United States of Halloween

by Caroline Berens | 10/29/15 7:16pm

Ali Dalton/ The Dartmouth Staff

Children amble around, clad in costumes resembling pumpkins, angels and superheroes, lugging enormous pillowcases or orange plastic bins filled to the brim with candy. Elsewhere, older adolescents and adults host costume parties where they play spooky music and serve drinks called “The Vampire’s Kiss” and “Witch’s Brew.” Others watch movies like “Halloweentown” (1998) and “Harry Potter” while munching on candy corn.

Everywhere, decorated pumpkins — with designs varying from basic to ornate — are visible on houses’ steps and porches, glowing from within by authentic, or electric, candlelight. Other decorations include cobwebs covering bushes, fake gravestones placed sporadically throughout yards and skulls lining stone walkways.

Such a scene is quite typical for people who grew up in the United States. In fact, the vast majority of us have likely participated in trick-or-treating or attended a Halloween party.

Halloween, however, is uniquely celebrated in the United States, and the same traditions do not necessarily hold true for international students. Without being accustomed to such traditions, one might see our enthusiastic celebrations as bizarre or even outlandish.

Mahnoor Maqsood ’18, who is originally from Pakistan, said that although Halloween didn’t exist where she grew up, she was familiar with the holiday through exposure to Western media. It wasn’t a total “culture shock,” when she first experienced Halloween in college, she said, but it was unusual.

One of the only experiences Maqsood had with the holiday before coming to Dartmouth was during her high school years, when her swim coach — who was from the U.S. — would host a “Halloween”-themed practice where Maqsood and her teammates had to dress up. Maqsood said this was probably the only time she ever wore a costume for the holiday before coming to the College.

Maqsood said that the rare Halloween celebrations that do occur in Pakistan are very subtle.

“Even if people do kind of celebrate it, it’s done on a very, very private and small scale — it’ll just be that you and your friends dress up and have a party together, something small,” Maqsood said.

Lloyd May ’18, who is originally from Carletonville, South Africa, said the case is similar in her hometown. She said Halloween was never widely celebrated there, besides the trick-or-treating that occurred in some upper-class neighborhoods. She said beyond that, though, there’s “nothing major.”

Ashley Manning ’17, who is originally from Peru, explained that Peruvians perceive Halloween as a very American holiday, and thus it doesn’t really exist.

She explained that as a child her family used to have some kind of celebrations for the holiday, as her father was Irish. In elementary school, she hosted an annual Halloween party for her friends, but she was the only one who did so.

“Everybody always found it really fun, but it was definitely something most of my friends didn’t do…it was a tradition that I always organized the Halloween party, as nobody else really cared about [the holiday],” Manning said.

Manning also noted that she and her friends would primarily dress up in one of three costumes: a witch, a wizard or a cat. She said the case is very different in the United States, where people — even children — dress up in a much wider array of costumes. She noted that this greater freedom “makes more sense.”

Maqsood said what ultimately made the holiday such a “foreign concept” to her when she came to the College, even though she had some semblance of its premises, was her unawareness of how devoted people were to dressing up.

Zoe Sands ’18, who is originally from Iceland, explained that although Halloween has not been traditionally celebrated there, it’s becoming increasingly popular to do so. She attributed this to two main factors.

“Because of the media and globalization, people there have started celebrating Halloween like Americans,” Sands said.

Sands said these celebrations occur there on our equivalent of Ash Wednesday, which is simply called “Ash Day” in Iceland and occurs in February. She explained that on this day, children go trick-or-treating and people dress up in costumes. She said this is especially odd due to the predominant religion in Iceland.

“It’s kind of bizarre…especially because Iceland is a mostly Protestant country, and Ash Wednesday is a more of a Catholic thing,” Sands explained.

Thus, Sands said, though any notion of Halloween was previously nonexistent in Iceland, now it’s much more commonplace.

