“Trick or treat,” cried a group of young boys and girls dressed in dreadful costumes as I opened the door of my son’s Berkeley home, responding to a hearty knock. Overwhelmed by the exotic sight, sound and intimidating accent, I was scared good and fumbled for a response. “Appa, don’t worry,” yelled my son from behind, carrying a couple of packets, full of chocolates and candies and poured them on to the bags carried by the boisterous children in scary, outlandish masks. Soon the youngsters left, chortling and giggling, apparently, I imagined, elated over scaring me and getting a sugary bonanza in the bargain.

I had arrived in the Californian University City on the US west coast a few days earlier on a short visit even as Hurricane Sandy was battering the country’s other coast. During my walks round the city I had observed huge pumpkins kept at the doors of many homes.

Soon I learnt that it was a custom followed during the days prior to the annual Halloween festival that falls on October 31. My son, with impish humour, had kept the ‘trick or treat’ bit to himself, intending to give me a jolly good jolt. The previous evening he had bought a few packets of chocolates and candies and specifically ‘ordered’ me, chronically suffering from a sweet tooth, not to touch them. I grew wiser to the Halloween tradition but not before paying a ‘price’ for having been lazy not to use the Net to read up in time about the festival.

Door to Otherworld

As I surfed through the pages on the screen, I was fascinated to find strange similarities between some Indian festivals as well as ritualistic practices and the Halloween tradition.

Halloween imagery includes themes of death, evil, and the occult and mythical monsters. Trick-or-treat is a customary celebration for children on Halloween. Children go in costume from house to house, asking for treats such as candy (sweets) or sometimes money, with the question, “Trick or treat?” The word “trick” refers to a (mostly idle) “threat” to perform mischief on the homeowners or their property if no treat is given.

Observed by the Christian and some non-Christian societies around the world, Halloween is a contraction of “All Hallows’ Evening”, signifying the Western Christian feast of All Hallows (or All Saints). According to some versions, it was originally influenced by western European harvest festivals and festivals of the dead with possible pagan roots.

Typical festive Halloween activities include trick-or-treat (also known as “guising”), attending costume parties, carving pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns, lighting bonfires, apple bobbing, visiting haunted attractions, playing pranks, telling scary stories, and watching horror films.

Some pagan tradition saw the occasion as a time when the ‘door’ to the Otherworld opened enough for the souls of the dead, and other beings such as fairies, to come into our world. The souls of the dead were said to revisit their homes. The faithful visited homes to collect food for the feast.

‘Sundal’ shouts

Now, close to the time of Halloween rituals, Hindus observe the “pitru paksh” or the 15-day period when the believers perform annual “shrard” for departed parents, making their annual return to the earth, to feed them and keep their souls in peace. Also, the Navratri festival and Durga pooja fall in close proximity to this period. In the southern States, young boys would visit homes in their street and shout “Maami sundal” (“Auntie, give us some sundal”) much like the masked youth calling for ‘trick or treat’. (Sundal is a spicy dish made from pulses.)

Indeed, the themes of certain rituals the world over seem to converge on a common spiritual as well as physical plane.

(The author, a former deputy editor with PTI, is a New Delhibased freelance journalist)

(This article was published on November 2, 2012)
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