Popular Celebrations—Harmless Fun?
IN MID-OCTOBER, a strange transformation begins to take place in some cities in France. Shop windows fill up with pumpkins, skeletons, and spiderwebs. In local supermarkets, cashiers don pointed black hats. As a grand finale, little children haunt the streets, knock on doors, and threaten mischief if their demands for a “treat” are not met.
These strange customs are all part of the celebration known as Halloween. Formerly viewed as mainly an American holiday, Halloween has spread around the world, becoming popular among both children and adults. France, it seems, has embraced Halloween with open arms. According to one estimate, nearly a third of French households celebrated the event last year. The Italian daily La Repubblica speaks of the current fad as a “boom” that is sweeping the Italian peninsula. The newspaper Nordkurier states that “more [German] citizens than ever before do not want to miss out on the gruesome fun.”
Europe is not alone in falling under the spell of Halloween. From the Bahamas to Hong Kong, Halloween is being celebrated with gusto. The International Herald Tribune reports that last year a radio station in Sri Lanka held a competition for “the weirdest Halloween recipes and the most bloodcurdling death screams.” Halloween also has a foothold in Japan, where ‘pumpkin parades’ with thousands of participants have been held in Tokyo.
Even in parts of the world where Halloween is not popular, there are often festivals and celebrations that resemble it. During Britain’s Guy Fawkes Night, you can see roving bands of children who plead for money and play Halloweenlike pranks. In Taiwan, there is the colorful Lantern Festival. Small children roam the streets carrying lanterns that depict birds and beasts. Mexico has its Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, a celebration that has traveled across the Mexican-U.S. border. According to writer Carlos Miller, some Mexican-Americans still “don wooden skull masks called calacas and dance in honor of their deceased relatives.”
Most people might view such celebrations as nothing more than harmless fun—an excuse for children and adults to dress up and lose their inhibitions. Such a nonchalant viewpoint, however, ignores the fact that these celebrations are undeniably pagan in origin. Taiwan’s Lantern Festival, for example, was started when people lit lanterns in an attempt to see celestial spirits that they believed were floating in the sky. Mexico’s Day of the Dead has its origin in an Aztec ritual that honored the dead.
Some might argue that the origin of celebrations like these is of little consequence. But ask yourself, ‘Can celebrations that have such dark origins really be viewed as harmless?’ Commercial promoters of these celebrations are certainly not concerned. Regarding Halloween, a representative of the Cultural Institute of Barcelona, Spain, observed: “It is a festival that is being implanted from a commercial point of view.” Why, last year, receipts from Halloween were estimated at $6.8 billion in the United States alone. In France, a company that makes Halloween costumes has seen its business increase more than a hundredfold in just three years.
But should you participate in such celebrations simply because they are popular or profitable? In answer, we will take another look at the celebration of Halloween.
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Sugar skulls used for Mexico’s Day of the Dead
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In Britain, Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated with bonfires
© Hulton Getty Archive/gettyimages