Hey folks, I planned to release this post on Monday, but major tech issues have plagued me. After spending six hours at the Apple store (argh!), my machine is now back up and running … so here we go, a little late ….
I’m jumping out of my current blog timeline for a moment to talk about Halloween, since the festivities just wrapped up this past weekend. (Plus, it’s a welcome distraction from my USA Election Day anxieties.) Halloween ranks high amongst the many odd American customs that seem to fascinate Norwegians. In fact, Norway has recently imported the trick-or-treat tradition, especially in big cities like Oslo. With that in mind, I thought my readers on both sides of the pond might enjoy hearing more about how each country puts its stamp on the event.
You might already know Halloween’s backstory, but I’ll review for the newbies in our group. The holiday is another one of those pagan celebrations that Christians eventually appropriated, just like Christmas and Easter. All of these “holidays / holy days” have their origins in observing the movements of the sun (which eventually became The Son, get it? Yup, Jesus is in fact a solar deity.) While Easter announces the Spring Equinox, Halloween marks the midpoint between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice (commemorated by Christmas).
It’s this murky “halfway-in-between” status that is Halloween’s hallmark. The holiday occurs when the autumn hours of daylight are in the middle of fading to winter’s darkness. That’s why the colors of the setting sun (orange) and the moonless night (black) dominate decorating schemes. Not to mention that the celebration marks when nature moves midway from plenty (harvest) to lack (winter). Yet another reason why color-coordinated seasonal produce plays an important role.
Many ancient cultures also believed that the portal between life and death, or heaven and earth, remained partially open during this transitional time of year. As a result, those who’d passed into the spirit realm could come back to pester those still present on this earthly plane. That’s where the Celts come in. They celebrated the festival of Samhain (“Summers End”) from the evening of October 31 to the evening of November 1. During Samhain, spirits, fairies, and ancient gods walked among men to receive gifts in return for granting survival through the coming winter.
I think you can see where this is going. Many of the Celtic traditions eventually morphed into the modern practices of trick or treat. You’ve got your kids dressed up like ghosts, goblins, fairy princesses, and Marvel heroes who go from door to door and are welcomed with goodies. Or they’re chased away by Jack-o-lanterns, bonfires, and a basic lack of candy — with the result that any inhospitables get “pranked” as punishment. Kinda fun knowing you’re participating in traditions practiced for millennia by pagans, huh?
But eventually Christians tried to redeem the holiday. They claimed that Hallows’ Eve (meaning “Saints’ Evening”) ushered in All Saints’ Day on November 1, which honored any do-gooders who didn’t already have their own specially designated day. The next day, November 2, became All Souls Day, when Christians could give their dead relatives a leg up through Purgatory by praying (and paying) for them in church. Yep, it always comes back to gift-giving in return for safe passage of family members’ spirits as a favor from the Holy Spirit.
So now that we’ve addressed the basics of Halloween, how does it play out in Norway? Norwegians do have similar traditions regarding spirits and witches. In fact, the Norwegian word for “witch” is hex — that’s where our English word for a witch’s curse comes from. However, most of Norway’s occult activity is more closely associated with the Winter Solstice, when the witch Lussi took to the skies on her broom. She and her band of ghosts, demons, and criminals liked to swoop down upon the homes of neglectful farmer to steal their children and kill their cattle. (See my post, Santa Lucia Day for more.)
Norwegians have quite recently bought into the whole Halloween mythology, likely as a result of watching a few too many American horror movies. (Norwegians love the genre and have a few gore flicks of their own.) But the commercial proliferation of Halloween paraphernalia hasn’t quite yet caught on. The first year we lived in Oslo, I found just a couple of shops that offered decorations such as small rubber bats, skeletons, and orange-n-black streamers. Getting a pumpkin was well nigh impossible, except at our favorite green grocer, Jules Colonial, who managed to find a few, “for you Americans, who celebrate Halloween.” However, I spotted only three Jack-o-lanterns in windows, most likely belonging to expats like Matthew and I.
