A time of pumpkins and black cats
If you’ve been out grocery shopping during the past two weeks, you’ve probably noticed the latest influx of pumpkins of all different colors, shapes, and sizes. In Canada, this would be a very important sign – an indication that the pumpkin patches had been thoroughly emptied out in preparation for Halloween. In Japan, pumpkins always seem to be readily available in the local supermarkets. However, there tends to be a big difference between the green pumpkins of Japan and the bright orange ones in Canada. When asked by some students at Smith’s School of English what that difference was, the only answer I could come up with was that they were superstitiously regarded as magical vegetables. And the pumpkins that are now cropping up in your neighborhood flower shop are not your regular green ones, they just so happen to be the orange ones that I’m very fond of collecting around Halloween.
So why are these orange pumpkins sneaking their way into the homes of many unsuspecting Japanese shoppers? It’s quite simple actually – Halloween has been growing in popularity in Japan for the past few years and the orange pumpkin along with it. If you look around, you might catch someone in a costume that is Halloween-ish in nature and not intended for random cosplay. There have been various advertisements over the weeks boasting of Halloween costume parties or fun get-togethers for anyone interested in celebrating Halloween. Candy packaged clearly for Halloween is being sold just about anywhere and everywhere. And the orange pumpkin has come out of hiding to be picked up in real, ready-to-carve or plastic collectable form. In fact, just last week I received a birthday present in the form of a Halloween chocolate pumpkin basket! My Japanese friend confessed that she had bought the item on impulse, claiming that it had looked like it would make a great edible display. I tend to agree with her… after having devoured the display in its entirety.
Many Japanese children seem to have taken up an interest in Halloween according to what some students have been telling me. Several older students have asked me to explain where and how Halloween originated. I think that this is mainly because they are curious to know what their children are getting into because they feel left in the dark when it comes to dressing up like witches, ghosts, and super heroes. In honor of the exciting tradition of Halloween, I’ve been selecting the Let’s Talk – Ghosts lesson for higher level students in Smith’s School of English, Kyobashi, recently. But as for explaining what Halloween is all about and how it came to be… that’s a formidable challenge. It’s even confusing and difficult for me to remember at times because the history of Halloween goes back a long way. But, in the spirit of spreading the interest in Halloween to as many students and friends as possible, I’ve been trying my best to refresh my memory on what has become one of my favorite yearly traditions.
Samhain and the transformation into Halloween
Halloween has changed several times over the centuries, being adapted to its specific environment by the people who celebrate it. Tracing back to approximately 2,000 years ago, Halloween was first created – in concept – by the Celts, who lived in Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France, and was a Pagan festival. It was originally named the festival of Samhain and took place on the night of October 31st, the day before November 1st, which was then thought of as the New Year. Samhain was considered to be the day when the world of the living would become accessible to the world of the deceased, thereby allowing spirits to wander the earth. This was very much the Japanese O-Bon festival where the spirits of ancestors and relatives come back to visit their respected families. The Celtic priests and druids would build bonfires to honor the otherworldly visitors, worshipping them in the hopes of receiving positive prophecies or visions of the future. So this explains where the idea of ghosts wandering about on Halloween originally came from.
In A.D. 43, the Romans took over the festival of Samhain, altering it slightly and adding their own traditional celebrations in with it. One of the most famous additions was the act of ‘bobbing for apples’. This practice, continued up until today, involves filling a large tank (bowl or other large container) with water and tossing in a few floating apples. Anyone wishing to participate in this event must try to latch onto the apples with their teeth alone, usually with their hands behind their backs. One of my friends asked me what the purpose of this particular event is but I’m afraid that I would also like the answer to that question. I read somewhere that the first person to snatch up an apple would be the first to marry. But that’s just a reported superstition.
In the 800s, Christians and the Catholic Church moved into the Celtic lands and renamed Samhain, the night of October 31st, All-Hallows Eve. November 1st came to be known as All-Hallows or All-Hallowmas. And eventually from there, All-Hallows Eve became Halloween. Irish and Scottish immigrants brought the festival of Halloween to North America and now, it would seem that Japan has also inherited some of the practices revolving around Halloween from foreigners carrying on this tradition.
Although the main purpose of Halloween was originally intended to appease and entertain the traveling spirits – the idea of dressing up in costumes was supposed to either make the spirits happy or to blend in with them – it has now become commercialized, much to the delight of people of all ages worldwide. And now that it has been adopted by Japan, I feel even more at home during one of my favorite holidays.
