s take a look at some Halloween traditions in European countries I have visited:
Austrian Halloween traditions
Many European Halloween traditions involve rituals in order to call dead souls back. In Austria, a lamp is lit up, bread and water are left on the table on Halloween night to welcome these spirits. In fact, many Catholic Austrians remember the dead for an entire week period between October 30th and November 8th. This “holiday” is known as Seleenwoche (All Souls’ Week).
English Halloween traditions
The origin of American trick-or-treating traces back to one of the oldest English Halloween traditions. On All Saints Day eve (October 31st), small soul cakes are baked and given away. Families gather and stay up late, burning candles in all rooms of the house to guide souls and even glasses of wine to refresh them (Wiki). This tradition was called souling, and children not only went door-by-door for cakes, but they also had to sing songs and even prayers to the dead in order to receive them.
German Halloween traditions
Some may call it a superstition, but it is a German Halloween tradition to put all knives away on the night of October 31st. It is done to prevent the living from hurting the spirits (and vice-versa!). On the other hand, while kids don’t usually go trick-or-treating, Halloween parties are common. Costumes and decorations are imported from the USA.
Now comes the real German tradition: Martinstag. While it is celebrated on November 11th instead, it was still much like Samhain: Feast marking the end of the harvest season. Nowadays though, it marks the start of Christmas shopping (and markets!) and it commemorates “Sankt Martin (c. 317-397), Bishop of Tours, one of the most revered European saints” (German.about.com).
Icelandic Halloween traditions
Halloween in Iceland is not that popular (as of 2012 at least!). You may find the odd expats or locals dressing in costumes, trick-or-treating or using the day as another excuse to party. However, they do not comprise the majority.
The Icelandic do have a similar tradition, though, held on Ash Wednesday. Kids have the day off from school, go out singing and even dress up (but not like witches or vampires) in exchange of candy (Iceland Review).
Italian Halloween traditions
Interestingly, the Catholic Church was pretty successful at purging most Italian Halloween traditions and pagan feasts in the 17th century. Yet, many customs came flooding back from the USA in the 90’s. American pop culture and TV shows such as The Simpsons are to blame for the rekindling of costumes, decorations, and traditions. Personally, I think we can blame the New World for most European Halloween traditions nowadays. Just go to a US online costumes store and see how many international shoppers try to ship costumes this month!
Spanish Halloween traditions
Irish Celts migrated to Spain, taking their customs with them. For this reason, Spanish Halloween has strong Samhain roots. Celebrations in the Iberian peninsula are somewhat different from other European Halloween traditions, though.
Like in most of Latin America, Spanish Halloween traditions are celebrated throughout a 3-day period in October & November. It all starts with Dia De Las Brujas (Witches Day) on October 31st, followed by Dia De Los Santos (All Saints Day) on November 1st, and culminating with Dia De Los Muertos (literally meaning “Day of the Dead,” but known as All Souls Day) November 3rd. The most popular custom on Halloween Day is to drink quemada: A mixture of aguardiente, unground coffee, orange peels or lemon rind, and sugar (Culturaldevices.blogspot.com).
Switzerland Halloween traditions
As a local website accepted, Halloween has “crept” into Swiss culture. Kids dress up, go trick-or-treating, and even carve pumpkins. What many are not aware of, though, is that Switzerland has a long-time history with the fruit.
Pumpkin lanterns were “like batteries supplying energy […] So to have a pumpkin in your house gave you this energy,” says Sergius Golowin, a writer from Bern (Swissinfo.ch). Also, according to folklore, the strong winds in the Swiss valleys during this season are thought to be “ghostly processions” — the traveling spirits of the dead.
Conclusion? Even though Halloween originated in Europe (Ireland, to be exact), many of the festivities are not celebrated in most countries of the Old World. If costume parties and decorations are found, they are typically American imports. It is more likely to find an analogous festival or celebration (in which Europeans go trick-or-treating) on a different day of the year.