By Brenda Keino
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire
Note: Brenda Keino, a Kenyan journalism student, is experiencing her first U.S. Halloween. She wrote this story for a Kenyan newspaper to explain the U.S. tradition.
WASHINGTON - The room is dimly lit. Eerie music plays in the background. Hooded figures move around, but one in particular stands out. She is Medusa, a Greek goddess.
The sight is striking. With fake snake tentacles in place of hair and a flowing dark gown, she arrests the attention of everyone else as she glides along.
No, this is not a scene from a movie or a dream. It is real, and it all takes place in downtown bar in the nation’s capital. The occasion is Halloween, and Medusa is just one of many celebrating the holiday by dressing up.
Halloween originated with the Celts who lived 2000 years ago. Their new year started Nov. 1, and they believed that on the eve of this day, the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead was broken. This allowed the ghosts of the dead to return to earth.
U.S. adults and children celebrate Halloween in different ways. If adults wear literary or sexy costumes and celebrate in bars, children are more likely to dress as pirates or princesses. They turn pumpkins into jack-o’-lanterns, carving scary faces and placing a candle inside.
Halloween combines celebrations of traditional harvest with more particular customs such as wearing costumes, trick-or-treating, and seasonal decorations based on imagery of death and the supernatural.
Children trick or treat by dressing up in costumes and moving from house to house on Halloween night asking for a treat, which is normally in form of candy or sweets. If they are not given the treat, then they will trick the owner of the house. Tricks - perhaps throwing eggs at a house or overturning a rubbish bin - have largely disappeared from the celebration.
Because of the idea of the dead and mystical powers, there are some spiritual undertones associated with this holiday.
Tom Otang’a, a Kenyan priest studying theology at the Catholic University of America, says that a typical African brought up within the African environment will be ill at ease with the celebration of Halloween, especially with its depiction of death and the afterlife.
“Africans’ relationships with their dead consist in the belief that the seal between the members of a family is not broken but continues in spite of and beyond death,” Otang’a said. “Therefore to hang around skeletons and to perform games that seem to mock the ‘living-dead’ is the last thing an African want to do.”
Other Christians take it more lightly and view it as a day to just have fun and celebrate the harvest.
Carving pumpkins is part of the custom of Halloween, which was once done mainly by children but now also involves the adults. On Monday evening, a group of friends gathered at a dinner party in a Washington suburb to carve pumpkins. They also removed the seeds, which are salted and baked as a snack.
“We celebrate Halloween for fun and try not to focus on the spiritual side of it,” said Kathryn Burgmayer a Christian with the Salvation Army in Washington.
The idea of dressing up dates back to the Celts. They believed that on Halloween, ghosts came back to earth and so they dressed up to avoid being recognized by the ghosts. Tastes in costumes have chang-ed over the years. Children once wrapped up in sheets to be ghosts or in black robes to be witches.
“The costumes that are most popular for this season are gladiator and pirate costumes. Both the children and adults are buying them fast,” said Robert Pinzon, owner of Abracadabra Superstore, a costume shop in New York City. “We are getting orders from as far as the Caribbean, which means that Halloween is becoming a worldwide phenomenon.”
Otang’a said secular celebrations like Halloween have a capacity to denigrate the impact of Christianity in the Western cultures and that it is therefore up to the Christians to guard against any possible loss in their commitment.