- The festival of lights often falls within the week of trick-or-treating. And every year, in our home, Diwali wages a valiant but losing battle against Halloween.
The end of October brings with it an identity crisis for many Indian Americans. Halloween or Diwali? Jack-o’-lanterns or diyas? Ghosts and skeletons or colorful rangolis?
Like many religious holidays, Diwali (also known as the “festival of lights” or the Hindu New Year) is calculated according to the lunar calendar — which means that the date shifts slightly from year to year. Often, Diwali falls within the week of Halloween. And every year, in our home, Diwali wages a valiant but losing battle against Halloween.
How can a night of visiting relatives and dutifully singing bhajans compete with the joys of trick-or-treating or horror movie marathons? What kid (brown-skinned or not) would exchange pillowcases stuffed with fun-sized candy bars and bags of M&Ms for sticky, syrupy Indian sweets? The fun of merely lighting candles couldn’t compare to the joy of placing those candles within a hollowed out jack-o-lantern, like everyone else on the block. To my kids Diwali doesn’t hold a candle to the candy utopia of Halloween.
Now, many of us desi fanatics will shake our heads and express offense over India celebrating Halloween. They will argue, ‘Why should we celebrate a Western holiday when we already have so many of our own? Why, oh why. this colonial hangover!’
But isn’t believing in ghosts and remembering the dead is more Indian than Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi parivaar on a garba night?
Isn’t it a common tradition to keep aside a part of our meals for the dead forefathers? To feed crows believing they are our forefathers? Aren’t we taught and told that our dead relatives are watching over us, and that they often return among the living? Then why bother frowning upon a day when the dead are believed to stop by to say hi?
For many Hindus, the answer is simple: abstain from Halloween. The Spiritual Science Research Foundation(2013)— a Hindu group that I know very little about — produced a video arguing that celebrating Halloween is a dangerous concession to demonic forces.
Other Hindus seem to gravitate toward the opposite end of the spectrum; not only do they celebrate Halloween, but they see the holiday as an opportunity to bring their Hindu culture front and center. Some parents dress up their little one in his or her finest Indian party clothes, perhaps with the addition of a makeshift turban or tiara, to transform the child into an “Indian prince” or “Indian princess.” Others take it one step further, and have their child dress up as a Hindu god or goddess.
Over the years in my neighborhood, my kids along with their Indian American friends have dressed in their spookiest best and celebrated Halloween, as they skip around our neighborhood trick or treating.
Kids dressed in a variety of costumes display their creativity: We’ve seen a Darth Vader with his cape, mask and the light saber; a witch with perfect eye makeup and the long conical hat, ghosts, vampires, princesses, and even a kitty cat and a Lord Ganesha.
And it is not just the kids who get into the spirit of the holiday, but many accompanying parents dress up too: be it a simple hat, wig or a facemask or a complicated costume and always with an adult beverage tumbler in their hands as they pound the pavements.
Former tech executive, now stay at home dad and stockbroker Matt Hardy and his wife Pooja dress up with their two daughters, Simran and Emerson, every year and walk their Virginia Highlands, Georgia neighborhood. “This year, we are not so sure. We will still probably get dressed up and socially distantly mingle with the neighbors. Our neighborhood has a costume, potluck, block party every year and afterwards the kids go trick or treating. No such festivities this year,” he says forlornly.
Hardy who goes all out with his costumes each year is not sure what he will dress up as but “COVID 2020 will feature prominently.”
Says Alpharetta, Georgia IT professional Asha Jahagirdar, “Both my kids look forward to Halloween as soon as fall begins. Trick or treating is their favorite part and of course the candies. They love to give candy to other kids and we love it because it encourages sharing among sharing,” although she points out that there won’t be much of that this year.
Jahagirdar is mother to nine-year-old son Aarav and 4-year-old Anvika, who has her heart set on being a unicorn this year. As for her son, he wants to be “Sanitizer man because it is apt for 2020.”
Describing a typical Halloween night for her family she says, “Every year we have the whole neighborhood gather near our community pool. Last year there were more than 50 kids. We always do a group picture and then the kids disperse for trick or treating. I love the camaraderie of the neighborhood.”
This year however Jahagirdar is anticipating a much quieter Halloween. “We will make sure we wear gloves and masks before handing out candy and will also respect those that aren’t comfortable participating. This year, our neighborhood, like many others, has decided that only homes that want to participate should keep their porch lights on, on Oct 31.”
But she does point out “that the excitement of the kids is the same as last year and the year before – they can’t wait to attack the candy!”
As to decorating her home with the spooky, Jahagirdar says, “I love pumpkins, but not ghosts and tombstones with RIP signs. I like positivity and we celebrate Diwali so close to Halloween that I look for anything that brings positive energy – fall flowers, pumpkins, diyas and rangoli.”
Connecticut resident and Associate Director at Bristol Myers, Shalaka Patel says, “We will be getting together with another family on Halloween but no other plan due to COVID. The kids will be dressing up for sure.”
Patel is mom to Amaya (11) who wants to be a scientist, Armaan (7), who wants to be an ice hockey player and 4-year-old Soniya, who will be dressed as Princess Belle.
Patel also points out that, “I usually love to dress up for Diwali, not Halloween, but both festivities are about meeting people, which I love.”
Dacula, Georgia technology and process consultant Navaz Mistry (name changed on request), who along with wife, Anna and 12-year-old daughter Eva, love to decorate for all the holidays – particularly Halloween and Christmas – says, “I did not drag out all the decorations and lights this year.” Looking around at his giant spider and elaborate web along with tombstone inflatables, I would disagree. The inside of the home is as spectacular as the outside with a life-sized mummy and witch.
Mistry adds, “Over the years we have hosted murder mystery dinners where we got guests to dress up and everyone has a part to play. Then we get to figure out whodunit.”
The Mistry’s have also dressed up along with the daughter and dog Lucy and gone trick or treating in past years.
This year however, given the pandemic the Mistry’s will be low-key. “We are staying home and leaving candy on the porch for trick or treaters. We might walk around with our daughter for a bit to friends we know have been taking things seriously and have been maintaining social distance and wearing masks.”
As for me, I’ll be masked up and ready to hand out candy Saturday night, while my kids throw the ‘no candy after bedtime’ rule out of the window and gorge themselves silly on snickers and sour skittles.
At the end of the day, Halloween is another addition to the palette of festivals, we Indians like to celebrate, a true cross-cultural exchange. Boo!
Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.