Many Anglo expats, particularly Americans, may be dismayed to discover that Halloween is not among the many festivals widely celebrated in carnival-happy Switzerland. In fact, after a surge of popularity around 1999 and 2000, the holiday seems to be on the wane. “Today you notice it mostly in the shops, maybe a result of globalization,” said Nicolas Dousse, a father of two from Geneva who is half Swiss, half French. “I don’t know anyone either in France or in my wife’s family who practice this custom.”
After all, who needs Halloween in a country with more masked carnival festivals per capita than anywhere in the world? The Swiss prefer their more sober ways of observing All Saints Day on 1 November by going to church, notably in Catholic cantons. The following day, 2 November, is All Soul’s Day or the Day of the Dead, commemorated by lighting candles in cemeteries and taking flowers to family graves.
All Saints was made an official Catholic feast day by Pope Gregory IV over a thousand years ago in order, some historians say, to supplant the pagan Festival of the Dead, known as Samhain or the feast of Saman, (the Lord of death). “Our festivals have very ancient origins,” explained Christophe Gros of Geneva’s Museum of Ethnology, “although many were transformed in the 19th century when there was an effort by the Church to stamp out pagan superstitions.”
Switzerland has suffered no break with her past, according to writer Irene Ritter of Luzern who is half British, half Swiss. “Folk ways are still a part of both life and belief in rural areas, especially for mountain people. How each community deals with evil and other spirits is a flash of color in a kaleidoscope of some five thousand such rituals in the Swiss folklore calendar.”
Halloween itself goes back thousands of years to when the ancient Celts marked the end of the harvest and the beginning of the winter solstice on “All Hallows Eve,” a time when people believed the dead roamed the earth. The early Irish and Scots also introduced a ritual known as “guising” where children in various costumes went from house to house seeking gifts.
In 19th century North America, Irish immigrants introduced the custom of carving Jack-o-Lanterns, named after a mythological character who carried a hollowed-out turnip (Swede as the English call them) as a lantern to ward off the devil. Pumpkins later replaced turnips and carving Jack-o-Lanterns became a popular Halloween tradition. Similarly, in many Swiss festivals, candles are placed in pumpkins in a reenactment of the old belief that light chases away malevolent spirits.
But Halloween in Switzerland, such as it is, is mainly a family and neighbourhood affair in some communities although the Trick-or-Treat custom of small children going door-to-door to ask for treats from neighbours has never caught on. “If my children want to do Trick-or-Treat, we tell them to wait for our own Fete de l’Escalade,” said Geneva mother of two Sylvie Meyer, “when children knock on friend’s doors and are given coins or sweets.” Today Halloween in Switzerland is most popular with young adults who attend fancy dress parties, drinking and dancing the night away in clubs or private homes.
Pamela Taylor is a Geneva-based writer with a long career as a journalist for National Public Radio, Voice of America, AFP’s English Service, and others, in Central Europe, Bosnia and Kosovo.