Thursday, 30 October 2008

Ghosts of Halloween Past and Present

I wrote this essay last Fall after experiencing my first Halloween in Geneva. I thought it amusing to highlight the cultural differences between my Swiss and Canadian experiences.

Ghosts of Halloween Past and Present

The tradition of dressing in costume for Halloween has both European and Celtic roots. Hundreds of years ago, winter was an uncertain and frightening time. Food supplies often ran low and, for the many people afraid of the dark, the short days of winter were full of constant worry.

On Halloween, when it was believed that ghosts came back to the earthly world, people thought that they would encounter ghosts if they left their homes. To avoid being recognized by these ghosts, people would wear masks when they left their homes after dark so that the ghosts would mistake them for fellow spirits. On Halloween, to keep ghosts away from their houses, people would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease them and prevent them from attempting to enter.[1]

Growing up in Canada, we adhered to our common traditions of Halloween by donning heavy parkas over our costumes before merrily repeating the refrain of ‘trick-or-treat’ while politely collecting our candy and traipsing across suburban lawns to the next house. Houses were frequently decorated with great ingenuity. Plastic graveyards, billowing smoke, and spooky music were common in an unofficial competition to attract the most trick-or-treaters. The next day, parents would subtly compare their numbers. “We went through $300 of candy last night!” or “We ran out of candy by 6:30!” (the sun goes down early in Canada by October 31).

When I was a kid of trick-or-treating age, my parents didn’t buy me a costume at Walmart. We used our imaginations (and our mothers’ linens) to fashion ourselves as ghosts and black cats. For three years in a row, I dressed up as the washerwoman character from the Carol Burnett Show, complete with shower cap and apron. And, we always carried the requisite Unicef collection box. Halloween was, after all, not a time to forget the less fortunate.

After my son was born five years ago, not much had changed. When he was two, I bundled him up in his store-bought fuzzy dog costume (hey, I was a working mother), put his heavy winter jacket, hat, and mitts on top and off we went. He trundled up to each door, repeated ‘twick-oh-tweat’, as we parents chatted on the sidewalk and then collectively shuffled 20 feet to the left to the next house.

Then we moved to Geneva. Celebrating Halloween has not fully penetrated Swiss culture along with the rest of North American pop and entertainment culture. In fact, most Swiss parents decidedly resist supporting it, believing the Genevois holiday Escalade to be more culturally genuine. Expats, instead, host Halloween parties to ensure that their kids don’t miss out on the fun. Shops devote small sections of a single aisle to Halloween decorations. Houses are not aligned in easily accessed rows in this country. They are behind gates, around 6-foot high hedges, and down circuitous paths.

So, as October 31 drew nearer this year, I bought limited quantities of candy in anticipation of the few expat friends who would venture our way. We carved a pumpkin and set up a small but cheerful display of colourful squash. At 7:30 Halloween night, my son was dressed in costume in happy anticipation of a visit or two and we were still lazily finishing dinner. When the doorbell rang, I opened the door unprepared for the mob of pre-teens who, literally, without so much as a ‘trick-or-treat’ poured into my entry, spied the candy bowl, helped themselves liberally to it and poured out shouting enthusiastically to themselves.

I was still standing bemusedly in my entry way when a classmate of 4-year old J’s arrived with her father. I recovered quickly, wished her a “joyeux halloween’ and handed her the last of the candy (she had no bag with which to accept it so her father’s pockets had to make do). We all then found ourselves staring expectantly at one another. Me, expecting them to leave and move on to the next house, and them, apparently waiting to be invited in for coffee. Coffee lasted an hour and our not-quite-finished dinner was hurriedly shoved into the kitchen sink.

Later that evening, after spying a glowing pumpkin in my neighbour’s window, I decided to venture over with the two little ones hoping she could shed some light on my cultural faux-pas. We didn’t have to ring since her door was wide open revealing several children in her living room tussling over the candy bowl while their parents lolled on the sofa drinking espresso and wine.

So much for the original objective of Halloween - "On Halloween, to keep ghosts away from their houses, people would place bowls of food outside their homes to appease them and prevent them from attempting to enter"1 - in Geneva, they invite them in.

[1] ‘The History of Halloween’


Mighty Mom said...

I'm so glad you posted this. I knew I had read it and had actually went looking for it today in your archive. Bravo!

Jen said...

We're getting ready for it tomorrow; can't wait as I think Nate will have a blast this year! Of course, this means we won't be able to keep his candy for ourselves this time loL!