I never used to be a big fan of autumn. The days are getting shorter, darker and the weather is turning misty and grey. Autumn is the inevitable goodbye of summer and a reminder to swap your favourite summer skirt for a waterproof and a fleece jacket. All this really used to get me down. That was until I realised that while fall can be miserable, it actually is my favourite season of all. It is the pre-festive season, the time to get cosy and quite frankly heaven on earth if you’re a foodie; as nature is spoiling you with fresh forest mushrooms, ripe apples and bright orange pumpkins.
I couldn’t help but notice that autumn seems to have more holidays, traditions and festivities than any other time of year and to say that that got me excited is an understatement. I love festivities and customs, and not just the ones that I’m used to from my own culture! It amazes me how many different traditions are celebrated all across the globe and how customs that can seem so normal and natural when you grow up with them, still raise an eyebrow or two when you share them with people from other countries. So I thought I share some of my favourite international autumn festivities and traditions with you.
Halloween – 31st October
Halloween a holiday that is loved by some and hated by others, but definitely known and celebrated around the globe. While Halloween nowadays is a very commercial event, I wanted to know a little more about its origin and find out where it all started. It originated in Ireland
According to a myth an Irish troublemaker named Jack Oldfield tricked the devil and captured him and was only willing to release him if he promised not to interfere with Jack’s life. Because Jack had angered the devil and lived an unholy life, he wasn’t allowed to rest in heaven or hell after his death. The myth says that the devil did make a compromise and gifted Jack a light and a root vegetable. This story continued to inspire the holiday, even with the Irish immigrants that had settled in the United States. The land there was fruitful and the Irish settlers started to use a hollow pumpkin which was later known as Jack O Lantern. The tradition continued to spread across the United States and due to its popularity was later adapted in Canada and other countries.
Considering the origin of the Halloween tradition was in Europe, you would think that Europeans started celebrating the day around the same time. When in fact the customs didn’t catch on until 1990’s and while European countries have adapted many customs that are associated with Halloween, the overall atmosphere is a lot more cheerful and less scary than in the United States.
I don’t really remember when I went trick or treating for the first time but I must have been nine or ten years old and absolutely loved it. I mean dressing up and free candy, hello? Considering that Halloween hadn’t been celebrated in Germany for very long at the time, people were really prepared with sweets and decorations and most people really got into the whole spirit. When I was teenager Halloween lost its appeal as I was too old to go trick or treating and there weren’t really any Halloween parties or events (I don’t think Germans like to dress up in costumes after a certain age). So you can imagine my surprise when I celebrated England for the first time. Like anything else in the UK Halloween over there is colourful, fun, loud and very much alcohol fueled. Sounds funky right? What made it even better was sharing the experience with travelers from all over Europe bringing lots of different Halloween traditions together. It’s safe to say that no other Halloween party ever even got close to this one.
Bonfire Night (Guy Fawkes Night) – 5th November
Bonfire Night, also called Guy Fawkes Night is a tradition that I got familiar with during my time in Leeds. The clue is very much in the name. The tradition celebrates the capture of Guy Fawkes, a criminal that plotted to blow the English Houses of Parliament together with 12 other men in 1605. The group had stored 36 barrels of explosives underneath the House of Lords in the hope that blowing them up would kill the King James I and other members of parliament that were making it difficult for the Catholics at the time.
Do you remember what I said in the introduction about other tradition sometimes sounding a little odd? Well the customs of Bonfire Night are exactly that, odd! To this day people make little Guy Fawkes dolls out of hay and straw weeks before Bonfire Night. These dolls are not meant as decorations, rather as the center point of the bonfire. The doll gets burned in the fire, to celebrate that the gunpowder plot never actually took place and Guy Fawkes was captured.
It’s not all doom and gloom though. In fact the spirit of Bonfire Night is very much a happy one (maybe that’s what makes it so odd?). Pretty much every park in England will put on a public bonfire and fireworks display that symbolises what would have happened had Guy Fakes succeeded. People wrap up warm, buy toffee apples and watch the bonfire. Some of the bigger parks will also put on a display of fireworks. Not everybody makes it to the park in time after work. So it’s not uncommon for families to celebrate the day in their back garden with fireworks and nibbles.
Martinstag (St Martin’s Day) – 11th November
St. Martin’s Day is celebrated across Central Europe on the 11th November. The origins of the Christian holiday date back to 397 p.Chr.n..
As the day is only really celebrated in a handful of countries, it’s no surprise that most people are not familiar with the holiday and the traditions and customs that go along with it. I have to admit that it has been more than 15 years since I have last celebrated St. Martin’s Day. I’m not sure whether this is because it has become a lot less popular over the years or if I have lost interest, but I do have some very fond memories of the customs. When I was a child, my grandmother used to bake a huge “Martinsmann”. This is very much like a gingerbread man only that it is made from sweet yeast batter.
The best thing about Martin’s Day are the lantern walks! Every child has a colourful paper lantern on a wooden stick with a small candle burning inside it. Sometimes the children make the lanterns in nursery or primary school. In some parts of Germany they will be accompanied by a man on a white horse, playing the Saint Martin.
Thanksgiving – The fourth Thursday of November
Most people are familiar with the Thanksgiving tradition and so was I, or at least I thought until a few years ago when I was invited by an American friend of mine to join him and his family for their festivities. Little did I know just how much work went into the preparation of the Thanksgiving meal. I mean, yes I had seen it in films but the incredible amount of food that was on show in the kitchen and the fact that it takes literally all day to prepare still surprised me.
My favourite part of the evening was without a doubt the Pumpkin Pie. I had never eaten anything that tasted so much like autumn: the sweet taste of the pumpkin combined with the festive flavours of the pumpkin spice just made me feel cosy and warm.
Although Thanksgiving is a Northern American holiday, many other parts of the world also engage in harvest festivals to show their gratitude for the harvest goods. But no other harvest celebration has ever made me feel so at home and genuinely thankful for all that I have, so Thanksgiving is definitely a holiday that I can imagine adapting into my own culture.
The Light Switch-On
While the decorating of the house or flat before the first of Advent is an important part of Germany’s Christmas traditions and very much the beginning of the festive season, the light switch-on symbolises the same in most English communities and cities. Every town will decorate the streets with Christmas lights throughout November in preparation of the big light switch on where people will gather in the streets in anticipation for the lights to be switched on for the very first time. It is custom for the Council to hire a more or less well-known celebrity (depending on the funds of the council) and he or she will usually perform and have the honour to turn on the lights.
I will be discussing autumn traditions in more detail as co-host of #RTWChat on Fall Travel – come join me on Twitter tonight (13th October) and share your favourite traditions and customs at 3:30pm EST or 9:30pm CET.