High-context Halloween

Yesterday I was at the pumpkin-carving event at Manyfold, a great expat-run Bastelcafe in Kreuzberg, when a German woman who was carving her first-ever jack o’lantern asked, “so when do I take out the pumpkin flesh to use it for soup?” The North Americans in the cafe hemmed and hawed a bit, reluctant to break the news that her pumpkin would end up too shrivelly, wax-dripped and candle-scorched to be fit for consumption.

“We just throw them away in the end,” someone finally admitted, rushing to point out that you can roast and eat the seeds.

“But that’s so wasteful,” the German woman frowned. She was right: it is wasteful. Wasteful is how my people roll. All of our holidays are, in some sense, about gluttony.

I really wanted this woman to like Halloween anyway. I’ve heard so much German Halloween-bashing of late that I felt like this lady, as a Halloweenfreundliche German mother, was such a rare treasure that we foreigners had to try our hardest to keep her from going over to the side of the Halloween haters.

Halloween is a recent arrival in Germany. Some Germans welcome it, but a lot of people — especially people with kids — hate it. Halloween has always been my favorite holiday, and is in America so amazingly awesome that the only people with anything against it are super-religious folks who think it’s demonic. Still, I can understand why Germans wouldn’t like their Halloween. Like bubble tea, it seems to have morphed into a much shittier version of itself during its journey here.

I’ve been told that the Halloween slasher movie franchise was the first aspect of Halloween to arrive in Germany. This gave Germans the impression that the holiday is exclusively about blood and gore. They also think that Halloween costumes MUST be scary, which I came to understand when my then-one-year-old son was an owl for Halloween and all the Germans we encountered said “but that’s not a very scary owl!” I’ve since often told people that in the US — the country they blame for inflicting this crappy holiday upon them — you can be whatever you want for Halloween, from scary to funny to slutty to ironically slutty to conceptual. Given that Halloween arrived so recently here, it’s funny how firm many people’s notions of what is and isn’t a correct costume are: the non-scary costumes I mention — that I was Pippi Longstocking for several years in a row as a child, that a friend was Paul Krugman’s Confidence Fairy last year — are sometimes greeted with “then those costumes were incorrect.”

But this narrowly defined ghoulishness isn’t what the haters I’ve encountered hate about Halloween. What they complain about is trick-or-treating, which they experience as extortion. Here I must briefly digress into anthropologist Edward T. Hall’s idea of “high-context” and “low-context” communication. In a high-context culture people read all sorts of contextual clues — body language, tone of voice, tradition — to determine the meaning of language. In a low-context culture words are assumed to mean something literal and explicit that can be understood without having to appraise the context. German and English-speaking cultures are both considered relatively low-context in global comparison, but Germany is really low-context — much lower-context, in my experience, than English-speaking countries.

So when low-context Germans open the door on Halloween and hear Süßes sonst gibt’s Saures, they hear a literal threat that the trick-or-treater will do something nasty unless given sweets, and they understandably resent being bullied into giving the little monsters candy, and later say “what an awful tradition, this Halloween”. When higher-context Americans open the door on their higher-context Halloween, they see three-year-old pillowcase ghosts and eight-year-old princesses with parents in tow, thrilled to be out after dark among the jack o’ lanterns and swirling leaves, and are perhaps reminded of their own childhood Halloweens. When the kids say “trick or treat” this is just ritualized language. In my own trick or treating days it would never have crossed my mind that I was threatening to play a trick on anybody, any more than I would have thought someone who said “bless you” when I sneezed was bestowing a literal blessing.

Not so in Germany, where language is generally lower context and Halloween itself, as a recently imported foreign holiday, has little context. The trick-or-treaters I get in Berlin tend to act more menacing than I remember American trick-or-treaters: Germans’ literal understanding of the threatening aspect of trick-or-treating seems sort of self-fulfilling. So I think if Germans want to have a Halloween they don’t hate, they need to tweak it a little bit. Süßes sonst gibt’s Saures needs to be replaced with something low-context-friendlier. Something like Süßes, sonst gibt’s… für Sie trotzdem überhaupt keine negativen Folgen, except maybe a little catchier.  And we’re probably going to need a less wasteful jack o’lantern carving method that allows some of the pumpkin flesh to be harvested for Kürbissuppe.

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