Next week Wednesday is a red calendar day for so many American children. They have probably been figuring for weeks already what costumes to wear. Some will go to parties. Some will walk from door to door the old-fashioned way. Some will go trunk-or-treating in the safe surroundings of a local church. The rest of the week will probably be taken up with bellyaches and fond memories of that one night of trick or treating. Ah, Halloween!
Most people enjoy this special day. Even when they are just the kind of grown-ups who are handing out Reese’s, hoping that, this year, more kids will show up at your door than candy-craving mothers with clueless babies in their arms. That they have enough treats to go around. And that nobody will ring at their door when they are already in bed.October 31 is rich in traditions embracing centuries both sides of the Atlantic.
Back where I hail from, Halloween has no tradition whatsoever. It became a fad when it came up in the late 1990s, and a few kids actually went around tricking or treating. But mostly, it was another opportunity for young adults to party in shocking gear. More like the utmost of Hollywood horror movie parties. Germans have a vague idea that the event hails from some English-speaking country. Most wouldn’t connect it with druids and the Celtic Samhain fest, and they would not be able to explain what a guttering candle inside a pumpkin would have to do with All Hallows’ Eve. In some regions the fad has died down again, in others it still continues.
When I was a kid, October 31 had a totally different connotation and, as far as I remember, was even a bank holiday. This year, it will be celebrated in an especially huge manner. 500 years ago, in the beautiful small-town of Wittenberg in Thuringia, a rebel against Catholic church practices such as the sale of indulgences nailed 95 theses to the door of the biggest church in town. Martin Luther, 34 years old at that time, caused a ground-breaking discussion about Christian faith and, with his criticisms, opened the path for what would be called the Age of Enlightenment. Standing up for his believes, he was risking his life. What remained is Lutheran Protestantism and a number of other protestant churches. We went to church to commemorate this event every Reformation Day.
Today, I think it was a clever move of the former monk to post his thoughts to a well-frequented church on the night before All Hallows’, as every churchgoer in Wittenberg would surely take notice of his protest. I can only imagine what an earthquake went through the congregation who had come to have mass said for their deceased loved ones. Not everybody was able to read at that time. So, word must have been spreading slowly. What would usually have been a very quiet church service would have had people whisper and pass on the message. From there, it would have spread to the first printers – Lucas Cranach the older, who was one of them and is also known for painting Luther, was one of the best advertisers for the new stand-off against the church of Rome.
Today, Reformation Day is hardly celebrated anymore. With the exception of its 500th anniversary this year. The day after, All Hallows’ is a church as well as a bank holiday in Germany. Catholic Families will flock to the cemeteries and light devotion candles on the graves of their loved ones. As you can see, it is a rather solemn occasion whether you are Catholic or Protestant in Germany.
Living here in Western Washington now, of course, I will partake in Halloween. There will be a Pumpkin Walk at the Steilacoom Historical Museum which I will definitely visit that day. And my husband and I will peek through our windows, checking whether some trick-or-treaters will pass by our drive-way so we can hand out candy to them. But in addition, the Lutheran Protestant inside me will celebrate the religious rebellion that was kicked loose back in the day. Solemnly and very quietly.