A question about Halloween being celebrated in Poland devolved into a heated discussion about “a devil’s holiday” between my Polish students in an English class this week. I defused the discussion by bringing up El Dia de los Muertos, the Hispanic holiday that seems between both Halloween and All Saint’s Day, spiritually— where mourning and commemoration, celebration and sweets are blended.
Which had me thinking about steeped we are in cultural traditions, and how ideas and imagery often don’t translate easily. My current profile picture on Facebook is an old costume photo: I am wearing devil horns and my brother is wearing a bloody skeleton mask. After my class, I uneasily thought about how horrified one of my Polish Catholic students would be by this photo. Our innocent fun of trick or treating, and more importantly, the costumes we wear, could not easily be explained to him.
Of course, last year, when I donned a witch’s hat and showed my students a clip about the origins of Halloween, while passing around both candy and roasted pumpkin seeds, I wasn’t trying to incite my students’ to worship the devil, or to cause havoc in the name of “tricks.” I was trying to show them a uniquely American tradition, and more importantly, my favorite holiday. Costumes and parties, candy and pumpkins, haunted hayrides and haunted houses, scary stories and ghosts. It’s one last shindig before winter sets in.
Which has made me wonder: what’s the deal with Halloween in Poland, anyway? I’ve asked all the Polish folks I know, and still am not quite sure. Like McDonald’s, Coke and Hollywood movies, it seems to be just another American product. It’s cool because it’s “American” and has that fun foreign allure. Malls and foreign banks seem to be the places where Halloween imagery abounds, and most people here see it as a kid’s holiday. However, a few events— a Toastmaster’s gathering to tell scary stories, for example, makes me think that for some people in Poland, at least, Halloween is catching on.
I have seen signs of Halloween here: a pumpkin carving event at Grunwalski Mall last weekend; ads with witches and jack-o-lanterns; a (very) few restaurants with Halloween decorations set up; Halloween decorations for sale in the store Empik. Of course, those decorations are at less traditionally Polish places, like Chinese restaurants and pizza places. Ghosts and goblins are absent from milk bars, the traditional Polish eateries where homemade pierogis and cabbage dishes are served up. And considering Empik also conducts English classes, it makes sense they’d have “Western” products there.
At the pumpkin carving in the mall, young kids were carving pumpkins while costumed adults carefully supervised— but then they painted them, too. Which is something I’ve never seen in the United States. I’ve also seen pumpkin and squash displays with faces painted on them in grocery stores.
While I’m happy to see my favorite holiday gaining popularity, it does make me a little homesick. It also makes me wonder: what does it mean when people in a traditionally very Catholic country adopt a foreign holiday that seems at odds with the country’s faith?
I am still trying to work that one out. In the meantime, this morning I did manage to explain Halloween to another student— the pumpkin aspect, anyway. I explained that part of Halloween’s tradition was a harvest holiday— hence, all the pumpkins. This seemed to make sense to him. (Glad he didn’t ask about why we carve them, though! That’s a long discussion about the intertwining of Celtic and Christian traditions.)
Tonight, I’ll be wearing cat ears and strolling through Rynek, the main market square, to see what people and clubs will be doing.
And to everyone: enjoy this Halloween, however you celebrate it.