Saturday, October 30, 2010

Bone Up on Europe

Halloween 1967

Costumes have come a long way since
those sweaty plastic masks, haven't they?
Well, it seems everything's gone global nowadays, doesn't it?  When I was little and my mom mailed photos of my brother and me dressed in our Halloween costumes to my relatives in Germany, they thought we were really confused.  In Germany they only dressed up during Fasching (Carnival), the party season right before Lent, which usually occurs in February.  Never having heard of Halloween, they couldn't understand why we were costumed in October.

But now, just like McDonalds and Starbucks, Halloween has crossed the ocean to Europe.  Actually, Halloween first crossed the Atlantic to America, then crossed back over to Europe.  It started in the British Isles out of the pagan Celtic celebration of Samhain, a harvest festival, and kind of evolved together with All Saint’s Eve, which is October 31st.  In the 1840s, during the large Irish immigration, the tradition traveled to the U.S. and eventually became the children’s holiday we know today as Halloween.

Anyway, Halloween is all the rage now in Germany, Italy, France and the UK.  There’s no trick-or-treating, but they do dress up and party.  The House of Horror in Hamburg, Germany, is stocked full of gruesome, ghoulish costumes.  But if you happen to be overseas on October 31st and are looking for a more uniquely Euro creepy experience, there are a number of enchanting attractions you might visit.

The Catacombs of Paris are fascinating to tour any time of year, but I imagine it would be exceptionally spooky to enter their deep, dark caverns on Halloween night.  (They normally close at 5:00 p.m.  Wouldn’t it be a great marketing idea for them to stay open until midnight on October 31st?)  Children under the age of 14 are not allowed in the catacombs without an adult, but if you think your kids can handle it, take a tour of the miles and miles of tibiae, femurs, skulls and every other type of human bone, stacked upon one another over centuries of underground burials.  (Side note:  there are no bathrooms in the catacombs, nor lockers or coat check.)

Maybe you’ll want to take a hauntingly beautiful stroll surrounded by tombs, sepulchers, and mausoleums in one of Paris’s very large and famous cemeteries on Halloween?  Of course your children don’t know who Jim Morrison is, but you’ll get the added bonus of paying homage at his grave if you go to Pére-Lachaise Cemetery in the northeast corner of the city.  (His grave is the fourth most-visited tourist attraction in Paris!) 

Several other ancient cities of Europe stacked and displayed the bones of their dead, usually because their cemeteries became overcrowded.  Rome has at least 40 different catacombs; the Sedlec Ossuary in Sedlec, the Czech Republic, contains somewhere between 40,000 and 70,000 skeletons, many of them decorating their chapel.  In Halstatt, Austria, one of my absolute favorite Alpine villages in Europe, visit the bonehouse which dates back to the 12th century.  Each of the 1200 skulls displayed there is intricately hand-painted with flowery designs and the date of death.

With Europe's long history of honoring the dead, I guess I shouldn't have been surprised when one of my cousins in Germany asked me a few years ago, Do you have Halloween in America?

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