Living abroad presents an interesting challenge when it comes to holidays. Do we maintain our special days and traditions, or do we celebrate like the locals? If you’re anything like us, you’ll come up with an interesting mix of both. This works well when we’re celebrating something that is wholly one or the other. Take Saint Martin’s Day for instance. It’s not one that’s frequently celebrated in the States, so we parade around with our lanterns without a second thought. Thanksgiving* is another. Because it’s not a holiday typically celebrated in Europe, no one questions our menu. Christmas is a special holiday in both countries. Our German neighbors open their presents on Heiligabend, but we maintain the chaos of Christmas morning, which is something of a curiosity here. But there are some American holidays that are beginning to take hold in Europe. They are similar enough to recognize, but there is always just the slightest twist. Halloween is one celebration that has made the transition.
Growing up in small town America, you could always look forward to Halloween as a great deal of fun. In the States, people are liable to go a little Halloween crazy, with haunted houses and scary lawn ornaments everywhere. There is no end to the vast array of costumes, and there are usually special costume shops set up somewhere, at least temporarily. Nearly everyone was prepared for trick-or-treaters, and there was always at least one parade or costume party. The classrooms at school were decorated, and we gathered around the television to watch “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown.”
Halloween has gained a foothold in Germany. It’s just a little different than what I grew up accustomed to. For my children though, this strange mix of German and American Halloween traditions is quite normal, but it sometimes leaves me a bit dumbfounded.
On nearly every street in the US on Halloween night and you’ll find princesses, superheroes, villains, cartoon characters, historical figures, pop figures – the list is endless. In the places I’ve lived in Germany, that’s just not what you’ll see. You’ll see witches, vampires, ghosts, and any other scary, dark, creature you can imagine. Sure, you’ll find those in the States as well, but not on everyone.
In US stores, you’ll find entire sections given over to Halloween. In Germany, you’re lucky if you find one small aisle devoted to it. You’ll usually find a couple of scary decorations for your house – no friendly ghosts here. You’ll find plenty of scary face paint, a few masks, and costumes – in black.
We took on German Halloween, doing what we usually do. We kept our eyes open for pumpkins to carve. We pulled out our cutesy Halloween decorations. We attended a party or two. And then we tried trick-or-treating.
The children were still too small to go trick-or-treating our first year in Germany, but we thought it would be nice to at least stop by the neighbor’s house in our costumes before we left for the American Halloween party we were attending. We knocked on the door – unexpectedly and without an invitation or a call. Our neighbor opened the door, looking at us with a mixture of amusement and disbelief on his face. I think we may have been his first trick-or-treaters. Ever. I can only imagine was going through his mind when we showed up at the door, a scarecrow, a knight, a cowgirl, and an extra from the Sopranos. This was not a common autumn sight on our street.
Later that night, we received our first Halloween visitors. Altogether, we probably had fewer than ten trick-or-treaters. We were definitely prepared for that. It was the manner in which they trick-or-treated that left us speechless. They came to the door in groups. Each of them wore some variation of a witch costume, and oddest of all, they were holding pumpkins.
I went to grab the bowl of Halloween candy I’d prepared in the event that we had any visitors, but they didn’t want candy. Not yet. German trick-or-treaters are an industrious bunch. There are varying degrees of scary costumes, and assorted levels of pumpkin carving prowess. But there are poems. Each group of trick-or-treaters recited a very long poem. In unison. It was spectacular. And a little odd. When they finished, I placed a large handful of Halloween candy in their outstretched bags. They couldn’t hide the disappointment on their faces, as they turned and left the house. I think the American Halloween candy may have been the reason my pumpkins were stolen, but I can’t be sure. Of course I didn’t understand this until I went out with the kids the following year.
Year two came along, and we decided to try our hand at trick-or-treating. We invited some of the children in the neighborhood to come with us. One of the young neighbors dressed as a scary vampire, another as a scary ghost. My children, in typical American fashion, went as a princess and a pirate. “But they aren’t scary,” one young neighbor observed. Apparently the only approved Halloween costumes are the ones guaranteed to frighten.
It was during this trick-or-treating expedition that I began to realize what disappointed the German trick-or-treaters in the previous year. Small Halloween candy was not the norm. Not in our neighborhood anyway. As we rang the bell and the kids belted out in unison “Süßes oder Sauers”, neighbors scrambled through their pantries to see what they had that fit the bill. We came home with entire packages of cookies, family sized candy bars, twelve-packs of gum, and pocket tissues. Of course, it was only the first child in the line that received the goodies. Maybe they thought we’d divide the loot later. We did have a pirate with us after all. That year, the kids returned home with a bag that looked as if had been filled by a drunken college student on a shopping spree.
For our final year in Baden Württemberg, we figured out a way to Americanize the experience, just a little bit. We visited neighbors beforehand, strategically placing Halloween candy throughout the neighborhood. The neighbors good-naturedly played along. Easy, right? Nope. We forgot to explain that they should split the candy between our small group of trick-or-treaters. They dumped all of the candy into the bag of the first kid. Every. Single. Time. By this year we were on friendly terms with many of our neighbors, so this also became one of the longest, and most interesting trick-or-treating expeditions I’d experienced. Not only had some of the neighbors prepared for little visitors this year, a few of the neighbors also invited us in for a drink. Or two.
Last year we decided it would be a great time to introduce the children to a real American-style trick-or-treating event. We were living closer to a US military base than previously, so we decided to go there to do our trick-or-treating. We were really not prepared for what we encountered. We decided to go to a predominantly American neighborhood. Along with just about everyone else within driving distance. It was a Madhouse. Cars filled every conceivable parking spot throughout the entire neighborhood. Crowds of children, German and American waited impatiently for the appointed start time. When it finally arrived, ghosts, goblins, princesses and pirates ran off, pell-mell in every direction. It didn’t take long for folks to run out of candy. We enjoyed being able to come to the doors, say trick-or-treat, and not have anyone question our costume choices. It was nice for the children to receive one piece of candy each from the houses we visited. The kids were ecstatic about their haul, which for the very first time filled their bags to overflowing.
We received one trick-or-treater that year. It was a little girl that we knew from Kindergarten. She was a witch. Although she didn’t have a poem to recite, when she held out her bag, we dumped in our candy. All of it.
*There is an Erntedankfest – a Thanksgiving Festival, but it is not associated with an all-out eating extravaganza like it is in the States.