Halloween, with its spooky costumes, candle-lit jack-o’-lanterns and trick-or-treat pranks, is not a German tradition. Not so many years ago a child wandering around Bochum in a skeleton costume on October 31st would be picked up by the police and whisked home, where his or her father would receive a stern lecture on school-working-week etiquette. Kids knocking on Ulm’s front doors and asking for sweets would probably get instead an earful of abuse. And any masked teenager in Ansbach who ‘toilet papered’ a neighbour’s house at midnight would find a curt legal letter awaiting him or her on the breakfast table.
Indeed, masks were something that Germans tended to wear only during Fasching (and arguably at work). During Fasching, the traditional Catholic carnival held in the run-up to Ash Wednesday, Germans – who are usually impeccably dressed and well-behaved – suddenly sport synthetic wigs and balloon trousers, plaster their faces with gaudy makeup and dance around like loons. Masked men clutch vast carrier bags full of cheap sweets and share bottles of dubious alcohol with complete strangers. Or put another way, Germany already had its own ersatz-‘adult’-Halloween so why change it and let kids have all the fun?
Then the Great American cultural bandwagon rolled in to town, proffering Santa Claus, Big Macs and Star Wars. In the 1970s and 1980s families of American servicemen stationed in Germany began trick-or-treating around their bases and homes in West Berlin, Mannheim and Kaiserslautern. Then came the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, after which many Germans decided to avoid large crowds for a year or two. As a result tens of thousands of Fasching masks went unsold in 2002 and 2003, and some bright sparks hit on the idea of repackaging them as Halloween masks. The idea was popular enough to bring hoards of blood-soaked zombies, juvenile ghouls and giggling vampires onto the autumnal streets of Emmendingen, Düren and even Ulm.
Unfortunately the German public was not prepared at first for the costumed invasion, or indeed versed in trick-or-treat etiquette. Only four years ago, on our first Halloween crawl around suburban Berlin, my then-six-year-old son received in his goodie bag a box of alcoholic liqueur chocolates, a jar of sausages and almost four hundred Gummi Bears. At one house his best friend was given an onion. But as the years passed, homeowners grew accustomed to the occasion and began to dish out sweets more often then the curt question, ‘So young man, tell me why I should give you a chocolate?’ Today in parts of Dahlem and Schmargendorf it’s not irate residents but carved pumpkins which grimace in hundreds of windows.
My son – now ten – is not displeased with the acceptance of Halloween into the German calendar. ‘Good news, Daddy, he cheered this week as he emptied his bag of booty onto the kitchen table. ‘I got two KitKats, a grape-flavoured Jolly Rancher, four Wonka LaffyTaffies, 22 chewies, both a Mars and a Snickers bar, and not a single onion!’
photographs by My-Linh Kunst