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Spooked: Why Halloween is culturally closer to India than America

The ancient Celtic harvest festival has transcended time and geographical distance to find resonance in this country

art and culture Updated: Oct 30, 2017 12:01 IST
Alex Traub
Alex Traub
Hindustan Times
Halloween,Trick Or Treat,Jack O Lantern
Revellers at a Halloween party in India.(File Photo)

Halloween is becoming an Indian holiday. Events High, a popular Indian ticketing and publicity website, has listed 326 Halloween activities happening in seven major cities on and around October 31. In Delhi, the venues are robustly diverse, including the Playboy Club, the Raghuvansham School of Modern Art, and the Imperial Hotel. People writing about Indian culture have taken notice: over the last five years, national publications have run at least 11 commentaries on the rising popularity of Halloween.

It may seem odd for the urban bourgeoisie of 21st-century South Asia to adopt an ancient Celtic harvest ritual. Halloween was brought to the United States by European immigrants who were connected to the origins of the tradition. It was brought to India as a mass-cultural trinket cheaply imported after liberalization.

Yet as artificial as this match may be historically, it is natural culturally. India is a much more suitable home for Halloween than the US.

During my boyhood in New York, Halloween presented a brief transformation of the world. Normally, the adults in my apartment building appeared only as silent fellow passengers of the elevator. But once a year, I would knock on their front doors, see inside their apartments, and realize that they were real people, leading fully independent lives, right next to me

Americans place remarkably little value on ritual. The earliest colonists were actively hostile, outlawing holidays altogether. Easter, for example, was heathen. Christmas celebrants were fined five shillings. Cotton Mather, an influential minister and pamphleteer, marvelled that “the feast of Christ’s nativity is spent… by mad mirth, by long eating, by hard drinking, by lewd gaming, by rude revelling!”

Puritanism did not end with the Puritans. This Halloween, millions of American Jehovah’s Witnesses will decline to trick-or-treat. Some schools in evangelical areas will discourage or forbid wearing costumes. Illuminated gourds, undead monsters, magical broomsticks, inauspicious bats and cats — Halloween reeks of Paganism.

Godless Americans are no more ritualistic than the Protestants. Secular holidays tend to celebrate one of three things: American exceptionalism, childhood innocence, and binge drinking. The country’s treatment of Halloween is a perfect example of the latter two.

During my boyhood in New York, Halloween presented a brief transformation of the world. Normally, the adults in my apartment building appeared only as silent fellow passengers of the elevator. But once a year, I would knock on their front doors, see inside their apartments, and realize that they were real people, leading fully independent lives, right next to me. I transformed a bit, too: over the years, I dressed as a hippie, a superhero, and a bumblebee.

The Jack O’ Lantern, a popular symbol of Halloween. (Getty Images)

After hours of trick-or-treating, I came home and dumped out my plastic pumpkin-coloured bucket. Candies that otherwise came only in units of ‘one’ or ‘a few’ were suddenly in my possession as piles.

After childhood, Halloween loses its power to transfigure. In New York, the wild annual costume parade in Greenwich Village induces in some of its participants the old feelings of joy and weird new knowledge. For the most part, however, American adults either ignore Halloween, celebrate it only indirectly through their kids, or make it into St. Patrick’s Day with witches instead of leprechauns.

If Americans have done a world-historic job of eliminating or deracinating rituals, Indians have been equally extraordinary in their loving preservation. Home to adherents of every major religion, millions of gods, and a heroic struggle for independence, India commemorates and ritualizes with unmatched brio. It is said to have more public holidays than any other country.

Thanksgiving, Americans’ most cherished ritual, gathers family around the lunch table and the TV set. Indian religious, regional, and national rituals, conversely, spill out into the street. Across the country, Hindus throw coloured powder at strangers on Holi. For their gurus’ birthdays, Sikhs march around their neighbourhoods singing and distributing food. Bengalis pandal-hop during Durga Puja. On Kaanum Pongal, Chennaites congregate en masse on the beach and at the mall. Delhiwallas fly kites on Independence Day.

These are not just celebrations for the young; they’re not entirely religious; and they honour an incredible diversity of practises and experiences and ideas. This variety should give pause to anyone making generalisations about India, but it also seems to point to a unifying trait: Indians are a festive people.

As for the appeal of Halloween specifically, the ritual’s Pagan origins are relevant. Like many Indian religions, those of pre-Christian Europe relied on oral history and tradition, not just holy books. Symbols and behaviours, rather than beliefs, constitute the remnants of the holiday, making it easily appropriated by anyone who appreciates ghosts and “fun-sized” candy.

In this way, Halloween is unique: a beloved festival devoid of both religious faith and national pride. It’s built to travel, and it deserves support from people who know the value of a good ritual.

First Published: Oct 27, 2017 23:29 IST