Halloween is upon us this week and kids and adults alike are beginning to get excited about dressing up in costumes and going out into the night looking for treats or trouble, depending on your age group. While Halloween’s roots go back to ancient pagan times, today’s iteration, particularly in North America, has become a secular carnival of candy and colour, costumes and capitalism and an occasion of rare conviviality which crosses cultural lines.
One of my strongest memories of Halloween was when I was living in a mostly Indo-Canadian and Pakistani area of Toronto, (well technically North York, but it’s all the same thing), while attending York University. I was renting a room in a house with three other young people and decided to get in the Halloween spirit by putting a freaky, home-made scarecrow in the yard made out of rake and a broom tied together with one of my old plaid shirts and a floppy hat over the framework. It achieved a good effect in the dark. I also carved a Jack O’Lantern and lit it and bought two big bags of candy. I thought I would be eating that candy for the next two weeks given the ethnicity of the neighbourhood I was living in, many of whom were recent immigrants. How wrong I was.
Over the next four hours I had two hundred kids come to the door, all of them of Indo-Asian and Pakistani descent wearing the traditional garb of their homelands. I think every single kid in my neighbourhood at the time knocked on my door. I had to do a candy run in the middle just to make sure everyone got a treat.
And then I realized something else too. Looking up and down the block, mine was the only house decorated for Halloween with a lit Jack O’Lantern on the doorstep. These kids had heard about Halloween in school, but many had not had the opportunity to do trick or treating before. The neighbours had been watching, and had sent their kids out with plastic bags to experience this unique North American custom for the very first time. These kids were Hindu and Muslim, with the cultural baggage of a long history of war and strife on the Indian sub-continent along those lines, but Halloween transcended all that. It was something both cultures could agree on was neither one of them, and therefore something they could both partake in it equally.
Halloween may be fun, foolish and perhaps even a little fanciful. We do tend to take it for granted. Some still revile it for reasons pertaining to its archaic origin. But, from my perspective, it is an occasion which transcends culture, language and religion and allows us to encounter the other in strange and mysterious ways.
Oh yeah, and it’s a heckuva a lot of fun. That too. Happy Halloween everyone!