In Spain, Halloween is a confusing holiday. In fact, it is not really a holiday and many people here have asked me why we celebrate it in the United States and what it means. Inquiries like this cause me to question more and more many American traditions, which are often a melting pot of immigrant traditions blended together throughout our country's short 200 plus years. With the exception of celebrations of nationalism like Thanksgiving and the 4th of July, most of our holidays are a commercialized version of something brought to us from elsewhere. In the case of Halloween, it came to the US from Ireland in the form of their traditional celebration, Samhain.
The American School of Valencia tries to celebrate Halloween, as it is thought of here as an American holiday. But it is interesting, as an American, to see how it blends with what makes sense in Spain. Here, nobody trick or treats and there are no pumpkins and cute costumes and candy. It is interpreted as a time that is only scary and connected with the dead coming back to life. On November 1, Spain celebrates one of its biggest holidays, All Saints Day. It is the day that people travel to places that their relatives are buried and decorate their graves. So, Halloween here, if celebrated at all, is the eve of this day, when the lines between life and death are blurred, causing death to be in our midst.
Really, all you need for a Halloween costume here is a big face painting kit. The only costumes that kids wear to school are zombie faces and the occasional bloody t-shirt. Don't assume that we went in to this day knowing any of what we later figured out. Many of the things we learn about culture in Spain take place after we have already made a mistake. My daughter, Celia, who is 8, was so excited to dress up for the day. She has been reading the Percy Jackson series and wanted to dress up as Persephone. So, she dressed in green with a flower ring in her hair and we painted vines all over her body. As we were driving to school, we started noticing that we were only seeing blood and gore. When she got home after school, she told me that she had changed her costume to be "poison ivy" so that she could say she could kill people. Quite the difference from her grade school in Durango telling kids they had to dress in a "Star Wars" or pirate theme to avoid costumes that were too scary.
My high school son, Carson, went to football practice Halloween night. They would never even think of canceling it for Halloween.
The real holiday in Spain begins the next day on November 1. Most people in Spain are named after a saint, so they have two birthdays, their own and the birthday of their patron saint. On All Saints Day, all the saints are honored, and ancestors who have died. Families travel to the graves of their ancestors and decorate them with flowers and desserts (chestnuts and marzipan are the two most traditional choices). Traffic is backed up for miles around churches, crypts, and graveyards. If there is commercialization around a holiday here, this is the main one. Florists have a booming business before this day. I walked into one of the churches to look around and it was packed with visiting friends and families, both old and young. And, the grave plates are very serious and religious. Each crypt has a small picture on it of the person buried within. They are always oval and the person is never smiling.
This day is a reminder of how truly Catholic this country really is. Regardless of how people feel personally, this day is very important and expected. But, lest everyone in Spain is characterized as being a somber believer, I was reminded that every culture has its expectations. Our Spanish teacher, said that she can't stand this holiday. She said that everyone compares grave decorations to see who has done the most, implying that they respect their ancestors more than others. And, just like the casual Christian in the US that only goes to church on Christmas Eve and Easter, she said that most people only visit these graves once a year, so it is hypocritical. She said that much of the promenade around the graves is an excuse to show how pious people are. Just like a commercialized Christmas in the United States, every year you can say you are going to stop the excessive buying, but every year you feel you have to do it. In Spain, it just happens to revolve around the social expectations of honoring dead relatives.
I don't think our kids missed pumpkin carving and trick-or-treating this year. And, since we had no graves to decorate, it was pretty low key. I certainly didn't have to feel bad about overindulging in left over trick-or-treating candy. It's nice to be granted a year-long pass on keeping up big holiday traditions and instead observe the different ones around you.
Sally and her family have moved to Spain for a year starting July 2017. They are living in a little town called Puzol, which is about 12km north of Valencia. Her kids, Carson and Celia, are attending the American School of Valencia, an International School located in Puzol. The goal for the whole family is to experience another way of life, and learn Spanish. This blog tracks their travels and experiences.