The Celtic festival of Samhain which eventually became Halloween is rooted in the celebration of New Year. In essence, it marked the denouement of summer and the descent into cold and darkness (two thousand years later we call this “Brexit”). Indeed, as the light turned to dark on the thirty-first, the Celts believed a blurring of the distinct boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead allowed the return of ghosts to do a bit of spooking. And this is why masks, costumes and fire came to represent the tradition, as they were used to scare away the mischievous spirits and early incarnations of the Jacob Rees-Mogg.
However, in an attempt to bamboozle these pagan traditions of old in the 7th century (ask yourself if it really proved effective as you hand over your Euros this week for a scary clown mask in 2019) Pope Boniface decreed that the first of November would be a day to honour saints, and this meant the evening before became known as Holy or Hallowed Eve (with or without pumpkins it is not clear).
Many guide books on Vienna will allude to the long-held tradition of the Viennese decamping on mass to the various cemeteries around this time. To pay respects to the deceased, light a candle or two and perhaps splash a bit of cash on a wreath of remembrance which are usually sold outside the cemetery gates in the original pop-up markets. And of course this is a contemporary nod to the Catholic decrees from the Vatican (and the first of November is a public holiday – Allerheiligen). And so I have nothing to add to this mythology except to say, yes, when it comes to cemeteries on the 1st and 2nd November, it’s all true, the citizens of Vienna are dying to get into them.
To the casual observer, there is nothing much to suggest that Halloween, aside from a few discrete references, has much of a symbolic hold on the average Wiener. However, there is one indubitably clear exception: being a parent. Because Halloween, for better or worse, has become as much part of the cultural calendar if you have children as Nikolo (the 6th of December and the appearance of St. Nicholas), Fasching (carnival and costumes just before Lent) or the end of school in June when winter really sets in.
I have checked with Mrs Barratt (made in Vienna) and she assures me that when she was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, nobody spoke of Halloween. Even in those early days in the number one city, I have vague memories of some bars hosting some Halloween parties. But aside from the Irish Pubs that were just springing in the late middle to late nineties, they seemed confined mostly to students (if that).
Certainly, in the intervening decade or so, the thirty-first never registered much except that it was the traditional birthday celebration of a close friend who made use of the public holiday the next day to allow him to exercise his own version of the living dead with the inevitable crushing hangover. But for this reason, the tradition of Halloween and what it has come to represent is, in every sense, a modern aberration in the Vienna and beyond. The question, then, is when and why did it suddenly become a feature of the cultural landscape in modern Wien?
My children were born in the middle to late noughties and so I suspect it first came on my radar through kindergarten (although there was more of an emphasis on the “lantern festival” at this time) and in turn primary school, when Süsses oder Saures (trick or treat) suddenly appeared on the lexiconal landscape. Oddly, other parents and Austrian acquaintances assume because I am British, where Halloween is, I concede, more established, that trick or treating is a part of my cultural DNA. But as I have often pointed out in the last ten years or so, the territorial menace that is the trick or treat tradition is an American eccentricity. And as a child, all I can really remember about Halloween is apple bobbing and perhaps the odd, badly made (and I stress “made”) costume.
So if this deals in part with the when, what about the why? My theory is that much like the Wienerwiesen (the ten year old Vienna incarnation of the Oktoberfest and another cultural migrant) Halloween has its roots in the financial crash of 2008. And so one way to play down, deflect or ride out the economic downturn, hardship and political fractiousness in the subsequent decade was to manufacture two events associated with getting pissed and death. In short, another consumerist jamboree with the accompanying crap, fast-fashion and accessories to keep the economy turning and condemn us to an earlier grave. I admit, such a theory might be a hard sell in the competitive world of the MBA industry but let’s face it, the only certain thing about economics is that nothing is certain (except Boris Johnson speaking his usual pifflepaffle, another scandal involving the far-right in Austria or, oh yes, death).
One thing is clear, though, by this stage in October resistance to the build up and inevitable submission is, if you are a parent, largely futile. You can protest of course, by trying to reassert your own belief system (another way of saying “I am not buying into this bogus consumerist fantasy worth twelve million Euro to the Viennese economy”) but such a social transgression runs the risk of community stigmatisation. Although it is precisely this tacit assumption that one must play along which sets off my vex-siren.
Then again, I may have this all wrong and Halloween in Vienna may just be harmless fun. Indeed, cultures and traditions are in a constant state of transition and such flux is nothing new. Most of what we understand by “contemporary” culture are recent constructs which over time have become the accepted norm. And as Woody Allen once said, although obviously he has never spent time in the Austrian countryside, “Tradition is the illusion of permanence”. So relax, you shout, have another bonbon.
Yet, I suppose my real difficulty with the proliferation of Halloween in Vienna and the emphasis, in particular, on the insatiable desire for trick or treating, can be surmised in three short sentences:
First, it is what it is; a cynical exercise in the extraction of cash from parents (i.e. me).
Second, it facilitates cultural dilution or perhaps even displacement. The traditional “costume” day in Austria (mentioned earlier) is the Tuesday before Lent (Faschingsdienstag). But Halloween brings this notionally forward and therefore means the hard-pressed parent is press-ganged into buying a piss-poor costume and other assorted plastic crap which is then used for a couple of soon-to-be forgotten hours before hitting landfill.
And third, it is an imposition (in German, Zumutung). Not only on the families with children but for the people of a certain age or generation who are essentially coerced into taking part, whether they like it or not, in spite of the good chance they are oblivious to its cultural connotations. The manifestation of which is the pressure to respond to a ringing doorbell after dark (in Vienna a heinous indiscretion) and the semantic battering ram of “Süsses oder Saures” screamed by tiny people in masks.
Halloween this year fortunately falls in the half-term school holiday which would please the papal fathers. However, danger lurks on every suburban corner and there has already been talk of my younger son hitting the neighbourhood in search of sugary swag. Powerless in spite of my inherent agnosis, I shall inevitably accede to the demands of the mob. The alternative is to resort to the unyielding tradition which has been passed down through the centuries and is hard-wired into the Austrian cultural consciousness: hide in the cellar and turn the lights off.
© 2019 RJ Barratt