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Halloween and the souls trapped in purgatory

Halloween is not actually an ancient Celtic custom, nor was it invented by the American sweets industry. DW explores the unique history of this most-spooky of holidays.

Dark shadows creep around on the eve of All Saints' Day. They bear lanterns made of hollowed out pumpkins with ugly faces carved in them. Candlelight immerses masked creatures in a spooky light. Then, they knock on your door. It is Halloween, the happy night of horrors. It is the day to give and get the creeps. People put on spooky disguises, walk up and down the streets, ring doorbells and say "trick or treat" - or they go to Halloween parties.

Generally, Europeans think that this huge American happening is a purely commercial venture, like Coca-Cola's Santa Claus ads or rose sales on Valentine's Day. The Halloween industry never seems to stop churning out plastic pumpkins and scary masks that are sold throughout the world.

A custom, not an event

Behind the commercialism lies an actual custom that goes back centuries but does not originate in Celtic nations. The Celts celebrated Samhain, a Thanksgiving-like festival to mark the beginning of winter. The Church, which dominated European culture in medieval times, reserved the same date for All Saints' Day.

Ausstellung Die Sieben Todsünden Kloster Dalheim Sünder (AUSSCHNITT: Kunsthaus Zürich)

One can work off sins in purgatory - in agony of course

Halloween is derived from "All Hallows Eve" - the evening before All Saints', when the dead are commemorated and intercessory prayers are said for them. The living hoped that the dead were doing well. According to Christian views, they were waiting for the Last Judgment. In early Christianity, people believed that this day would come soon, but it didn't.

"Then," explains Dagmar Hänel, a Bonn-based cultural anthropologist, "people asked themselves more often, 'what about the souls, what are they doing?'" Out of this, the idea of purgatory was born - a stopover between death and eternity where people begin to work off their sins and cleanse themselves. There was a connection between the living and the poor souls in the hereafter.

"It is a belief found in all religions: We can influence the afterworld and vice-versa. So we pray the rosary, do good deeds and give alms - apparently it has a direct effect on the poor souls in purgatory," says Hänel.

In the Middle Ages, on the eve of All Saints', people went from door to door to ask for alms. In some rural regions in Germany, the custom is still practiced - bachelors go from village to village, praying, singing, blessing people and soliciting money. In the United States, the soliciting has become child's play and is known as "trick or treating."

A custom disappears from Europe

As the influence of the Enlightenment on religion grew in the 18th and 19th centuries, the Church became increasingly skeptical towards old customs, and even banned them, says Hänel. Furthermore, in the course of industrialization, denser social networks developed and thus, people did not need to collect as much for the poor.

"The custom context disappeared; customs are related to needs," says Hänel. "Customs do not exist just for the fun of it, but because people need them."

When German statesman Otto von Bismarck's social legislation was implemented in the country in the 19th century, that need disappeared. The state became responsible for providing for the poor. That may be why the custom died.

'Transatlantic return'

But the custom was not quite dead everywhere. Irish immigrants took Halloween to the US in the 19th century. They did not own much but they held on to their culture. Lars Winterberg, an anthropologist at the University of Bonn, believes that Halloween was mainly celebrated in immigrant neighborhoods in large cities, as the Irish continued to celebrate their traditions.

"Integration rarely served as a one-way street," says Winterberg. "In fact, the immigrant culture always merges with that of the host society."

BdT Halloween-Haus (picture alliance/dpa/P. Pleul)

Pumpkins have become a symbol of Halloween

That is how the Halloween tradition spread across the entire US. First it was more or less a children's celebration. Later, it became more adult; there were parties, costumes and decorations. During World War II and after, the celebration returned to Europe. For example, US soldiers stationed in Germany celebrated Halloween. At first, Germans simply took note of the festivities. Halloween became more interesting when it spilled over in European culture through films and television series.

A wild blend of everything undead

John Carpenter's movie "Halloween" definitely stirred up enthusiasm for the celebration. It was a film classic that changed the holiday for all time, as it blended the horror genre with zombies, death, demons, witches, vampires, ghosts and children's games. Now, even the traditional Irish celebrate Halloween the American way.

Jörg Fuchs, a European ethnologist at the University of Würzburg finds this absurd: "Halloween comes back to Ireland. People in Ireland celebrate an American holiday with Irish origins but now in its American embodiment."

Carnival substitute?

Halloween Filmszene Michael Myers (Imago )

A scene from the 1978 film 'Halloween'

In the past two to three decades, it seems like Germany has been bitten by the Halloween bug. You see jack-o-lanterns in store windows and numerous parties held on October 31. Normally, advertisers target younger people. It almost seems like the Carnival industry in Germany really wants Halloween. Jörg Fuchs has interesting theory about this.

"In 1991, the Rose Monday parades in Germany were canceled because of the Iraq War," he says. "It was a disaster for the Carnival industry, which lost millions. Businesses tried to find additional income and thought about what celebration could be established in the course of the year. Ever since then, you can see a flourishing industry."

Many older Germans are not impressed, especially in the Rhine region where official Carnival season begins on November 11. It is known as the "fifth season" of the year and runs according to ancient Christian customs until Ash Wednesday.

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