Growing up, I always experienced Halloween as a clashing of cultures. More than any other American holiday, Halloween seemed to draw a line in the sand between the world that my Hindu immigrant parents resided in and the American suburban world around me. Since Halloween usually tends to coincide with a number of Hindu holidays (Hindus use a lunar calendar, so exact dates switch around), when Diwali happened to fall on October 31, the two holidays went head-to-head. Either I could go trick-or-treating and watch the Nightmare on Elm Street marathon (my desire), or visit temple and exchange sweets with relatives (my parents’ orders), but I couldn’t really do both.
Even when there wasn’t a direct conflict, though, there was always a disconnect.
“What kind of depressing holiday is this supposed to be, anyway?” my Mom would ask, disapproval in her voice as she suspiciously surveyed the plastic skeletons and cardboard tombstones now decorating our neighbors’ lawns. “A waste of time,” my father would mutter even as he begrudgingly bought bags of cheap candy to hand out to trick-or-treaters.
(Some of their more orthodox Hindu friends had even stronger objections to the holiday. “All this meditating on death and gore, and openly celebrating ghosts and goblins! It’s ashubh, inauspicious.”)
My parents tried, of course, but somehow they were never able to quite get it. Sure, they proudly displayed the jack-o-lanterns that my sister and I carved at school; but we’d never carve one together as a family. They dutifully doled out the candy to the neighborhood kids, though without the gusto of the other parents, who’d often dress up themselves and distribute treats in character. And of course, they were content to let us go out trick-or-treating, though I can’t really remember them getting too excited about it.
And then there was the issue of costumes.
Most years — as long as it wasn’t too expensive — we could just convince them to buy whatever superhero or horror movie monster costume was popular that year.
But there were those years that our parents (and other Desi parents, I’ve since learned) stumbled across what they thought was brilliance– to have us dress up as an “Indian prince” or “Indian princess”. This feat in creative laziness they accomplished by dolling us up in our finest Indian party clothes, perhaps with the addition of a makeshift turban or tiara, and sending us out to impress our candy-giving neighbors with our exotic apparel.
The neighbors loved it, our parents felt the euphoric mix of cultural pride and saving money, and we (the Association of Involuntary Indian Princes and Princesses) thought that it was incredibly lame.
(Full Disclosure: Years later, when we were old enough to see trick-or-treating only as a means to free candy, but still young enough to get away with it, we Indian-American kids co-opted this tactic by willingly donning our kurta pyjama or salwar kameez outfits to feed our candy fix without going through the trouble of actually buying a costume.)
As much as we resented it, though, now that I look back at it, I can appreciate a certain mingling of cultures that it engendered. And now that I am a parent myself, I wonder about how to minimize the culture clash for my own Indian-American daughter, and how to integrate the worlds of Halloween and Hinduism for her.