May also said that although Halloween celebrations didn’t exist during her childhood, some local establishments like music venues and clubs now host Halloween-themed parties.

In a similar situation, Manning said trick-or-treating has become more prevalent in Peru over the past 10 years or so. Although she explained that it didn’t exist there during her own childhood, she saw an increasing number of children participate in Halloween when she was in high school.

She noted, though, that celebrations are still not on the same massive scale as they are in the U.S.

American-style Halloween celebrations, however, are not quite unique to the United States alone. Bridget O’Neill ’18, originally from Ontario, Canada, said the holiday is celebrated almost in the exact way as it is here.

“The trick-or-treating, the way teenagers and adults celebrate it, it’s pretty much the same…I don’t feel any difference between home and here,” O’Neill said.

She said the extent of decorating is relatively similar to the case in the U.S. as well.

“There are the families that go all out with the crazy decorations, and then there are the families that are a little more conservative, but that’s the same both places, too,” O’Neill said.

In regard to this conflation of the ways in which the holiday is similarly celebrated here and in Canada, O’Neill said she is unsure of the origin of the holiday.

Manning said when she experienced her first Halloween in the U.S., one of the most overwhelming aspects was the extent to which people decorate their homes.

“People go all out with decorations for Halloween…it’s pretty insane,” Manning said.

Maqsood expressed a similar sentiment about the zeal and intensity with which Americans tend to celebrate Halloween.

“Even though I knew about the holiday, I didn’t realize the amount that people are invested in it,” Maqsood said.

May said she finds this aspect of Halloween very favorable.

“I just really love how into it most people get. It is a really bizarre holiday, but because other people are so into it I get super excited about it as well,” she said.

Manning explained that she doesn’t fully understand why Halloween is celebrated so passionately here, as — unlike most holidays, such as Christmas — it doesn’t seem to her that it has any particular historical significance. This makes the extensive decorations especially confusing to her.

“It’s not really a holiday that has much significance beyond that you get to dress up and do fun things,” Manning explained.

Sands expressed similar sentiment, saying the actual origin of the holiday is a mystery to her.

May also spoke to her slight bewilderment about the concept of trick-or-treating from an outsider’s perspective. She explained that it implies that it’s safe for people to walk around at night, which she said isn’t a luxury many people have in her hometown.

She also said the notion of children requesting free candy from adults is very bizarre.

“It is also a very strange cultural event as little children demand sweets from elders and threaten to deface their house, or the like, if they don’t comply,” May said.

She noted, though, that since the activity is presented as a socially acceptable activity dominated by bright-eyed young children, people who grew up with it might be blind to these odd aspects.

Maqsood spoke to the beneficial aspect of Halloween’s fervent and even unusual celebrations, however, explaining that it’s very easy to participate in the holiday regardless of your background or experiences.

“It’s very inclusive. Even if you’ve never celebrated it, you can sort of just pick it up,” Maqsood explained, which she said was great as an international student.

Sands explained that her first time experiencing Halloween as a freshman was surreal.

“It was like a scene out of a movie, because it was just…everywhere,” Sands explained.

She said she had previously considered the holiday to be more for the benefit of children, due to trick-or-treating, so she was surprised at the level of celebrations for adults. She noted, however that the holiday’s purpose is simply to have fun.

Maqsood said her first Halloween here in the U.S. was a similarly overpowering experience.

“I’d heard about it for so long, but when you come here it’s so different to really experience it firsthand,” Maqsood said.

She noted, though, that even in college, people just dress up in costume and go out. She said she still has never been trick-or-treating, so in a way, her Halloween involvement wasn’t quite the full-fledged experience.

All students explained that despite their initial skepticism about the holiday’s premises and celebrations, they’ve all thoroughly enjoyed their experiences. Ultimately, they said, the best aspect of Halloween is that’s sole purpose (ostensibly) is to have fun.

“I mean, who doesn’t like dressing up in costume?” Sands said.