Saturday, November 6, 2010

This is Halloween

Halloween has never been my holiday.

I’ve never been one for dressing up or planning a big party. Even getting the kids their costumes was a chore. But living abroad changes things. I’ve realized that Halloween, although a Celtic holiday in origin, is part of my American identity.

The Dutch, being Dutch, do not celebrate Halloween. The closest thing they have is St Martin’s Day. On eve of November 12th each year Dutch children carry lanterns in groups and travel door to door. There they sing songs about St. Martin, a fourth century saint, in return for candy. This has not happened at our house yet, but I’m waiting.

St. Martin's Day in NL
In most of Holland and the surrounding Netherlands, you will not find jack-o-lanterns or spooky decorations. Candy corn is a rare and valued commodity. This is mostly procured by families associated with the American Embassy who have access to the commissary at the US military base in Germany. Lucky sods.

Because I live in a bit of an ex-patriot community, the local shop owners try to cater to American tastes. Last year a tiny costume shop opened in our village. Now, for the first time, it is possible to get cotton spider webs and scary masks without making a special order to England. Even the candy shop now has a limited selection of skeleton licorice and ghost shaped marshmallows.

My children’s school makes Halloween happen here by sheer force of its will. They organize candy donations, petition hundreds of families to open their homes, make a map of participating households, and distribute bags of candy to each open house. Each participating family must be registered on-line and then donate 2 ½ pounds of candy per kid to the school collection site.

Our local cemetary
Expats come in from all over the area to trick-or-treat in our village. The street parking disappears. As evening approaches, hundreds of ghosts, fairies, and witches appear out of nowhere. On some streets, you could lose your children in the crowd. The line at the doors can be 10 children deep. Two families I know kept track of how many children came to their door this year. One family told me they had 420. Another said they stopped counting at 500.

 Although Halloween is not uniquely American, it seems the tradition of the adult Halloween costume party is. My German friend is fascinated by the psychological need of adults to create another persona, an alter ego, through costumes. She believes that since Americans do not celebrate Marti Gras or Carnival, they attach their need for an evening in costume to a holiday otherwise reserved for children. Our American need for an alter ego must be very strong here. There were many costume parties and the adults came out in the most amazing array of thoughtful and creative disguises.

This year, we had a wonderful Halloween! Jordan designed her own costume. She and I spend a few afternoons making child sized butterfly wings out of discarded cardboard and construction paper. Audrey spent a happy hours in our dress-up box choosing items for her princess costume, only to change her mind a the last minute and dress as a ballerina.

Walt and our lovely hostess in costume

For the first time in years, Walt and I went to a costume party in costume. We spent the week before Halloween planning and ordering accessories. Walt even bought face paint and started viewing tutorials on about applying makeup.

It has become meaningful to me to decorate with pumpkins and jack-o-lanterns, to give time and thought to costumes, and most importantly to participate. There was something so comforting about celebrating this holiday. More than Thanksgiving or Fourth of July, this holiday has come to mean home to me. And I am so proud to share it.

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