But by year four, it seemed like everyone wanted in on the action. For the first time, a pop-up Halloween costume shop appeared in the middle of Aker Brygge, the high-end shopping mall that juts into Oslo’s harbor. Even better, my favorite neighborhood bakery began offering several kinds of pumpkin and ghost treats. Then, two of the trainers in my weightlifting class dressed for the occasion — as a cat and a “Like a Virgin” Madonna. And we got our first trick-or-treater, the little girl who lived across the hall, sporting Winnie the Pooh jammies. Not sure if she visited anyone else, or if her parents kindly costumed her just to cheer up the sad Americans, who were missing their homeland holiday.
Later that day, I did see a few more parents carrying tiny trick-or-treaters from store to store, where they received candy or cupcakes. But I didn’t get the sense that the door-to-door thing is a big tradition in my Frogner neighborhood, although I’m told that some of the suburbs are more into it. I’m really surprised trick-or-treating isn’t more of a hit, especially when it falls on a Saturday, which would nicely coincide with the Norwegian tradition of Lørdagsgodt (Saturday goodies.)
Here’s the story I was told about Lørdagsgodt. Supposedly, Norwegian children aren’t allowed any candy at all during the week. It’s reserved only for Saturday afternoon and evening, usually between the hours of 3:00 and 6:00 p.m. That’s when the kids are given an empty bag with instructions to raid the candy store aisles and fill the sack to its brim with favorites. I’m imagining that dealing with the fallout from such indulgence (hyperactivity, sleeplessness, and a “cleanup on Aisle 4” after a too-full tummy) isn’t so different from Halloween — except that in Norway it’s a weekly occurrence.
But despite all the pumpkin-pushing and stores featuring Halloween decorations, I have yet to see a Norwegian home decked out in ghosts and goblins. And I’ve not noticed a single ad for amusement-park haunted houses. Nor have I passed any hotels enticing folks to attend big Halloween bashes. I’ve spied just a few folks in costume on the weekends bracketing the holiday; usually girls dressed in your stereotypically slutty nurse, cat, or devil outfit. I can only assume they’re trying to make a big impression in the clubs.
It’s all quite different from Chicago, which goes apesh*t for the holiday. The skyscrapers are lit up in orange floodlights; every bar, club, restaurant, and hotel holds some sort of party, masquerade ball, or haunted house; and you can’t walk down the sidewalk without tripping over a Jack-o-lantern … or 50 of ’em. Then there’s the houses. Most every home is dripping in cobwebs, animatronic witches, inflatable giant spiders, you name it, all to entertain the kiddies on the Eve.
You’d think with its crime record, Chicago wouldn’t be a place you’d let your kids target for trick or treating. But my street is insane. It’s so thick with children and their parents that police are brought in for crowd control. This year, Matthew and I had to make three candy runs to the nearby grocery store because our stash kept dropping dangerously low. Final count? About 15 enormous bags of the sweet stuff found their way into the pillowcases of parading children. And in case you think the holiday is just for the little ones, many homes have bonfires and offer mugs of hot cider or glasses of wine for the adults wandering the block with their little ones in tow. Click through the gallery to see more of the festivities.
This year, after the door-to-door thing wound down, Matthew and I headed to the Northalsted Halloween Parade. Most folks know it as the Boystown Parade. You guessed it, it’s a costume contest MC’d and judged by drag queens. (It’s been ranked as one of the 10 Best Halloween Celebrations in the U.S. by Fodor’s Travel Guide.) Should you visit Chicago and feel like participating, you can be a spectator or join the processional. But beware, you better represent — lame outfits get hilariously mocked by the judges.
There’s another side to the holiday in Chicago, however. One that few cities in the U.S. get to experience. Because of our large Mexican population, Chicagoans have the rare opportunity to take part in Día de Muertos (“Day of the Dead”) traditions that provide some real heart to the Halloween season. I’m sure many of you have heard of the celebration, watched the Disney movie “Coco,” or seen the colorful calaveras (“skulls”). But viewed out of context, these bright visuals lack their powerful deeper meaning.
