My German Halloween
One of the best parts of living in a foreign country is the amazing cultural exchange that occurs. While we lived in Germany, we were lucky enough to have wonderful German neighbors who introduced us to some of the German culture. One of my favorites is the tradition of Kaffe und Kuchen (Coffee and Cake) on Sunday afternoons. It’s a simply tradition. You invite family or friends to your home on a Sunday afternoon and serve them delicious cakes, coffee, and perhaps some wonderful wine too! Sweet treats, wonderful German coffee and wine….the perfect way to spend a leisurely Sunday afternoon. While it all sounds simple enough, I’m sure that if I had hosted Kaffe und Kuchen for our German friends, they would have found my interpretation to be, at very least, not quite right, and at worst….simply wrong! Because no matter how hard we might try to adopt other culture’s traditions, details and elements can get lost in translation. Consider our American Halloween tradition. One night out of the year, kids get dressed up in costumes, go door to door saying, “Trick or Treat,” and receive enough candy to last them until Easter. Simple enough, right? That’s what we thought too…
We had been living in Germany for about 5 months and it was the week before Halloween. We didn’t have any kids of our own yet, and since we were living in the middle of Germany, we weren’t anticipating any Halloween festivities. And then one night, days before Halloween, the doorbell rang. I opened our front door to see a group of German kids standing there in costumes. I stared at them and they stared at me. I was speechless. They were all dressed as ghosts, every last one of them. And they clearly didn’t know what to say to me. They looked at me expectantly…waiting. Halloween in Germany? Nobody had told me about this! So I quickly said in my very best German, “Ein Moment!” and ran upstairs.
“Mark, Mark, there are German trick or treaters at our door!”
“What? It’s not Halloween!”
And there I was, frantically pulling random things out of our cupboards to give them. I ran back downstairs and started handing them food. Instead of Halloween bags or plastic pumpkins, they simply held out their hands for the treats. They thanked me profusely and walked away. I was baffled and amused. What was going on? No other kids showed up that night, and I assumed that whatever was going on was now over.
Until the next night, when the doorbell rang again. Sure enough, more kids stood at my door…all dressed as ghosts and all staring at me. Back upstairs, I rummaged through our cupboards again and gave them whatever I could find that could possibly pass as a treat. This happened at least once more, and then promptly stopped. Was it the same kids each night, or were they spreading word to their friends that those funny Americans on Hornberger Str. were giving out food? And why were they all dressed as ghosts? Was it just an easy costume or had they all been watching “It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown”? And since when was Halloween a week long holiday? They had the Halloween concept right, but the details had definitely been lost in translation.
Every year, around Halloween, I think of our first German Halloween. Those kids had no idea what they were supposed to do or say. Their costumes were bed sheets and they had no pillowcases or plastic pumpkins. I can’t remember any more what treats I gave them, though I think it was mostly granola bars and boxes of raisins. But those kids were the happiest trick-or-treaters I’ve ever seen!