“Hallo”ween: Finding Traditions of an American Cultural Staple in Germany

Illustrated by Lucy Zuo

Although Frankfurt, Germany—my hometown—lacks enthusiasm for Halloween, the American holiday has always been a day full of excitement for me. Every year, I would venture to my best friend’s house to prepare for our exciting night of trick-or-treating. We would plan our costumes weeks in advance, and we would get creative: ripping up old T-shirts as we glued, painted, and embellished our costumes for the night. Then, we braced the October cold and journeyed into our neighborhood. 

When we were still in primary school, we’d hold hands as we bustled through the streets, making sure none of our siblings had fallen behind, knocking on doors to watch delightedly as our bags filled with candy. Instead of the traditional American pillowcases, our parents handed us big plastic grocery bags, and we carried them around proudly. Tearing into our Kinderriegel bars and Haribo gummy bears, we would watch as the neighbourhood streets flooded with witches, firefighters, princesses, vampires, and the occasional supervising dad.

Still, when I was younger, Halloween in Germany was not as established as it was in the United States. Many neighbours—especially older German couples who were unfamiliar with the tradition—were often unprepared for the volume of middle-schoolers that would knock on their front doors. Some gruffly sent them away, but most were delighted to reconnect with the neighbourhood youth. I loved these encounters. Once, an elderly lady was so happy about us visiting her house that she excitedly shoved several bars of chocolate into our bags. 

The Halloween traditions extended past friendly neighbourhood encounters, too. It was the dinner after the trick-or-treating that I really looked forward to. I enjoyed that I got to spend time with those closest to me in an exciting setting, with family and friends packed around the same crowded table. We would all help decorate the dinner table with small plastic mice and spiders. Then, we’d carve pumpkins together and do our makeup with cheap convenience store face paint.  

As I got older, Halloween became somewhat more of a pop-culture tradition. It was hyped up in school, on social media, on TV. The American movies we began watching in high school showcased a more party-centric culture of Halloween which soon shaped our own. It never felt authentic, though. We were impersonating a phenomenon that was not really our own, trying to adhere to an American tradition. Still, it was fun, exciting, and as close to the idealized (sometimes ridiculed) American high school experience as us Europeans could get. 

What is Halloween to me now? I’m not sure. Maybe a chance to spend time with friends, reconnect amidst almost two years of social distancing, and participate in collective social escapism. Perhaps it’s also the epitome of the American college experience and, with that, an unprecedented culture shock rife with enigma to those who didn’t grow up accustomed to it. 

And there’s one thing I know for sure: experiencing Halloween in the United States is something I can’t wait to tell my friends in Germany about. 

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