Eighties America Trick or Treating, Nineties London commercialism, Naughties Scottish hauntings and Milanese indifference: Halloween through the eyes of an itinerant Italian.
I’ve had the fortune of living in a variety of different cities from a young age, and interestingly, I’ve come to realize that Halloween is a holiday that in a way reflects the cultural differences between them. Unlike Christmas, that as a traditional Italian family we all spent together in our hometown with close and extended family, with days generally revolving around food and family time, Halloween is a holiday which has always tended to evolve and merge with the culture of the country I was living in.
At the age of three I moved from Turin to Washington DC, where I was thrown into the American culture of the mid Eighties. We moved over in October, and the first thing real American thing I experienced was Halloween. At three, I did not really understand much, which may explain why my costume of choice was a pretty pink ballerina outfit, no not even a zombie ballerina, just princessy and pristine. As my four years over in the States progressed the concept of Halloween became clear to me, and the many Halloween parties and trick or treating with friends were the highlights of the year. A couple of days before the holiday, the school would take us to the Virginia countryside to go pumpkin hunting, and we’d choose our very own pumpkin and carve jack-o lanterns. The school was a Catholic institution, so the message of all Saints Day was not overlooked. There were celebrations on that day too, with pageants where we would all dress up as the Saint we bore the name of and hold a school assembly. It was a unique experience of back-to-back pagan and Catholic festivities co existing, in true American spirit.
Moving back to Turin was a culture shock in more ways than one, and one of the things I missed the most from the States was Halloween. In the late Eighties in Italy, Halloween was still virtually unknown, yet the 1st and 2nd of November were celebrated as they are today. It's customary in Italy to have All Saints Day off as a holiday, so I would go with my parents over to Ravenna, where we’re originally from, and see the family. On All Souls Day, (the following day), my aunt would take me to the cemetery to visit my grandfather’s grave and bring flowers, a tradition in catholic countries.
In the mid Nineties we packed our bags again and headed to London. Here in regards to Halloween, American culture had permeated the stiff upper lip British society so the festivity was already established. In a typically consumer lead society, Halloween was about eating novelty chocolate and parties. As I grew older, and the word “lame” became part of our daily vocabulary, Halloween became a crass festivity, one aimed and children and we generally snubbed it.
I went to university in Edinburgh, a city universally known as the most haunted in the Western world. Here Halloween was a very big festival, with strong pagan undercurrents. And once again dressing up, revelling in all things scary punctuated the end of October each year. In Edinburgh Halloween is taken very seriously, with over the top and eerie tours of Mary King’s close and the Mercat. On the Royal Mile, the Beltane Society used to organise the Samhuinn Festival: a medieval pagan pageant which celebrated the Celtic New Year. Die-hard pagans would also climb to the top of Carlton hill and light fires and chant. As a social explorer, I revelled in experiencing all these things over my four years at Edinburgh, as well as alcohol infused university Halloween parties of course!
And now here I am in Milan, where if it wasn’t for Swide which looks to embrace the world as a whole and celebrate and educate themselves, and others to the practices that happen near and far, Halloween would be all but forgotten. With no pumpkin carving, no trick or treating, no cheesy décor in shop windows, and only one costume party to speak of Halloween is yet to truly contaminate Italy. It may be the Catholic culture which resists the heretic undercurrent of the holiday or just the fact that Italians by nature, a society so rich with their own traditions, they fail to find space for new ones.
Written by: Valentina Zannoni