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HALLOWEEN

How Halloween scared off Fastelavn to become Denmark’s favourite fancy dress day

Fastelavn is traditionally the biggest fancy-dress day on Denmark’s calendar, but recent years have seen it challenged by American custom Halloween.

How Halloween scared off Fastelavn to become Denmark’s favourite fancy dress day
Danish kids trick-or-treating in 2016. Photo: Jens Nørgaard Larsen/Ritzau Scanpix

Pumpkins and ghosts have captured the imagination of Danish kids, leaving the barrel-smashing, cat-liberating February fancy dress fest of Fastelavn behind.

Although Halloween is generally considered a tradition with American origins, it’s actually European, and is thought to have its roots in Celtic customs up to 2,000 years old.

In Ireland, offers were made to Celtic gods and the dead, and scary-looking lamps were carved out of beets – setting the tradition for today’s pumpkins.

Conversion to Christianity later saw the Celtic tradition combined with All Saints Day – the result was Hallow’s Evening or Hallowe’en.

The tradition was largely imported to the United States by Irish immigrants in the 19th century.

Although Halloween is one of the biggest annual celebrations in the US, it has been slow to catch on in many European countries which celebrate All Saints Day – or in the case of the United Kingdom, Guy Fawkes’ Night – at the same time of year.

That has also been the case in Denmark. Although the country does not have a tradition for celebrating All Saints Day due to the predominance of the Lutheran Church of Denmark, kids have traditionally had the chance to dress up and win sweet-tasting treats in February, during Fastelavn.

READ ALSO: Fastelavn: What's the Danish kids' carnival all about?

As such,Halloween did not really register in Denmark until around the turn of the century.

In 1999, toy store chain Fætter BR began selling Halloween costumes, contemporary reports from broadcaster DR show.

Almost half of all families with children in Denmark now buy sweets or candy at Halloween, according to DR.

That has given a boost to the country’s pumpkin farmers, who have seen sales double over the last ten years.

READ ALSO: Drones find 40,000 pumpkins on Danish farm

“Trick or treat” has now been rendered as the somewhat clunky, and no less aggressive, ‘slik eller trylleri, ellers er dit liv forbi’ (‘candy or magic, or your life is over!) and can be heard on Danish doorsteps on October 31st.

More people in Denmark now purchase fancy dress costumes for Halloween than they do for Fastelavn, according to sales figures from supermarket company Coop reported by DR.

Coop's sales of fancy dress costumes for Fastelavn have been on a downward curve at since 2011, and were overtaken by sales for Halloween in 2007.

Last year saw Coop sell three times as many costumes for Halloween compared to Fastelavn, DR reports.

General enthusiasm for and pervasion of American culture in Denmark are no small part of the explanation for the trend, according to DR, which notes that Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day have also been successfully transplanted into the Danish calendar.

Halloween’s timing also benefits stores, which can sell items for the day at a time of the year when a lack of other events makes it ideal for promotion.

READ ALSO: The Danish Halloween: pumpkins and 'hygge'

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HALLOWEEN

Danish museum brings witch hunts to life

The fire crackles and a woman shrieks as flames lick her body, burning her alive -- a museum in Denmark is bringing the dark period of witch-hunting to life.

Danish museum brings witch hunts to life
The Political Witches on display at HEX!, a museum of Witch Hunt in Ribe. Photo: AFP

Located in the home of a former witch hunter, the “Hex! Museum of Witch Hunt” in the town of Ribe sheds light on how a fear of witches led to persecutions that swept across Denmark and Europe in the 16th and 17th centuries.

While today's Danish kids happily dress up as witches and wizards for Halloween, Denmark at the time was a religious and superstitious Lutheran society where fear and distrust were often intertwined with the secret use of magic to keep God's wrath at bay.

Across Europe, approximately 100,000 people went on trial for witchcraft, with as many as 50,000 burned, museum historian Louise Hauberg Lindgaard told AFP.

Denmark sentenced 1,000 people to death for witchcraft which, she said, “is quite a lot” given the country's population was around one million at the time.

Most were women believed to be colluding with the devil.

By comparison, Germany — the country in Europe with the most witch hunts — had 16,500 trials, more than 40 percent of which ended with the accused being burned at the stake.

Denmark's hostility to witchcraft is largely attributed to King Christian IV (1577-1648), Hauberg Lindgaard said.

Under his rule, the country's first legislation against the practice was adopted in 1617, sending black magic practitioners to the stake. In the eight years after the law was adopted, persecutions were rampant, with a witch burned every five days.

For the monarch — like many contemporaries including brother-in-law King James VI of Scotland and England, another champion of witch hunts — the persecutions were a way to retain power and project an image of a good Christian caring for his subjects.

Hauberg Lindgaard explained monarchs assumed this responsibility after 16th century French philosopher Jean Bodin declared if a king did not persecute witches then he was solely responsible for his subjects' misfortune.


Photo: AFP

At the time, anything could be a pretext to be denounced as a witch, from an offhand remark to a suspicious charm, and the accused were then put on trial.

The museum opened at the end of June, attracting 10,000 visitors in the first month — a strong showing attributed to both cool summer weather and the popular subject matter.

“People love to watch and read about all things 'witchy'… such as novels, movies and TV series, and also about the more historic aspects,” Hauberg Lindgaard said.

“Interestingly, the 'historic truths' pertaining to the witch hunt era have since been blurred and reinterpreted by more popular notions of the topic, and we can definitely feel the desire to understand 'what actually happened' among our guests,” she said.

Visitors learn that while most witches were women, “up to one in four was a man,” she said.

They were often “single and living on the edge of society, quite poor.”

Brooms, amulets, dolls and other items are on display, as well as torture instruments and animated reconstructions of witch trials, all accompanied by eerie background music.

For 21-year-old Danish visitor Mathilda, the museum was an opportunity to learn more about a period she hardly knows.

“It's very exciting to hear about this stuff. It's something that not only happened here in Denmark but also in a lot of other countries,” she said.

And the building that houses the museum has a history of its own: it was built in the late 16th century by a witch hunter who played a key role in seven trials, three of which ended up with the suspects being burned at the stake.

The picturesque town of Ribe itself is also hallowed ground.

Founded in the Viking era, people once believed that it was where witches learned their craft in the 1600s, and it is the Danish town that held the most trials per citizen, Hauberg Lindgaard said.

The last person accused of being a witch and burned in Ribe was Anna Bruds, in 1652.

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