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Better than Halloween: The Most Unusual Fall Traditions around Europe

After over a decade spent in the Mediterranean, far from the hoards of trick-or-treaters back home in the Midwest, Halloween is one of my favorite holidays. That said, most places in Europe have cool traditions of their own at the end of October and early November. They may not involve massive quantities of name-brand candy and costumes, but there are plenty of good eats and flower-laden, candlelit cemeteries. Many regional celebrations span an entire week, or at least a long weekend. Here are a few favorites from around Europe.

Austria, Germany and Switzerland: Root goblins, carols and hidden knives  

For All Hallow’s Eve, Austrians leave a light on all night, as well some bread and water for the dead. In Germany, kids carve Rübengeister, root monsters, from beets or turnips to scare away bad spirits and their parents put away knives before bed to keep the departed from harming themselves. 

Around Germany, Austria and Switzerland, Protestants honor Martin Luther’s birthday on November 10th, and Catholics celebrate St. Martin’s Day, on November 11th. Most Martin-themed events involve students singing for treats door-to-door or in street processions, marking the time of year when farm-workers’ children went to the houses of wealthy land-owners caroling, begging for food and gifts to get their families through the winter after their parents were dismissed to survive the coldest part of the year with no income. In Catholic areas, the traditional meal for this occasion is goose with red cabbage and dumplings—St. Martin was said to have hidden in a goose corral to avoid being ordained bishop.

Spain, Portugal and Italy: Chestnut parties, skeletal sweets, and marriage proposals

Special food and a day off are a common theme in these Southern European countries, where the faithful pray for the deceased and leave flowers on their graves.

Bakers prepare unusual sweets around Spain and Italy from late October to early November. All around Spain, you can buy Huesos de Santo, cylindrical marzipan cookies filled with candied egg yolk said to resemble the bones of Saints. While Sicilians make their own bony cookies scented with cloves, delicate Fava-bean-shaped cakes called Fava dei Morti are ubiquitous throughout Italy. In an interesting twist, in Rome and surrounding areas, on November 2nd, young men hide rings in boxes of "dead bean" cakes, propose marriage, and depending on their luck, announce engagements. Further south, in Sicily, children believe that if they’re good and pray for the dead all year, the departed will bring them candy dolls. 

Portugal and parts of Northern Spain celebrate with seasonal produce and chestnut “parties”. For Tosantos in Cadiz, Spain, locals dress up the livestock at market, and make effigies of politicians and celebrities out of fruits, vegetables and nuts on October 31st. A day later, in Extremadura, young people go from door to door singing and begging for fruits in season like walnuts, chestnuts, and pomegranates. In Catalonia, bakers roll marzipan in pine nuts to make panellet cookies, roast chestnuts and sweet potatoes and enjoy la Castanyada with their families, friends and plenty of Muscatel wine on the last day in October. Around Portugal, these parties, known as Magusto, are typically outdoors around a bonfire and often coincide with All Saints on November 1, or St. Martin’s Day on November 11th. People sing, drink, roast chestnuts in the fire and play practical jokes. 

Ireland and the UK: Fruitcakes, Straw men, and Fireworks

While Americanized Halloween is more popular than many locals would prefer and regarded mostly as an excuse teenagers use to wreak havoc, it’s common knowledge that modern Halloween traditions were imported from the British Isles long ago. Many customs are thought to be derived from the Celtic end-of-summer festival Samhain.

Children stateside are warned about razors in candy from strangers—in Ireland, children and adults alike have to watch out for foreign objects in their main course and dessert prepared by family members. Coins are hidden in potatoes served with curly kale and onions in a dish called Colcannon. The potatoes are followed up with barnbrack, a fruitcake with symbolic souvenirs baked into it. Biting into a piece of rag could mean your financial future is bleak, and a ring may mean you’ll soon be married. Kids still play games of knock-a-dolly, pounding on doors, and running away before anyone can answer. 

Meanwhile in the U.K., Guy Fawkes Night, celebrated November 5, is more popular than All Saints or All Hallow’s Eve. Originally a celebration of King James I surviving Guy Fawkes's attempt on his life in 1605, the holiday has lost some of its political significance, but continues to be a popular outing. Dramatic firework shows have been added to the long-standing tradition of hoisting a straw figure representing Guy Fawkes into the bonfire.

Czech Republic, Poland and Slovakia: Illuminated cemeteries, funerary art thieves, and meals with the dead

In this part of Europe, All Saints is a weeklong affair welcoming deceased souls back to the land of the living, starting November 1st. In countries like Czech Republic, Poland, and Slovakia, locals decorate the graves of loved ones with flowers and candles or lamps. It’s the perfect time of year for a moonlit stroll around historic cemeteries—even the abandoned tombs of the long dead are cleaned up and decorated this time of year. In Poland, All Saints and All Souls, or Zaduszki, is still so widely celebrated that there’s heavy traffic on routes to cemeteries and the holiday has become notorious for on-top-of grave robbing, as thieves steal and resell funerary lamps and wreaths. 

Most of these traditions are derived from a Slavic holiday called Dzaidy, when the ghosts of ancestors and relatives were summoned to dine in the homes of the living. The lamps and candles used to illuminate graveyards are what remain of the ancient rites of lighting fires on burial grounds to keep lost souls warm. Spitting and heavy work are still frowned upon on these dates, out of respect for the dead. Houses are cleaned, doors are left open, and food and toiletries are put out to welcome the dearly departed. Czechs and Slovaks toast the deceased with cold milk to cool the souls roasting in purgatory and place chairs by the fireside on so that loved ones, from this world and the next, can sit and spend time together.

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