Feasts of Light

Each year, more and more Dutch celebrate their own version of Halloween. They have imported the tradition from the United States. Since it is not a Dutch tradition in itself, most Halloween parties are kept by students and young people who enjoy the dressing up and scary jokes. However, typically, kids do not come at your door for candy.

The origin of Halloween is not completely certain but many attribute it to the Celtic Samhain feast that celebrates the end of summer. The British and Irish took their version of the feast to America. Samhain, however, is just one instance of a much broader tradition of celebrating the end of summer and the coming of winter. The thought that with winter, death and evil spirits come is also very old. It probably goes back to very early Germanic roots.

All over Europe, feasts of light emerged long before Christianity existed. In the Low Lands with its strong Germanic roots, these feasts involved lots of lights, noise and food (for offerings and for consuming). Celebrations over the good harvest mixed with rites to scare away the evil spirits of the dark winter. Over time these feasts became local rituals that differed from one region to another, but the main ingredients remained the same: light, noise, scaring of the evil and the dead, celebrating life.

When Christianity took hold of Europae, many of these local feasts were Christianized and conveniently linked to Christian saints, like Saint Nicholas and Saint Martin. Nowadays, some parts of the Netherlands (mainly the eastern provinces) still celebrate Saint Martin. Usually a lantern parade is held after which kids come to the door to sing a song in exchange for candy. This is a remnant of giving food and clothing to the poor for the winter (throwing candy at Saint Nicholas has the same roots!). Nowadays most lanterns are made of paper and a small electric light. However, in centuries gone by, the lanterns were made out of beets or turnips. Scary faces were carved into the lantern to scare off the evil spirits. Sounds familiar? Since turnips and beets were hard to come by for the early European settlers of the United States, they used local pumpkins instead.

So roughly, the Dutch had a feast of light very much like Samhain that over time became the feast of Saint Martin (November 11) and Saint Nicholas (December 5). The early Dutch settlers took both traditions to America. Later waves of British and Irish added their own autumn light traditions giving way to what is now know as Halloween.