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Friday, October 31, 2008

"Trick or Treat"--East Asian Style

[This essay was originally posted to a blog on Weebly. In transferring it I have updated and made corrections where necessary.]

The traditional Halloween beer-sucking game.

What does the average American know about the deep-culture origins of Halloween? Most see it as sort of a watered-down "fun time" for kids, and an excuse for adults to par-tay.

Of course some of us know that it was the traditional first day of Winter, the season of the dead; and that the Church co-opted this Pagan (in the high sense of the word) tradition and turned it into a remembrance first (November 1) of all the Christians who have passed on, and second (November 2) of all the souls who have died.

And so in some countries people go to the cemeteries to "par-tay" with the dead. My wife Lila says that in the Philippines, families play cards and mahjong there!

Anyway, take that gap--between the deep roots of the tradition on the one hand, and the knowledge of the average trick-or-treater. Call that distance "A." Well, go "A" again in the same direction, and you'll arrive at how much the average Chinese knows about the holiday.

Yes, Halloween celebrations are on the rise in China. In my city of Shenzhen, you'll find at least twelve celebrations. And where are they?

In the bars.

This reminds me of one of my favorite holidays, El Cinco de Mayo. Many of my native, born-in-Mexico Mexican friends found my love of the holiday amusing. Apparently it would pass in Mexico with as much "hurrah" (ole?) as , say, Flag Day in America, or a state's Admission Day.

But in my hometown of Los Angeles it was a big deal. Why? "Margarita Madness!" "All-you-can-eat Nachos!" "Buy Two Tequila Shooters, get One free!"

Yes. El Cinco de Mayo in L.A. is largely a product of bar promotions. OK, some people will point out, but the Mexican-American community celebrates this as a day of national pride, like St. Patrick's Day for the Irish-Americans, and Columbus Day for the Italian-Americans.

Agreed. But just as Christmas has been commercialized, so have these "national pride" days.

Well, in China, it seems that Halloween is not migrating from a "national pride day" to a commercial event. It's STARTING as a commercial event, just as Valentine's Day was first promoted in Japan by chocolate companies.

Interestingly, there is a legitimate "Halloween" event in East Asian culture. My first summer in Japan, I was surprised to see several theme parks advertising "haunted houses" in August.

August? That's an October thing!

But in fact, they had "imported" this "tradition" as a way to celebrate what is commonly known in China as "Ghost Festival," celebrated the fifteenth day (full moon) of the seventh lunar month. It may have begun as a blending of a traditional Chinese festival and the imported Buddhist holiday of Ullambana. In Japan, it's known as O-bon (a shortening of the Japanese transliteration of "Ullambana"), and is celebrated in neighborhood parks and temples with ceremonial drumming and dancing.

One common trait of Japan's and China's Ghost Festivals is the offering of food to the departed. This practice may be seen by some as an act of compassion; others, however, make no bones about it: they're appeasing the spirits to prevent any bad luck.

Sound familiar? TRICK OR TREAT!

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