Danish Language Blog

Halloween in Danish Posted by on Oct 31, 2011 in Traditions

Today, the 31st of October, the hekse (witches) and spøgelser (ghosts) have come out of the dark to haunt and terrorize mankind. No one is safe in the skove (forests) or the crooked gyder (alleys) of the small landsbyer (villages). To protect themselves, people have carved grinning faces into orange græskar (pumpkins, the singular is the same), and placed the græskarlygter (jack-o’-lanterns, literally ’pumpkin lamps’) in front of their homes, stearinlys (stearin candles) flickering on passers-by from the pumpkins’ eyes and jagged mouths. Pennsylvania? Nope, it’s Denmark, 2011.

I’ve been doing a bit of research, and it seems like the American way of celebrating Halloween came to Denmark in the 1990’ies. A lot of people complain that this is yet another proof that the Americanization of the Danish society has gone too far, and that Danish ”Halloween” is really just a media stunt initiated by the supermarkeder so that they can sell a lot of legetøj (toys, collective plural) and kostumer. And true enough, it seems like the great supermarket chains were indeed responsible for bringing the Halloween package to Denmark back in the nineties. What the critics forget, though, is that Halloween isn’t that Un-Danish…

In middelalderen (the Middle Ages), when Denmark was Catholic, even Danes celebrated ’all-hallow-even’ or allehelgensaften, as it is properly called in Danish – the evening before allehelgensdag (”all-hallow-day”, day of all saints). This day, the 1st of November, was for all those helgener (saints) who didn’t have their own day of celebration. As in modern Catholic countries, there was also an allesjælesdag (day of all souls), the 2nd of November, where all those people who had died during the year were celebrated. In conjunction with reformationen (the 16th century Reformation, where Denmark officially switched from Catholic Christianity to Martin Luther’s Protestantism), the two days were fused to one and moved to the first Sunday of November. It never really caught on among ordinary people.

While church people try to link the imported Halloween to the traditional allehelgensaften, the common Danes seem to have taken this new tradition to their hearts. Danish children eagerly prepare jack-o’-lanterns and disguise themselves as monsters. Slik eller ballade! as the Danish take on ’trick or treat!’ goes. After all, efteråret (the autumn) can be quite dark and cold in Denmark, and Christmas is still far away…

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About the Author: Bjørn A. Bojesen

I was born in Denmark, but spent large parts of my childhood and study years in Norway. I later returned to Denmark, where I finished my MA in Scandinavian Studies. Having relatives in Sweden as well, I feel very Scandinavian! I enjoy reading and travelling, and sharing stories with you! You’re always welcome to share your thoughts with me and the other readers.