Halloween, All Saints & All Souls Day in Germany
In the Germany of Pagan times, witches played an important role as forest goddesses. Until the 18th century, maps even depicted them flying over the Brocken in the Harz mountains of Northern Germany, where they were said to live. USA-style celebrations of Halloween are not a German thing, even though since the late 90’s, some aspects of it exist in some places, mostly with kids and young people. It’s still considered an American cultural export.
Historically speaking, the Pagan fire festival of Samhain on Oct 31 (All Hallow’s Eve), marked the end of the Celtic calendar for our ancestors, who were a mostly agriculture-based society – their New Year was ushered in with large bonfires. In pre-Christian Europe, the festival for the Lord of the Dead was the most important celebration of the year for Celtic tribes – Halloween’s origins were in these festivities held on the eve of Samhain. At late summer’s end after the harvest, animals were brought in from the fields as preparations for winter began. At the time it was believed that in a brief few hours on that night, ghosts, fairies, demons, and the spirits of the dead could return from “Otherworld”, unnoticed by the living, to visit friends and relatives they had left behind. Bonfires were lit as a tribute to the dead, encouraging them to stay at a safe distance. As the Roman Catholic Church spread throughout Europe, it replaced Pagan celebrations with Christian festivals. Nov 1 (Samhain) became Hallowmas, All Saints Day/All Hallows became a celebration of the lives of saints and martyred Christians.
But this didn’t stop All Hallows Eve – it continued to be a feast for the “undead”, and through the ages, Oct 31 remained the focal point of much tradition and festivity. In Germany’s Catholic areas Nov 1 is a public holiday, so for about half of the country’s population it’s a quiet day without work or school, of religious remembrance in which graves may be visited and decorated with fresh flowers, wreaths, and special candles that burn throughout the night into Allerseelen. In parts of Germany such as Hessen, turnips are used as lanterns, children go “guising”, dressing up and singing, telling a joke or reciting a poem in return for gifts. There is no tradition of playing “tricks”. Halloween can be celebrated in real “haunted” castles, at Witches Fairs in ancient towns, amusement park horror nights, watching horror films at the cinema, or at one of the many private or communal celebrations. A Halloween party scene has taken off in some cities and is enjoyed by all, but unlike German “Karneval”, 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.