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October 2002

Soul Patrol

Why it's time Bavaria started getting goulish for Halloween

It’s that spooky time of year again, when little kids dress up as goblins and vampires and go trick-or-treating, while adults wait patiently in their homes with large baskets of candy. I remember the first year I was deemed a “grown-up.” My mother was tired of sitting at the bottom of the stairs by herself, waiting for the doorbell to ring, or so she said (I maintain it was due to her annual illness from eating half of the chocolate herself), so I was entrusted with the task. There I was (dressed as a witch, of course) with a heavy pannier of sweets—I had bought extra sugary kinds that year, to make up for the healthy grown-up offerings of apples or peanuts. The first ten trick-or-treaters were fun: I opened the door to princesses, soldiers and baby bunnies, one belly dancer, a drag queen and even a Charlie Chaplin. But then a few of my friends turned up, laughing and jumping out of dark corners yelling “Boo!” and I realized that Halloween was absolutely no fun unless you got to behave like a kid, so I abandoned my post and joined them!

Much of the excitement of Halloween is what leads up to that night: carving pumpkins, for instance, or decorating the house with strings of cut-out phantoms and bats. As a child I loved the sweet smell of freshly baked pumpkin pie drifting out into the garden while I raked dead leaves into mounds. Later in the dark I would look out at those sinister black banks from my bedroom window and listen to my father tell bloodcurdling ghost stories.

In fact, nobody seems to know how this holiday originated. The Halloween we celebrate today probably comes from an ancient Celtic fire festival called Samhain (pronounced sow-en), said to be the feast of the dead in pagan times, which celebrates the end of harvesting and the beginning of winter as well as the Celtic New Year. It was the time of year when the dead were thought to intermingle freely with the living. Spirits, the Celts believed, would wander from one dwelling to the next in search of living bodies to possess. In order to frighten these ghosts away, people dressed up in ghoulish costumes and paraded about creating a lot of noise. Later, during Roman times, Celtic celebrations were combined with the festival honoring Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees—interestingly, the symbol of Pomona is the apple, which may account for our contemporary ritual of bobbing for apples. The Catholic Church adopted Samhain as “All Hallows Day” (or “All Saints Day”), thus spirits became angels who had sided neither with God nor Satan and were therefore destined to roam the Earth until Judgment Day.

Even trick-or-treating can be traced back to Celtic times. Apparently, in addition to wearing macabre costumes to repel dead souls, people often left an offering of food or milk for the spirits on the steps of their homes. Other people dressed up as fairies and went from door to door petitioning for treats. If they were not satisfied, a practical joke would be played on the owner of the house. Turnips were carved as faces and carried about—hence, the origin of the modern-day jack-o’-lantern. It was during the potato famine that the people of Ireland, descendants of the Celts, immigrated to America and took their Halloween customs with them. As the Celts were also the earliest known inhabitants of Bavaria, perhaps it’s time we embraced this tradition with more gusto, after all “Allerheiligen” is still celebrated here today. So what will it be this year in Munich? Trick? Or treat?

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