In Europe, for a long time, Halloween was known as a typically American event. This is changing rapidly now, but the reason why it took so long for Halloween to invade the European holiday calendar was the plethora of other festivals that satisfy the all-too-human need for dressing-up and sweet treats.
In Belgium and The Netherlands, there is the Feast of Saint Martin (“Sint-Maartenfeest”), another one of those “secular Saint” festivals, like Saint Nicholas (“Sinterklaas”). On 11 November or the eve thereof, children, dressed their best, parade through the towns with lanterns made of paper or a beet lit from within by a candle. They go door to door, singing for candy, fruit of small change.
In the same region, on 6 January or the Feast of the Three Kings (“Driekoningen”), children dress up as kings, with sheets, cardboard bishop’s miters and staffs, and a star that turns on the end of a long stick. Again they go from door to door singing for candy or money. And again the origin is Christian (it is the Feast of the Epiphany, when Jesus was revealed to the Three Wise Men), but just like the Feasts of Saints Martin and Nicholas, it has become secularized as a fun children’s festival.
It’s not just the children who get to have all the fun. Carnival, which is also of Christian origin (in the Middle Ages it was a culinary pig-out before the 40 fasting days of Lent, a kind of anti-Lent), will be celebrated from 18 to 20 February in Rio de Janeiro and New Orleans’ (yes, we’re talking about Mardi Gras). But it is also the occasion for much merriment in Europe, from the fancy event in Venice, Italy to costume parties in the primary schools in the Lower Countries and party parties for the adults in general.
Then there are many smaller festivals. A good example is the Sorcerers’ Feast (“Fete des Sorcieres”) in Chalindrey, France, this year on 28-29 October, which makes a statement against the commercialization of Halloween.
Another reason why Halloween was slow to catch on in Europe is its relation to All-Hallows/All-Saints’ and All-Souls’. In the past, which was deeply Christian, the idea of making fun and earning some cash (for the kids) and the big bucks (for the retailers) so close to those solemn holidays seemed rather blasphemous. Probably the fact that the present European generation has all but jettisoned religion (see for instance, the numbers on previously very catholic Belgium), has removed a big obstacle to the rising popularity of Halloween.
Halloween has taken Europe by storm, unfortunately in its most blatant commercial form, but it’s there to stay.