Something I’ve come to appreciate after living in Finland is how lucky the US is when it comes to holidays of the more entertaining sort. The best example of this is Independence Day, which for America happily falls in the middle of summer, perfect weather for enjoying parades, cooking out in the backyard, and watching fireworks in a grassy park under a warm summer sky. In Finland, by contrast, Independence Day is December 6th, in the depths –- and I do mean “depths” –- of the darkest, rainiest, gloomiest time you can imagine. (The Finns find ways to compensate for this, however. Think “month-long vacations” and “white nights”.)
What makes the US even more fortunate than Finland, holiday-wise, is the string of family-focused celebrations that kick off at the end of October. These three, Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas, are evenly spaced apart, almost as if design to guarantee a steady flow of fun, shopping, and overeating. As a kid, I always took it for granted that the three came as a set, with Halloween and Thanksgiving in a way warm-up acts for the main event starring Saint Nicholas.
Naturally, Finland also celebrates Christmas in a big way (this is, after all, the home of Santa Claus -- as you can never, ever tire of hearing when you live here), but there’s no Thanksgiving in Finland (no early Finns in buckled shoes having to be rescued from starvation by Indians) and no Halloween, either.
Well, in the case of Halloween, that’s not entirely true, as I recently discovered when I stepped into Tiimari, a store here that sells cards, balloons, and what I can only describe as assorted do-dads. I found a wall covered in Halloween masks, costumes and plastic implements of gory destruction, like pitchforks and scythes. I’m not at all surprised to see the American version of Halloween also taking hold here. As with so many other artifacts of American culture, this holiday where American kids go trolling for candy is something that Finns –- even those who have never set foot in the States -- can’t avoid being exposed to at some point. This is, after all, a country that was practically raised on Donald Duck comics and consumes its fair share of American movies and TV programs.
The paradox is that Finland already has a “Halloween” and already has trick-or-treating. Only, not at the same time. In fact, not even at the same time of year. Like most other European nations, Finland celebrates All Saints Day in early November. And children here do dress up as witches and go door-to-door to ask for sweets -- only they do it at Easter. Don’t ask me what the connection is between Easter and button-nosed witches with painted-on freckles, but it is a nice, low-key tradition.
Even more low-key is the traditional Finnish “celebration” of All Saints Day, from which the modern Halloween arose (as though from a tomb). The fact is not much happens here on the traditional All Saints holiday, except that some folks place candles of the graves of loved ones and all the shops are closed for the inconvenience of all, saints and sinners alike.
This may be why Finland -- as the wall full of ghoulish costumes in Tiimari attests -- seems all too ready to embrace the more exuberant way Americans celebrate All Saints Day Eve (a.k.a, Halloween). I’d like to think I was in the avant guarde of this trend.
In the mid 90s, an American friend of mine helped organize a Halloween “spook house” for the school her children attended. She asked me to take part by playing Dracula, who by the way nowadays must feel a bit like a washed-up Hollywood legend (Mel Gibson, perhaps?) in this age of the Twilight movies. (I also provided the sound track for the proper Halloween ambience. The closest thing to spooky music I could come up with was a Philip Glass CD -– it worked surprisingly well.) All night long I, as Dracula, would suddenly sit up in my “coffin”, laughing diabolically each time a kid passed by. It was fun. Maybe a little too fun -- I managed to scare the bejesus out of one of my sons.
It seems that kind of fun, dressing up in ridiculous costumes and bringing out your inner joker, is starting to make America’s most playful holiday a hit over here as well. I only hope the neighborhood kids don’t realize they can now trick-or-treat twice a year. Then the trick would be on us.