Another year of enjoying Halloween in the USA just passed. Each year, I notice a bit more shifting of the traditions. For example, commercial haunted houses are proliferating; they seem to be a way for teenagers and young adults to express their Halloween fervor. These days, children don’t only go trick-or-treating around their own neighborhoods as when I was a kid, but often their parents will drive them to neighborhoods that are known to celebrate the evening more vivaciously. Many houses and yards are decorated more and more elaborately every year, probably analogous to the Olympic-grade “competitive” Christmas decorating seen in some parts of the US these days. It’s not just a jack-o-lantern on the porch anymore! And, living in Texas, I have noticed that, over the last five years or so, Mexican Day of the Dead-style imagery has become very popular and even somewhat trendy. (Sometimes I want to remind people that Christians already have two days of the dead, forgotten by many: All Saints’ Day on November 1 and All Souls’ Day on November 2.
I look forward to Halloween and all the fall and winter holidays every year. Like most people over the age of, say, 30, I have fond memories of the way holidays were celebrated when I was a child, and contrast these memories with the way the holidays are celebrated today. But I never realized how intensely emotional and culturally bound these personal representations of holiday traditions are until I participated in an intercultural panel discussion of holidays, years ago, at a SIETAR meeting (Society for Intercultural Education, Training and Research).
The discussion began with an Anglo-American woman telling the story of how the practically sacred—for her—ritual of decorating the Christmas tree was misunderstood by her Japanese immigrant husband. He saw it as merely one more task in the holiday preparations, like wrapping gifts or putting lights on the house. She didn’t understand his apparent indifference because the tree-trimming ritual was such a fundamental part of her assumptions about Christmas. This triggered an argument that neither of them really understood. This same woman was shocked to find out, sometime later, that one of her closest friends from a similar background also viewed tree-trimming as a task, rather than a pleasant ritual.
Next, an African-American man related how his grown children had begun to insist on celebrating Kwanzaa, which he definitely wasn’t interested in. After a couple of years, he began to accept and enjoy it, and Kwanzaa eventually became an important new part of their family life together.
A Pakistani man told of how he felt excluded from the apparent “universal” joy of Christmas. He struggled to understand why small gifts were presented to children in socks—didn’t that seem unhygienic? (This upset some of the Christians in the group.) He also shared his feelings about the “universal” joy of Eid, and how that deep down, he couldn’t really understand the indifference of his US American friends and colleagues when Eid came around.
A Mexican-American woman found it puzzling how many Anglo-Americans celebrated Easter as a seemingly frivolous children’s holiday. To her, it was a solemn occasion. The Asians saw New Year’s as a time to be with family, rather than at the most glamorous or wildest party of the year. (Do any of the US Americans remember having a family New Year’s Day dinner, or do you still celebrate the holiday in that way??)
But for everyone in the room, the most touching moment was when a woman told her story of growing up mainstream Christian in the US, and how her parents converted to another sect when she was about ten years old. The new sect did not permit Christmas to be celebrated with gifts, decorations, feasting, and parties—it was a serious and purely religious event. As she told of how she and her brother had suddenly become walled off from all of the traditions, activities, images, music, and food surrounding their previous understanding of Christmas, she began to cry, having never had the chance to consciously mourn and articulate this loss. All of the hearts in the room were breaking for her: same holiday—different symbolism. At that moment, I realized just how truly profound a part of our being our cultural symbols of the holidays are. They are irrational, deep within us, and sometimes the source of surprisingly intense emotion.
Having the opportunity to verbalize, compare, and process these intimate personal and cultural meanings was a tremendously valuable experience for everyone in the room. Going beyond the “face value” of the symbols to their significance was a powerful bridge-building moment, and I think we all felt the universality and peace of the holidays a little more brightly that year.
Post-script: As I was writing this, I received a text from a friend in Japan about a “peanut bird wreath.” It was accompanied by a photo of a woman wearing a pin that consisted of a silver pine cone, a yellow ribbon, and a cluster of peanuts in their shells. My knee-jerk reaction, seeing the word “wreath” and a silver pine cone, was that this was some kind of Japanese interpretation of a Christmas item. I immediately thought, “The ribbon is not supposed to be yellow, and peanuts have nothing to do with Christmas.” A few moments later I received a follow-up text informing me that they were at the Bird Festival. Gomen nasai. I guess I am a cultural being!