Halloween, the spooky festival celebrated as a befitting precursor to the fall season in America and Pitra Paksha or Shradda observance by Hindus are totally dissimilar one would think. Or are they? It may be a matter of mere co-incidence and as unrelated as they may be, the two social chapters, observed by two culturally anomalous peoples may actually be apposite, at least in appearance.
For American-Indians the concept of celebrating Halloween is as ubiquitous as celebrating Christmas or Diwali. This is especially true for those of us who have school going kids who in turn are in sync with their local social mores and whose imaginations are more easily captured than their parents'.
Children like Halloween for its costumes, tricks and treats and also the duration of the weirdly enjoyable customs. For, even though Halloween Day, October 31 may not be a holiday, the entire month or so preceding it is a fun-filled maze of hayrides, spooky stories and pumpkin lanterns.
Pitra Paksha on the other hand is a solemn occasion that offers a family the privilege of remembering their departed elders by offering a meal or any other form of dakshina as a tribute to their memory. Those who observe it believe that by this simple gesture they connect with their ancestors and ensure for their souls a peaceful passage to heaven.
Both events take place during the months of September-October. Both are pivotal episodes that are followed by the most pristine, religious time in the calendar year (Shraddas are followed by Navratris, Dusshehra and Diwali and Halloween by Thanksgiving and Christmas) and, perhaps most importantly, both allude to the dead.
As peculiar a celebration as Halloween is, it is the residual vestige of the earliest Celtic immigrants to the US. It may have started as a pagan custom where early settlers, not wanting to be possessed by the spirit of the dead would dress themselves up in frightening attires in order to scare the ghosts away but has become an entertaining way to enjoy one's eccentricities by dressing up as goblins, witches and ghouls and even getting rewarded for it.
The annual ceremony is very popular among kids who start planning their Halloween do months in advance and prepare for it meticulously by adding and improvising with face paint, masks, embellishments etc. It is veritably an ebullient part of recent American pop culture and has been embraced fully by immigrant groups including Indians and others.
The most popular custom within the feisty pompadour is the trick-or-treat deal. Believed to have roots in a ninth-century All Souls Day European custom, devout Christians would walk home to home seeking alms or "soul cakes," in return for prayers they would say for the dead relatives of the donors. It was believed that by doing this they could expedite the souls' passage to heaven.
The first fortnight of the Ashvina season in the Hindu calendar (September-October) is observed as Pitra Paksha, and departed ancestors of a family are remembered and revered. An act of subliminal homage to one's own, this ceremony may be somber in tenor but it is uplifting in essence. Like the Halloween belief, Hindus believe that their ancestors visit them at this time and that by offering prayers and food they expedite their journey to heaven.
Today, children go door-to-door collecting chocolates, candy, sweets and fruit as the penultimate chapter of Halloween day. The great melting cauldron of cultures that America is, kids soliciting treats at your doorstep are not all 'Irish' descendants or even Christians. From Chinese, to Korean to Vietnamese to Latin American to Indian, youngsters seeking candy are the most visible feature of this fest.
Other activities include visiting haunted houses, watching terror films and participating in customary hayrides etc. In Atlanta, visits to haunted houses are ever popular. Netherworld Haunted House, Georgia Antique & Design Center that celebrates its 10th anniversary for instance remains a top draw for Halloween fans. Similarly Creepers Haunted House in Smyrna with haunted houses VooDoo and The Dungeon has been extremely popular.
Though Halloween or Pooky Night is vivid, blithe, convivial and snazzy while Pitra Paksha is somber, ritualistic, and staid; both are observed by the Diaspora in both, their singularity and duality. For the departed, neither is a trick and both may be treats.