Halloween and American Traditions in Germany

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Halloween itself does not have long tradition in Germany. When I was a child, Halloween was completely unknown in Germany, even though All Hallows’ Day still is a public holiday in Catholic parts of Germany. Luckily I did get my all American Halloween experience as a child in Biloxi, Mississippi, complete with homemade witch costume (which raised both eyebrows and applause in an environment dominated by store-brought costumes) and trick or treating in the mall. When I tried to explain Halloween to German friends and schoolmates, I got a lot of weird looks, however.

Halloween eventually seeped into Germany via American pop culture as well as via American expats and Germans who had been to America. Back in the 1990s, there was an annual Halloween party at my university. We also had private Halloween parties, though at first we didn’t even have decorations except homemade things and stuff we adapted. When I bought some cheap Halloween decorations at a dollar store during a US visit in 1994, it was a sensation. A few years later, you could buy similar stuff in every supermarket.

Eventually, Halloween trickled down from Americaphile twentysomethings into the teen and child demographic, spurned on by the candy and novelty industry who saw a way to make some extra bucks. Trick or treating began to appear in German neighbourhoods about ten years ago. It first took hold in areas which did not have native trick or treating type traditions like St. Nicholas Day (see my posts here and here for an explanation of the tradition) or St. Martin’s Day a.k.a. Martinsmas, the feast day mentioned in several 19th century novels. St. Martin’s Day was never a big deal in my region apart from having the legend of St. Martin cutting his cloak in half to share it with a beggar told to me in religion class. “But that’s stupid”, I said, “If he cuts his cloak in half, they’ll both freeze and no one can use the cloak anymore.” It wasn’t the answer the religious education teacher had expected.

As with any foreign tradition imported into Germany, there are those who hate Halloween and view it as a commercialized American* import. Because Christmas and Easter and Valentine’s and Mother’s Day (both American imports BTW, since neither was traditionally celebrated in Germany) and All Hallows Day and even St. Martin’s Day are not commercialized at all.

The two big churches are very much anti-Halloween, particularly the Lutheran church, because October 31 also happens to be Reformation Day, the anniversary of the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the door of the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg (maybe he didn’t get a treat). Reformation Day was a sort of half-public holiday when I was a child in that schools and government buildings were closed, but shops remained open. However, it has been abolished in the name of efficiency and financing general care insurance years ago without much protest from the Lutheran church. Which makes their complaints about Halloween usurping their holiday more than a bit hypocritical. And while no one disputes the importance of Luther and his 95 theses, as a holiday Reformation Day is kind of boring. How are we going to celebrate, by dressing up as Luther and nailing our complaints to random church doors? As for Luther candy (yes, that’s a real product), I guess I’ll pass. Honestly, it’s no wonder that the kids prefer to celebrate Halloween. Dressing up as a monster, free candy and the chance to play pranks? It’s no wonder the kids are all over it.

Ever since trick or treaters started showing up in my neighbourhood a few years ago, I bought some Halloween candy (now available in German shops) and started handing out treats. It doesn’t bother me and I view it as essentially harmless, though I was annoyed the one year I wasn’t at home and found eggs hurled against my door. And if the same kids show up on my doorstep again for St. Nicholas Day, what does it matter? I can afford to hand out candy to the neighbourhood kids twice a year. In fact, I would only start to get worried if Halloween began to supplant rather than supplement our local St. Nicholas Day traditions.

This year I bought some Halloween pumpkin heads and scary monsters from Kinder Schokolade, manufacturer of the beloved Kinder Surprise Eggs. In previous years, I had chocolate eyeballs from Riegelein Schokolade, but the supermarket didn’t have them this year. At any rate, I had 15 trick or treaters at my door, which is our best Halloween yet. They were all nicely costumed and some of them even sang songs or recited poems, mixing Halloween with the local St. Nicholas and St. Martin’s Day traditions.

Regarding American traditions seeping into Germany, I was grocery shopping with my Mom today at a big Real market. And alongside frozen geese for St. Martin’s Day (roast goose is a traditional meal in the areas that celebrate) and large pans for roasting the geese, they also had huge frozen turkeys for Thanksgiving. Not that I see any Germans making Thanksgiving turkeys anytime soon (turkey is not a popular meat here), but American expats will be grateful, especially since finding the gigantic turkeys required for Thanksgiving was very difficult here in Germany until a few years ago.

