Tuesday, November 05, 2013

Honouring the Dead

If I had grown up in Vienna, I would have learned to associate the last week of October with the helicopters, tanks, and military marching bands that are annually on display in Heldenplatz in honour of Austria's national holiday. But I didn't grow up in Vienna; I grew up in Buffalo, so I associate the last week of October with Halloween.

Halloween: that glorious excuse to stick your face into a bag of mini-Butterfingers, Skittles, and Tootsie Roll Pops, inhale deeply, and soak up the smell of artificial sweeteners. The one night of the year that you can look up at a full moon, hear the wind rattling through almost-empty tree branches, and convince yourself that ghosts really do exist.

Last weekend, I celebrated the national holiday with a perusal of the military displays and a visit to the Wien Museum, which offered free admission in honour of the occasion. I enjoy going to these sorts of events, because it's interesting to see how patriotic celebrations are carried out in different parts of the world. Austria's national holiday commemorates the day that the last of the Allied troops left and the country became a neutral state. Maybe it's the peacemaker in me, or perhaps I'm not quite understanding all of the history, but I found it somewhat curious that a celebration of the country's neutrality is so focused on the military. All sorts of military paraphernalia are set up for the public to admire, and soldiers in uniform pose as tour guides and nannies as they answer questions and chaperon the children who are climbing on tanks and taking aim with machine guns. Not so long ago, such objects meant very serious business to this country. Last weekend, they were used as children's toys.

I know they do the same sort of thing in the US, but the circumstances seem different to me. Seventeen years in the USA taught me that the 4th July is a celebration of 'we won the war' (c. 240 years ago), not a celebration of 'thank God the war is over' (c. 60 years ago). I'm not sure if they have the equivalent of Memorial Day or Veterans'/Remembrance Day here. Maybe it's all rolled into one ball on the 26th October; the country celebrates itself and its soldiers on the same day. That would explain things a bit.

Halloween came a few days later. They have All Saints' Day off here, so those who were aware that it was Halloween was free to stay up late Thursday night and party-party-party. My eight-year-old self, who could never understand why such a notable holiday as Halloween did not merit a day off school, was writhing with envy. To honour the occasion, I joined forces with the other two Canadians I know in this country, and we had a pumpkin-carving party. Crazy McGrin on the left there was my creation. We had to light them with flashlights because we had candles, but no matches.

Yeah, I know. I spend my Halloween nights as a child running around the streets with a bag full of fun-sized candy bars, dressed as a rabbit, a ghost, an alien, or a bag of jelly beans. In retrospect, celebrating the end of a war by allowing your children to play with machine guns makes perfect sense. Right?

No comments: