Pumpkins, costumes and ‘trick or treat’ means one thing- Halloween. However, in some parts of Europe this time of year means something else entirely.
Whilst Western Europeans will be donning fancy dress costumes, going Trick or Treating and carving pumpkins this October the 31st their neighbours further east will be preparing for an autumnal festival in an altogether different way. On the 1st and 2nd of November many Roman Catholics across Poland, Lithuania, Hungary, Croatia and Ukraine will be celebrating All saints day and All souls day, respectively. They are taken far more seriously than Halloween, with these days being public holidays and shops and schools are closed down.
All Souls Day is for the remembrance of departed relatives. Cemeteries are visited by streams of people to pay respects to their ancestors, clean graves and say prayers in remembrance. Each country has its own specific observances, for example in Poland windows and doors are opened to welcome the dead spirits and across the land cemeteries twinkle with candles burning into the night.
Although the traditions of Halloween and All Souls Day seem to be linked only by the subject of the supernatural, they can be traced back to the same root.
Halloween itself originates from the Celts living in the UK and northern France. The end of October signalled the beginning of winter for them and harsh winters brought death to people and livestock. They thought that on the night of the 31st the wall between the living and the dead was open. This became known as Samhain. One theory proposes the Celts dressed in costumes to scare away evil dead spirits. Once Christianity spread across this part of Europe it found it couldn’t detract from the popularity of this tradition and instead replaced it with All Saints and All Souls Day.
These are sombre days for those who mark them and are filled with prayer and reflection quite unlike the fun and secular holiday that Halloween has become. Should we be concerned then that there are signs of the ‘American style’ celebrations filtering in? Halloween in the western form was almost unheard of a few years ago in Croatia yet now the costumes and parties are catching on from nearby countries like Germany and Italy. In Hungary, Halloween parties have been made popular by Western expats.
Arguably though, a consumerist approach to the holiday could be the very thing to boost the region’s tourism and is something they could keep open for business all year round. If countries like Romania with its links to Dracula exploit their castles and scenery for western visitors it may cause a knock on effect and bring further tourist interest to these areas. Indeed, Romania now offers ‘Dracula tours’ with trips to places like the Snagov Monastery where Vlad the Impaler is buried, the 15th Century ruler whose name ‘Dracula’ inspired Bram Stoker’s classic. Bran Castle in Transylvania is also open to tourists, which is the home of Dracula in Stoker’s novel, yet in reality has few links to Vlad the Impaler.
These exploits would be easy money but would Europe be culturally poorer for it?
Firstly, it may be disrespectful and even offensive for those who mark these holy days to have a festival like Halloween which makes light of death and spirituality with garish costumes. On a second note, by mixing these different myths with stories from fictitious literature and characters from real history, our understanding of Europe’s history and cultural roots may become confused.
Like many traditions from the West, it may be inevitable that as our interconnectedness grows Halloween may well take on in Eastern Europe. Let’s not assume it will necessarily be a bad thing. Europe is so full of different traditions, stories and religions that we surely have space to celebrate everything our ancestors have passed on to us.