While at the supermarket, I also ran into one of my former students, one of the really nice and eager kids you’ll remember for a long time. He finished school by now and is currently studying at an agricultural trade school about 40 kilometers away. He always wanted to become a farmer. It always gives me a little thrill to see former students doing well. Not that I ever had doubts with this particular student.

And because it was the day of weird coincidences (well, it is Halloween after all), I also ran into an old schoolmate of mine working the cash register at the grocery store.

*There is still quite a bit of lingering Anti-Americanism among older Germans, particularly the sixties generation but also survivors of the WWII generation. A lot of it is directed against American pop culture.

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7 Responses to Halloween and American Traditions in Germany

  1. Daniela says:

    I always forget St. Martin’s even though as a kid I loved running around with one of the lanterns and singing. I did wonder though how cutting his coat in half would work. was he cutting sidewise or lengthwise? And how would half a coat keep someone warm?

    St Martin’s not really celebrated down here, even though the church in town is called St. Martin and when it comes to local southern German traditions, I think the one that comes closest to Halloween is actually Carnival (dressing up and begging for sweets). Here the kids not only get sweets during the processions but they can also come around and beg at the door or on the streets. It’s called Schurren or Schnorren. Adults do it too but they then of course expect to be plied with alcohol. Often it’s a group of the local carnival-group that does the round or the choir or members of the town-orchestra/band. They sing and play music and then expect at least a Schnaps or a glass of wine.

    There’s also Kilwi with the big bonfires where in some towns kids walk around and ask for sweets, but no costumes. And to me roasting potatoes on the fires was always far more interesting than asking for sweets. I think farther North that would be the potato fires?

    Petra van Cronenburg has an interesting blog-article about Halloween and how the traditions are actually old European tradistions. Her focus is more on France and French traditions though.

    Ever since I can remember we’ve had turkey for Christmas, usually stuffed with chestnuts and apples, dumplings and red cabbage. I know there were a few years when my mom tried to make goose but I can’t remember those.

    • Cora says:

      A lot of these traditions are intensely regional. For example, St. Martin’s Day is celebrated around in the region Osnabrück, but never in my region. We do have processions of children walking around with lanterns and singing songs, but it’s called Laternenfest over here and usually takes place in early October. I guess the Lutherans wanted to get rid of Catholic saints like St. Martin, though they did keep St. Nicholas who gets the trick or treating type event on December 6. Harvest festivals are also a big deal around here with parades and everything.

      Carnival has never been a big deal in most of North Germany, though Bremen has a carnival procession which is more modelled after Brazil than Mainz (It’s even called samba carnival) and nearby Ganderkesee has a more traditional Rheinland type carnival with Büttenreden and Funkenmariechen and all that. The rest of us just think they’re weird.

      The Petra von Cronenburg article is very interesting, particularly since my great-grandfather was from the Alsace (and made it all the way to New Jersey, covering the world with shoemaker shops) and we still have distant relatives there.

      We never had goose for Christmas either. My Mom apparently tried to make a roast goose in her first year of marriage and the result was such a mess that we never did it again. Nowadays, we always have red herring salad (the stuff that is so full of beetroot it’s actually a bright unnatural pink) for Christmas made according to a recipe handed down from my grandma and probably a few generations before her. We start eating the salad on Christmas Eve and it usually lasts until New Year’s Eve, when you’re so sick of the stuff you don’t want to see it again for another year. On Christmas Day and Boxing Day we always have pork curry made according to the recipe served aboard the vessels of the Norddeutscher Lloyd and rabbit with apple cranberry sauce, but those are family traditions rather than local traditions. Interestingly enough, a lot of people in the Bremen region still have potato salad and sausages, a poverty meal from the postwar years, on Christmas Eve, though herring salad is popular as well.

