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Culture on Demand: Boo!
Halloween scares up the unusual suspects

October 29, 1999
Web posted at 3 a.m. Hong Kong time, 3 p.m. EDT

It's Halloween weekend, and across Asia, a few little kids are undoubtedly dressing up for the frightful calorie-and-cavity-filled occasion we look upon, semi-fondly, as Halloween. But unlike America, in Asia it's really about the Bigger Kids--the ones who are dressing up to attend that oh-so-swish costume party, where creativity is always the key, the punch isn't orange and (with any luck) the fishnets belong to the guy dressed as the fisherman, not your date.

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Depending on your location in the world, Halloween's importance varies widely on the scale of Things to Look Forward To. If you're a kid, it is of course a sugar gold mine, which is to say, important. A little like a birthday, but with blood. In case you're crusty and have forgotten, that ranks it along the lines of a Dries van Noten launch (if you're a fashionista) or the release of brand-new, never-before-seen Bruce Lee archive (if you're a movie buff).

But for the Bigger Kids, it's just another weekend--until it's 10 minutes before you're supposed to leave for "the event" and all you can find is a black T-shirt and a pair of khakis, which may pass you off as Bill Gates, but not the Antichrist. (Well, that may be one and the same to some people.)

When it comes down to it, most of us do like the chance to paint ourselves Smurf blue, throw on a wig and meet up with Pokémon, Dead Things and various vampire-esque types for the evening. After all, it's just once a year.

In the warmer parts of Asia, the spooky, dry-leaves-blowing-through-a-frosty-night thing doesn't work so well in terms of concept, but what most people don't know is that the deepest roots of Halloween are believed to have come from Asia. Well, sort of.

In ancient Britain and Ireland, the Celtic festival of Samhain was observed on October 31, the end of summer. The Celts are thought to have come from western Asia to settle in Europe and eventually (no, I don't know how) ended up in the British Isles.

The Druids were the learned priestly class of the Celtic religion. Many of their beliefs and practices were similar to those of Hinduism, such as reincarnation and the transmigration of the soul, and the seeds (just the seeds) of their beliefs are thought to be taken from ancient Hinduism.

The Druids believed that on the last day of October--the night before their New Year and the last day of the old year--the Entity formerly known as Death gathered the souls of the evil dead who had been condemned to enter the bodies of animals. It was believed that he would then decide what animal form they would take for the next year.

That must be what gives Halloween that rather edgy, not-so-fresh feeling. Fortunately, things seem to have lightened up a bit, and these days most everyone is just inundated with a preponderance of badly molded face masks at the urban mall.

In case you haven't thought of a costume yet, results of our official dinner-party straw polls suggest the following sure-to-please costume combinations:

• A McDonald's Snoopy (you pick the nationality)
• Tung Chee Hwa as Mickey Mouse
• Jiang Zemin on a good hair day
• Mahathir in court (oh wait, that's not a costume...)

OK, we're off to eat the candy before the kids get here.

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