What is Halloween like in Sweden? It was basically imported from the U.S. and started to catch on during the 1990s. But with the exception of a minimal event at a local park, some random jack-o-lanterns, and bakery and flower shop displays it definitely doesn’t compare to the hype it receives in the U.S.
There are two reasons I think it may flounder in popularity (three if you count that it’s an imported celebration, that is a tough sell in itself). First, Halloween falls very near the Alla Helgons Dag (All Saint’s Day) which is the first Saturday in November and is a day of remembering the dead. Many people visit cemeteries and lay candles on the graves of their deceased loved ones. It’s a very beautiful occasion that doesn’t quite mesh with dressing up in a costume and bobbing for apples. The other reason is that there seems to be a misunderstanding among many Swedes regarding the costumes.
Most Swedes I have spoken with are under the impression that on Halloween people dress up in horrifying, scary costumes and go out and play tricks on people like throwing eggs. It’s interesting that perception exists since in the U.S. Halloween is really a free-for-all in terms of costumes and I would venture to say that the vast majority of costumes, particularly for children, are quite the opposite of scary and the choices are limitless from being a princess, to a bunch of grapes, to a zipper. You can begin to understand the dislike many Swedes may have for Halloween if they think it’s all about blood and gore, zombies, grim reapers and pranks.
The history of Halloween is rooted in the Celtic festival of Samhain. The Celts recognized November 1st as their New Year and October 31st was the night when the veil between the living and the dead was the thinnest and ghosts returned to earth. People dressed up in costumes and lit bonfires. All Hallow’s Eve was brought to the U.S. by Irish immigrants in the 1840s and evolved into Halloween as we know it today which is about the fun of creativity, getting together, and trick-or-treating. Few people know much about it’s origins.
Although Halloween isn’t a raging hit in Sweden, there is still some celebrating going on. Trick-or-treating isn’t common but some people organize their own trick-or-treating and groups like the American Women’s Club (AWC) often hold Halloween parties in the larger cities. Every year the Malmö AWC has a costume party at a local indoor play place and the kids run around in their costumes, play, and get to do a little trick-or-treating by going around to stations where great efforts are made to have some American candy (I’m pretty keen on that part, especially the tiny twizzlers that were available this year). There is a pumpkin patch located in Borgeby which is not too far outside Malmö and you can find pumpkins at many supermarkets.
But I found the most fun Swedish interpretations of Halloween at the bakery Konditori Valhall. There were tiny prinsesstårta ghosts (spökbakelse) and full size prinsesstårta pumpkins, mother-in-law’s fingers (svärmors fingrar), and spider and bat chocolate cakes (kladdkaka). The person in charge of those powdered sugar spiders needs to be reminded there are eight legs, but it’s cute anyway.
So celebrating Halloween in Sweden isn’t quite the same as where I grew up in northern Utah where it was inevitably so cold for trick-or-treating that you had to put a coat over your costume and you still froze to the bone. My kids currently think that Halloween is literally the indoor play place. But we have created our own Halloween memories carving pumpkins and decorating Halloween cookies with friends and I sent my kids off to school this morning with their faces painted like butterflies. One year we aim to plan a trip to the U.S. over Halloween so our kids can experience the true American version. We’ll probably have to take them to the indoor play place to make up for an evening of walking around in the cold, dark, fall air while they go from house to house trick-or-treating. But for today I purchased them each a little ghost pastry, we lit our jack-o-lanterns, curled up together and watched It’s the Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown on DVD (Den Stora Pumpa in Sweden, and Charlie Brown is called Karl) , and in a way it felt a bit more like home. Happy Halloween!