By Rohini Mohan
It’s a dark October night in Belgium. My son and his Fresh-off-the-boat-from-India mother are alone at home, in an American expat dominated Brussels suburb . The doorbell rings and I open without checking. A scary ghost and a wicked witch are at my doorstep. I belt out a terrified (and terrifying) scream. The ghost blanches and the witch jumps out of her skin. My astute 3 year old calmly asks “Mom, do we have any candy?” And so begins my inauspicious acquaintance with Halloween. Call it baptism by fire, 8 years of Jack’ O Lanterns and Trick or Treating later, I am now resigned to this yearly journey to the land of the dead.
I have chaperoned my son from house to house on over half a dozen chilly evenings in the last years in a quest for sweet and sticky treats. I have been subject to views of grotesque looking figures, cobwebs and little make believe gravestones with the words R.I.P on them adorning the doorways and driveways and front lawns of my neighbors. I have had to tolerate one month every year of horrifying movie trailers and TV programs about vampires and ghosts and other bizarre creatures from the netherworld that send me into a fit of fright and keep me suspended in a strange zombie like, sleep deprived state all day. And I can’t help asking; so what’s the logic?
This Pagan tradition was started by the Celtic Druids. On October 31st, to mark the end of summer, ‘All Hallows Eve’ was celebrated and it was believed that the souls of the dead roamed the earth on this evening. Treats were left on doorsteps to appease the dead and to ensure a good harvest the following year. The tradition took root, immigrants brought it to North America and it fell to the children to further define it. As with everything else, once America was done commercializing the heck out of it, it is now here to stay, to be practised with a frenzied determination year after year.
I was always sort of disgusted by this obvious flaunting of paganism and from my high horse of cultural superiority, I looked on this particular day as an abnormality. Until, that is, I started finding parallels in my own culture. Take our Drishti Parigarams as a for instance – we happily keep weird looking gargoyles and monsters on our front door to ward off the evil eye. A bizarre coincidence, but Navaratri falls in the same time of the year as Halloween. During these 9 days we also worship the Dark Goddess Kali, one of the forms of Shakti, who unleashes the fear of death in us. Our literature that we read to our children has a million references to Asuras (demons), ghouls and evil spirits. We perform Sraadhas and Preta Kriyas so that the dead are assured a comfortable journey in their after life.
Almost every culture and religion has some day that they dedicate to death. Ching Ming (Grave Sweeping festival) is a widespread tradition in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. It is a day for visiting graves and making offerings to the souls of deceased relatives.
Every culture deals with death and the unknown in its own way. Some cultures accept death, some defy it and some celebrate it. Most have a way of gently passing on the knowledge of death to their children so that when they encounter the passing away of someone close to them it will not be a totally alien concept to them. This knowledge also keeps alive the survival instinct – that death is something to be feared is a good motivation for self preservation.
Bottomline – there is a method to the Halloween madness, there is an education even there. And it is a pretty neat way to get the education – what can be more fun for a kid than dressing up and being besieged with candy for an entire evening?
Great post! Unlike most other stuff that has been popularized in the US, this one hasn’t yet made inroads in India yet; I guess it is only a matter of time before we see ghouls on the street (and those other ones from the Shiv Sena out to get them as well).
In India, “trick and get treated” is a 60-year-old art. These guys don’t even have to dress up. They just have to step out in their dazzling white (guess why) dhobhi-washed-starched-and-blued outfits – day or night, they’ll have the populace scurrying for cover. In the south, they are most potent at election time.
Back when we were growing up, we wouldn’t dream of wasting a perfectly good kaddu (pumpkin) by cutting it up and putting a candle inside it! I love carving pumpkins now, of course, but still consider eating the cut-out bits! 😉 I wonder if new wealth in India is changing people’s attitudes to wasting food, and carving pumpkins.
On the other hand, I can readily imagine “Hello-veen” in India with chinese plastic pumpkins, jack o’ lantern shaped mithais, orange colored bhoots (presumably part of Shiv’s army of ghouls), as well as month-long Ramsey-brother-horror-comic movie extravaganzas.