A first attempt at a Halloween party
While I was working this past Saturday night, a few of my friends ventured to a Halloween party that one adventurous friend had decided to hold at her place. She didn’t have a lot of knowledge about Halloween so before planning the party, she asked me for some advice and suggestions. After learning a bit more about the holiday, she decorated her home with little mini orange pumpkins that she scavenged for at a flower shop around her station. She picked up chocolates and candies from various locations, striving to get a good stash for her party-goers to snack on. Costumes are fairly easy to get your hands on in Japan, especially if you’re into anime or video games, which my friend just so happens to be. So she had her costume all planned out and was hoping that everyone in attendance would also show up in costume. Unfortunately, she rejected my movie selection, saying that it was too tame for her Halloween standards. I can only guess that she picked out some terrifyingly scary horror movie to fit the theme of her fright night party. Half of the night was spent telling ghost stories, which a lot of students at Kyobashi have no trouble concocting. And the other half was spent watching the movie and eating junk food. Aside from the movie, which would have left me with nightmares for weeks to come, I regret that I wasn’t able to attend this wonderful party.
So how am I going to be celebrating Halloween in Japan? My first choice would have been to decorate my apartment with a great big Jack-O-Lantern (a gutted pumpkin carved with an amusing or frightening face with a lit candle inside). Although it is a really tempting idea, and I know of a foreign import store on Kobe Island that carries BIG pumpkins, I am unfortunately banned from keeping Jack-O-Lanterns indoors – indefinitely. This relates back to the first and last Halloween party that I hosted back in Canada, the year before I came to Japan. I’d found an amazingly large pumpkin at the local supermarket and lugged all 5+kgs of it the twenty minute walk it took to get to my apartment at the time. It took me another two hours to cut the top off of the pumpkin, scrape out the seeds and gooey pumpkin center, and then carve out the laughing face that I’d drawn onto it. Needless to say, I was extremely proud of my jeering Jack-O-Lantern and thought it to be a waste to dispose of it after the party. So I kept Mr. Jack-O-Lantern for an additional four days after Halloween, making a ritual of lighting the candle inside it when I came home for dinner. Well, on the fourth night, I’d just finished lighting the candle in the living room and left it alone to start making dinner. I had just stuck dinner into the oven when I heard this cackling noise, an appropriately eerie noise to match the nature of the Jack-O-Lantern. I ignored it at first, until it really started to sound suspicious. When I re-entered the living room, I was quite dismayed to find that Mr. Jack-O-Lantern was aflame, sparking and livid with a pyromaniac’s joy. To say that this was startling would have been inadequate to describe what I felt at such a sight. Thankfully, my husband was less enthralled by the sight of a pumpkin bonfire and had the common sense to grab the fiery inferno that had become my Jack-O-Lantern and make a wild dash for the kitchen sink. While this incident did mark the end of my pumpkin carving days, it was not without its benefits. It makes a great story to tell to both students and friends who haven’t yet heard the tale, entertaining them right around the Halloween season.
This year’s Halloween is going to be safe and candle-free. I’m thinking that if I have some free time, I might sketch up some witch and ghost cutouts to hang from the lighting fixtures. And the Japanese green pumpkin made into fishcakes is absolutely delicious so I might just throw a couple of those into a pot of oden. I’ve already planned to prepare some Halloween pasta (orange and black pasta colored by carrots and squid and cut into the shapes of pumpkins, bats, and witches) after work on Wednesday night. Now if I could only get my hands on some authentic pumpkin pie… That would make a delicious dessert to end any meal!
The influence of Halloween
Depending on the students that I will be teaching this Tuesday and Wednesday, I look forward to hearing about the parties that they attended or how they will be celebrating Halloween. Of course, there will be students that might look at me funny or ask me what Halloween is, but I’m hopeful that with the commercialism at an all-time high more students than last year will be eager to share a story or two with me. One of my private students went to Universal Studios Japan with a bunch of friends to see what kinds of festivities were being offered for Halloween. It turns out that she was able to enjoy a parade-like performance with performers dressed in spooky costumes and doing all sorts of tricks on rollerblades. She also came back with a bagful of Halloween themed souvenirs like Halloween Hello Kitty in pumpkin form. When asked if any of the regular people were dressed up, she informed me that she saw one little girl wearing a witch’s outfit and a foreign man wearing a fake moustache and a strangely oversized hat. I spotted a few people, foreigners and Japanese alike, sporting Halloween costumes in Umeda after I had finished my shift at Kyobashi on Saturday and was on my way to a private lesson. I think that it would be great if students were to show up to Smith’s School of English in full costume and the teachers would then be required to guess their identity. Of course, now it’s just an idea but who knows? In the future, if Halloween continues to spread throughout Japan, it could be a possibility. If not this year, maybe next year… You’d better get your pumpkin now before they’re all gone!!!