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October 29, 2000

HALLOWEEN: A CHILDREN'S HOLIDAY

Halloween has always been one of my favorite special days, and not only because I love candy and junk food. Well, okay, that has a lot to do with it. But I also love Halloween because it's a celebration that allows the kid inside everyone, even adults, to shine innocently as if we were all six years old again.

Our parents had to take us to Green Park, a housing area for US military personnel, my brother and I would spend an hour or two running along with hundreds of other "military brats" through a complex of high-rise apartment buildings yelling "trick or treat!"
The modern Halloween began as All Hallow's Eve, the day before the Catholic All Saints' Day, or All Hallow's Day. But it has roots that go back to pagan cultures and harvest festivals. It began as the Celtic celebration of Samhaim, marking the Celtic New Year and the end of summer. In Mexico, the "Days of the Dead" (All Saints Day and All Souls Day, November 1 and 2) combine the imagery of skeletons and death with family celebrations that pay tribute to ancestors.

Halloween in the US is a huge commercial industry, with supermarkets stocking bags of candy over a month in advance -- who could possibly buy candy in September to give out on October 31, and not eat it by then? The night has become commercialized for both kids, who wear costumes and go door-to-door (these days with parents in tow to make sure they're safe), and adults, who also get dressed up for work and attend grownup parties in bars and nightclubs (any excuse to drink).

Like the Days of the Dead, the Japanese Obon festival is a way to honor and remember the dead. But Halloween isn't a tradition -- at least, not yet. I was surprised when I was in Japan during October a few years ago to find stores in the trendy Shinjuku retail district packed with Halloween paraphernalia, from decorations of witches and jack-o-lanterns to skeletons and ghosts familiar here in the US.

When I was growing up in the Japan of the late 1950s and early 1960s, I don't think Halloween was celebrated at all.

I recall only several costumes from my early childhood: a robot costume made of boxes by my father; a cowboy outfit complete with two six-shooters and a red cowboy hat; and a samurai outfit complete with a bald headpiece with a top-knot and two plastic samurai swords. My older brother Gary and I went trick-or-treating with our costumes on, but not through the Japanese neighborhood of Tokyo where we lived. Instead, our parents had to take us to Green Park, a housing area for US military personnel, where Gary and I would spend an hour or two running along with hundreds of other "military brats" through a complex of high-rise apartment buildings yelling "trick or treat!" It was easy to go floor to floor and knock on doors down one hall after another to collect grocery bags full of sweet loot. It never occurred to me that my Japanese friends didn't have this once-a-year chance to hoarde bagfulls of candy.

These Halloweens are vivid today as if I was romping through Green Park's tall buildings just last year.

This weekend I celebrated Halloween early, with an annual party hosted by my best friends Leland and Billie, who have for years invited a crowd to their home in Boulder to carve pumpkins and admire them all on their front porch. The flickering candles inside them send the sweet scorched smell of pumpkin pie throughout the neighborhood. As always, their home was jammed with friends -- many of whom I've only seen this time of year, for 15 years. It's wonderful to catch up with this network of acquaintances, who spin around the hub of Leland and Billie. This year I was here with Erin and Jared, as well as my adorable nieces McKenna (6 years old) and Sage (3).

As I carved the jack-o-lanterns for my nieces following patterns they drew on their pumpkins, I was reminded how much Halloween means to children. The party was mostly attended by adults, although neighborhood children have always been welcome. And as they often do, the television in the basement was set to a station broadcasting old monster movies. We realized after a while that Sage was both fascinated and frightened by "Monster from the Black Lagoon," a film from 1954 which by today's standards of special effects and violence is almost quaint to grownups. But Sage kept covering her face during the scarier moments,. and even McKenna seemed affected by the film. When Erin asked if she would rather go upstairs, Sage nodded "yes," so they went to carve Erin's pumpkin with a pattern of bats in the living room. I had always been at this party as an adult, and didn't see thing from a child's perspective. Now I did.

For the girls, Halloween is still a time to dress up in fun costumes and receive as much candy as possible with their parents' approval. In modern America, it has nothing to do with harvest time or death.

That point was driven home when we went with the girls and Glenn and Michelle, my brother and sister-in-law, to the Buddhist temple for the Sunday service followed by a Halloween party. The girls got to dress up -- McKenna as a belly dancer and Sage as a mermaid -- and the girls got to enjoy Halloween events in their Dharma School classes and begin filling their candy bags. Then we had a very nice multi-cultural (corn dogs and Japanese style curry) lunch served up by the Young Buddhists Association followed by games, a haunted house (which Erin reported was more funny than scary) and costume contest during which every contestant was given a treat.

Sage ate more candy than I thought her tiny frame could hold, but she was happy and content as her family headed home. I'm sure she and her sister were already looking forward to trick-or-treating on Halloween night Tuesday, and getting even more candy.

I hope they'll remember these times as vividly as I remember my childhood Halloweens!

 


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