Consul General’s Corner
November 7, 2011
When I was little, my favorite holiday was Halloween. Although we got presents for Christmas and chocolate rabbits at Easter, Halloween was when we got to dress up in fanciful costumes and roam our neighborhood at night. As a small child who was always in bed at the first hint of darkness, the ability to stay out late and walk farther than our own block was a liberating feeling. Halloween was part of the rights of autumn, my favorite season with new beginnings, the new school year, and the change from summer to crisp, cool fall. It meant pumpkins, pomegranates and candy corn.
Many years ago, I worked in Mexico City. The day I knew as Halloween (October 31) came and went without fanfare; the Mexicans celebrated November 1, the Day of the Dead. I was surprised when Mexican children accosted me on the street demanding sweets; weren’t they supposed to knock on my door? Villagers hung skeleton images from their roofs and dressed all in black. It was the first time in my life when I realized Halloween – a secular, fun-loving holiday in the United States – must have religious roots.
I did some research and learned that Halloween transcends Christian festivals. It started 2,000 with the Celts living in what is now the United Kingdom, Ireland and France. Their New Year started on November 1 with the festival “Samhain” (pronounced “sow-en”), which marked the end of the summer harvest and the beginning in the long winter. The Celts therefore believed that their New Year’s Eve was a precarious time, when the wall between the living and the dead cracked open to allow spirits to possess the living and cause trouble. The Celts therefore dressed up to fool the spirits and made a lot of noise to scare them away. They also left food and sweets as offerings.
By the Middle Ages, the English would go “a-souling” – going door-to-door asking for food in return for which they would pray for the souls of dead relatives. The Christian church encouraged the practice to replace the pagan Samhain.
In the United States, it took a while for the tradition of “All Hallow’s Eve” to catch on. The British practice was seen as Catholic or Pagan. By the mid-1800’s, however, when Irish immigrants arrived fleeing the potato famine, they brought their Halloween traditions with them. By the mid-20th century, Halloween was firmly established in the United States, with “beggars’ night” crowds of children dressed up to scare and demand candy from their neighbors. Carved pumpkins, bobbing for apples, and decorating our houses became standard practice throughout the United States.
Ironically, Halloween was discouraged with the foundation of the Protestant Church in the United Kingdom. The practice was supplanted by “Bonfire Night” to mark the thwarting of a plot to blow up Parliament on November 5, 1606. Halloween is therefore a most American holiday.
This year, for the first time, the U.S. Consulate General decided to celebrate Halloween on the Consulate compound, with costumes, spooky games and candy. We weren’t sure whether our Thai colleagues would join the fun, since we knew Thais don’t really like ghosts. We needn’t have worried, as we saw early on October 31. The Thai staff had worked late the night before creating a veritable graveyard outside the Consular Section; and a scary night sky with witches and a mummy outside the General Services Office. The office building where most of our Thai colleagues work was transformed into a haunted house, all dark with costumed colleagues jumping out kids looking for candy. I decided we had been depriving our staff all these years by not having the party here!
Our children – Thai and American – got into the spirit by dressing up as super heroes, devils, witches, and ghosts. We dined on “witch finger” cookies and jelly molded like brains and hands. Our kids went door to door around the compound collecting candy and frights, and the good time was had by all. Most important, we shared this American tradition of fun and delight. We’re looking forward to next year!