November in German Culture and History


November: The Mourning Month and Its Fateful Dates

The first two days of November are significant in the Christian religious calendar. November 1 is All Saints Day (Allerheiligen). November 2 is All Souls Day (Allerseelen). In Germany, most of Europe, and all over the world where the western Christian church is dominant, these two days are devoted to remembering and praying for the “faithful departed.” Indeed, the Latin (Roman Catholic) name for this day is In Commemoratione Omnium Fidelium Defunctorum (“commemoration of all the faithful departed”).

Two Catrina figures

Two Catrina figures. The Mexican Calavera Catrina (“dapper skeleton” or “elegant skull”) began as social satire in 1910. Today the Catrina figure is associated with the Day of the Dead observance. PHOTO © Tomas Castelazo, www.tomascastelazo.com (Wikimedia Commons)

Although Mexico’s Day of the Dead (Día de Muertos), a national holiday, is perhaps better known and a bit more colorful, if you visit some German cemeteries on the same dates, you’re likey to see a similar observance, complete with candles. The main difference is that in Germany there is no all-night vigil in which family members gather near the grave(s) of their “faithful departed,” as in many parts of Mexico. Germans also tend not to celebrate in quite as colorful a manner as in Mexico. You may not see Catrina skeletons, sugar skulls, or decorative masks in Germany, but you will see lighted candles. (See photo below.)

As history (and two world wars) would have it, November in the western world has become a month for commemorating the dead — whether fallen in war or otherwise. Since the 14th century, the Roman Catholic church has dedicated the month of November to the dead, and in the United States, November 11 is Veterans Day, a time to remember and honor those who fought and died, originally in the Great War ended by the armistice that took effect at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, on November 11, 1918. (In fact, the date was known as Armistice Day prior to World War II.) This day, known as Remembrance Day or Poppy Day in some other Allied nations, is also a holiday in France and Belgium. Continue reading

Unhaunted Graves: Halloween, Reformation Day, “Luther Year” and Totensonntag


“The life of the dead is placed in the memory of the living.”
– Marcus Tulius Cicero (106-43 BC), Roman writer, politician and orator

“Our dead are never dead to us, until we have forgotten them.”
– George Eliot

Wittenberg city hall

Martin Luther’s statue stands in front of the city hall in Lutherstadt Wittenberg, Germany. The banner below the window proclaims the “Luther Year 2017.” PHOTO: Hyde Flippo

Although celebrating Halloween has become increasingly popular in Germany and Austria over the last decade or so, it can still elicit a mixed reaction from many Germans. The fact that All Hallows’ Eve (Halloween) falls on October 31, the exact same date connected with Martin Luther’s Protestant Reformation, leads to a conflict between the religious holiday and the “pagan” Halloween celebration. Although it is not a German nationwide holiday, as some have proposed, the 31st day of October is Reformation Day (Reformationstag). It is a holiday only in some majority Protestant (Lutheran, evangelisch) states. But I propose a solution that accommodates both factions in October and November: cemetery tours and/or a visit to some historical Luther sites.

Although many people consider Halloween a pagan observance, it is actually a Western Christian holiday, the first day of Allhallowtide, encompassing three Western Church observances: All Saints’ Eve (All Hallows’ Eve, Halloween), All Saints’ Day (All Hallows’, Allerheiligen) and All Souls’ Day (Allerseelen). Originally, around the 15th century, Allhallowtide was a time to remember the dead, but particularly the martyrs, saints, and faithful departed Christians. There is some doubt if Halloween arose out of pagan Celtic harvest festivals, particularly the Gaelic festival Samhain, as some historians claim.
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