Halloween in Oslo & Chicago

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.

The sun/Son says, “I am the light of the world.” Tracking how much sunlight we get has preoccupied humans for millennia. Not only do we set our watches by it, but it also drives our religious calendars, which are synched to the sun’s latitudes. Oslo celebrates the Autumnal Equinox with “12/12 Day,” meaning there are equal hours of daylight and darkness.  But by Halloween, there are less than nine hours of daylight.

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 “holy days” have their origins in observing the movements of the sun (which eventually became The Son, get it?) While Easter announces the Spring Equinox, Halloween marks the midpoint between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice (commemorated by Christmas).

Pumpkins make great Halloween mascots because they ripen to a sunset orange during harvest time, near the Autumnal Equinox. Before the discovery of the New World (where pumpkins originate), rutabagas that ripen to red in the autumn were used as Jack-o-lanterns.

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.

Celtic traditions hung around longest in places like Scotland, Ireland, Wales, and northern France. The Irish brought many of their Halloween traditions to America, where we amped up the holiday to Hollywood status. Irish turnips (rutabagas) like this early 20th-century example were the original Jack-o’-lanterns. Photographed at the Museum of Country Life, Ireland, Wikipedia Commons.

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.

Nils Bergslien’s painting “Julereia” (1922) shows Lussi stealing a child while riding her broom. She leads the Oskorei, a parade of trolls, gnomes, and the spirits of murderers, thieves, and general degenerates. She conducted her rampage on the longest night of the year — the Winter Solstice. Click for bigger view.

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.)

Yes, Norwegians love scary movies and have their own zombie flicks. A perennial favorite is Død Snø (Dead Snow), a Norwegian film about students on a ski holiday who run into a troop of Nazi zombies. So far it’s spawned two sequels.

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.

The girls from Baker Hansen really got into the holiday, winning the award for the most Halloween spirit. Check out their cat and bat ears.

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.

Cupcakes for the kiddies! Yeah, “skummelt” doesn’t sound very appetizing, but hey, at least the goodies are gluten free. The full translation is “scary good cupcakes, also gluten free.”

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.)

I’ve witnessed a Lørdagsgodt grabfest myself, most often at the movie theater, where the lineup of sugary crap is beyond anything I’ve ever seen back home in Chicago. An entire room is filled with racks just like this.

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.

The Halloween party store in Aker Brygge offered the usual assortment of costumes and decorations. Slutty nurses, nuns, and vampires seemed to be the most popular outfits.

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.

Our neighbor sits quietly contemplating the graveyard he’s created in his front yard. People spend thousands of dollars on their Halloween decorations.

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.

When I say my street is overwhelmed during Halloween, I’m not kidding. Seriously, it was wall-to-wall bodies — live ones at first, who later became the walking dead after battling the crowds.

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 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 and wine for the adults wandering the block. Click through the gallery to see more of the festivities.

Four drag queens judged the competition. The lady on the far left was my favorite, “Lucy Stool.” Ba-dump-dump.

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.

“Calaveras de Azúcar” (skulls of sugar) are not only richly hued works of art decorated with icing and tinsel, but they’re also a key component in Day of the Dead celebrations. Families have the artist write the name of the deceased on the skull’s forehead, then they place it on their ofrenda back home.

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.

Pictured is an ofrenda dedicated to all who died in the 2017 earthquake in Mexico. The image honors Antonio Cazabal Castro, a dancer, artist, and keeper of Mexican cultural traditions. The three-tiered altar reflects customs from the state of Puebla. The first tier holds the offering and represents the earthly plane. The second tier represents the underworld, where the dead must make amends. The third tier represents the Mesoamerican belief of reaching divinity, the sun, which has merged with the Christian Son.

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.

Beer and bread are left out for the ancestors at the Norwegian Folk Museum in Oslo. Notice the black sooty cross painted on the vessel of beer, to keep the Devil out of the spirits.

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.

Here, Señor Mondragon stirs alfeñique, a special confection of barley sugar, which will be made into calaveras. The family brings a huge load of the sugar in every year from Tloluca during their six-week stay. They’ve been making Day of the Dead sugared skulls at the museum since 1995.

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.)

Pictured is my selection of Neuvo Leon’s delicious Pan de Muerto (“Bread of the Dead”), plus two cups of their fabulous coffee. The bread comes shaped like a little corpse, or a bun with crossbones on it. It’s a light and eggy sweet bread that’s usually flavored with anise and brushed with an orange glaze.

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.

“Blue Collar” by Oscar Moya, depicts the harsh realities of a Mexican worker in Chicago’s nearby steel mills, which were vital to the construction of the city’s skyscrapers. Many Mexicans came to Chicago to avoid the ravages of the Mexican Revolution (1910 – 1920) or the religious persecution of the Cristero War (1926 – 1929).

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!  

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s