      • Daniela says:

        Yeah, Carnival seems to be something only found in Catholic reagions, though the Alemannic Carnival is very different to the Rhineland one. Down here we have the monsters and witches, devils and demons who are trying to chase away the winter. I have a few photos up on my German blog here and here.

        My mom usually make red herring salad for New Year’s Eve. And yes, bright pink but very tasty. Luckily she only makes a reasonably sized bowl which lasts for two days or so.

        Potatoe salad and Wiener Würstchen on the 24th is something we’ve had often. Although we’ve switched from the potatoes salad made with mayonnaise to the Baden(Swobian version which is much lighter and not so sweet as it’s made with broth.
        Turkey then on the 25th, 26th, 27th until no-one can see roasted turkey anymore :-D.
        Now that my dad is dead a turkey just for us two is too much (work and meat) and she’s switched to trying out new recipes, often venison of some kind.

        • Cora says:

          The Catholic parts of North Germany aren’t big on Carnival either. I currently work at the University of Vechta, right in the middle of a Catholic enclave in North Germany, and they don’t do much in the way of Carnival either. Meanwhile, many North German cities are really keen on their various fun fairs. Bremen is currently celebrating the 778th Freimarkt, Vechta’s Stoppelmarkt has been going since the 12th century, etc…

          Lovely photos BTW. I’ve always preferred the Alemannic Carnival with its witches and demons to the Büttenreden and Funkenmariechen of the Rhineland.

          We’ve actually halved the amounts given in the recipe for the red herring salad and cut down even further on some ingredients (the original recipe calls for ten potatoes and a massive amount of eggs), but it’s still too much. That recipe was simply intended for much bigger families plus lots of guest, all of whom were given a complimentary jar of salad.

          For New Year, a lot of people still have carp, though we never did. We had fondue and bowle for a while, but of late we’ve mostly gone out for dinner. It’s actually something of a pity, because for some reason I never get around to having fondue or bowle, if not on New Year’s Eve. Of course, fondue and bowle are the quintessential 1950s through 1970s fad dishes.

          Venison seems to be getting increasingly popular for Christmas, at least judging by the deep frozen deer steaks and filets of hare and the like in the grocery shops. We actually had rabbit on one of the Christmas days for a long time, first as an actual recognizable dead rabbit provided by friends of my grandparents and nowdays as deep-frozen filet, which is less creepy.

  2. stfg says:

    My father was a journalist for Business Week, which brought my family to Germany for the years 1974-1980. I was six when we moved there and twelve when we returned to the U.S. I was very disappointed to find that there was no trick-or-treating in Germany. My sister and I would dress up and visit the other americans in the neighborhood, but it just was not the same. I was super-excited for my first Halloween back in the States when I was 12, though.

    • Cora says:

      Missing so many Halloweens must have sucked, especially since 6 to 12 is prime trick or treating age. I hope you at least got to enjoy carnival and funfairs and maybe St. Nicholas Day instead.

      Depending on where you lived, there may well have been local trick-or-treating like traditions, but on St. Martin’s Day (November 11) or St. Nicholas Day (December 6) or Epiphany Day (January 6) rather than on Halloween. And unless you went to a German school, you wouldn’t have found out about those traditions. Even today, people who move from one part of Germany to another are often stunned to find singing children asking for candy on their doorstep on a given day. Children usually find out about these things at school pretty quickly. I’m always thrilled when I get immigrant kids among my St. Nicholas Day trick-or-treaters.

      Halloween itself was totally unknown in Germany in the 1970s. Even the eponymous John Carpenter movie was called “Night of Horror” in German and “Night of Masks” in French and Dutch. When we lived in the US in 1978, my parents had no idea what Halloween was. They probably found out via my kindergarten and so my Mom assembled a homemade witch costume for me just like she always made my carnival costumes back in Germany (full store-bought costumes were uncommon in 1970s Germany – you bought some accessories like a funny hat and made your own costume) and then my parents took me out trick or treating to the mall. I remember that another kid had to tell me what to do, namely say “Trick or treat”, because I assumed that I would have to sing a song or recite a poem like we do on St. Nicholas or St. Martin’s Day. I even did try to singing bit in the first few shops, which must have confused those shopkeepers to no end.

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