In a nutshell, Día de Muertos is about connecting generations of family across time, and celebrating the continuation of life beyond death. The holiday blends Aztec customs attached to Mictecacihuatl, goddess of the underworld, with Catholic traditions reserved for All Saints’ and All Souls’ Days. On these days, family members create altars with ofrendas (“offerings”) to honor and entice the spirits of their dead relatives to return to earth and pay them a visit. Ofrendas include the deceased’s favorite food and drink, as well as other belongings that he or she cherished in life. Four key components help to draw the spirits near: sugar skulls labeled with the departed’s name, cempasúchil (orange Mexican marigold flowers), copal (purifying incense made from tree resin), and candles.
The goal is to create an environment that guides the souls back home, where they can be surrounded by their loving relatives and nourished for the continuing journey through the afterlife. In Chicago as in Mexico, you can occasionally see families sitting all night by the graves of their loved ones, sharing a meal and providing an extra pillow and blanket for the spirit of the dead so that he or she can rest. It seems more like a joyful reunion, rather than a somber vigil. Click through my gallery of images taken at The National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago below to learn more.
Long ago, Norwegians had a similar custom. They believed that on Christmas Eve, the spirits of their dead relatives would return home for a visit. The family slept on the straw-covered floor in order to leave the beds available for the dearly departed. Food — and lots of beer, of course — were left out to make sure the deceased’s journey was well-fueled. It makes me a little sad that so many cultures have lost these traditions today, as I think we’d all feel less grieved if we believed that we could regularly reconnect with those who’ve passed on.
In any case, if you’re traveling to Chicago around Halloween and would like to see some of the Día de Muertos festivities and ofrendas like those in the photo gallery above, check out the National Museum of Mexican Art. Events include musical performances, art demonstrations, a masquerade ball, and the opportunity to participate in rituals surrounding the holiday and meet the artists and families who made and sponsored the ofrendas.
Matthew and I used to attend regularly before moving to Norway, and one year we were lucky enough to meet the Mondragon family, who flies in every year from Toluca to make the colorful sugar skulls so vital to the celebration. After joining them for supper in their temporary quarters, we got to watch the family cast the calaveras in clay moulds, which come in several sizes. Click through the gallery below for details. (The images taken in the apartment come from the museum’s display, as my photos are on old-school Kodak paper and have yet to be unpacked.)
When you visit the museum, be sure to take time for a walk around Pilsen. It’s a colorful, vibrant neighborhood where you can learn more about authentic Mexican culture and art. The community houses an astounding number of artists, but it’s currently under stress from gentrification and developers’ attempts to neutralize the neighborhood’s ethnicity — check out the exhibit “Peeling off the Grey” to learn more. One of our favorite things to do after visiting the museum is to go to any of the many terrific Mexican restaurants, then stop by Panadería Nuevo Leon for some traditional Day of the Dead treats. If you go, you must try the coffee — it’s flavored with cinnamon and vanilla, a Mexican tradition that’s beyond wonderful.
This year was especially meaningful, not only because it was our first time back after our move to Norway, but also because of another exhibition we toured. Nuestras Historias (“Our Histories”) highlights the Museum’s Permanent Collection to showcase the dynamic and diverse stories of Mexican identity in North America. It’s a compelling and important message in a time when a lot of people seem to forget that the name “American” can apply to more than just those who were born in the U.S.
And it’s a vital theme in our current election, where hate speech, anti-immigration sentiments, and “building a wall” seems to have successfully blocked the memory of how America started and the philosophy upon which our constitution was formed. I’m hoping to wake up tomorrow with renewed faith that the U.S. has rediscovered its moral compass. Crossed fingers that I’m not disappointed.
Postscript: Well, things didn’t turn out as well as I’d wished, especially in Atlanta, where I’d just visited my sister, who has been volunteering for Stacey Abrams’ campaign. It grieves me that race is still such an issue in the American South, where I’m from originally. When will we be become colorblind and simply honor the common humanity in everyone? Here’s hoping for a runoff, sis!