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A mystified Sudanese studies his first Halloween

on October 31, 2014

The first things I had to learn were Jack o’ lantern, trick or treat, and you better get a costume!

A week ago, I started seeing people on the bus, in grocery stores and other places, with pumpkins, real or plastic.  To me, the pumpkin is a vegetable that can be cooked with Sudanese peanut butter, or with meat, to become pumpkin stew. In some villages the dry pumpkin is cut in the shape of a cup that is used for drinking water, or for serving local alcohol.

But these American pumpkins were carved in the shape of a scary face. These had a light placed inside — a torch reflecting a cat face, for example. These were not vegetables any more.

I learned that the pumpkins actually feature as part of an autumn ritual, Halloween. It is celebrated on the night of October 31. You know this, but I’ve been studying Halloween all week.  Children dress in different types of costumes, I’m learning, mostly scary ones.  They run around the neighborhood, knocking from door to door.

So these pumpkins were not just art, as I had assumed.  They were preparation for the second biggest holiday in the U.S.

In Sudan, there is no holiday for people to dress up in costumes. The only people who wear costumes are actors in theater performances. People wear new clothes for the Muslim holiday Eid and for Christmas, but there are no specifications or themes.

But here are some things I have seen this week, starting with the halls here in my own graduate school building at U.C. Berkeley: A bowl of yellow and black candies atop a glass cabinet.  A spider toy in its web at the International House front desk.   An entire College Avenue house that is covered with scary faces and skeletons.  On Oakland’s Telegraph Avenue I passed a lady with a bulldog head, and a middle aged man wearing a plastic hand as a necklace.

I walk down Piedmont Avenue, and next to a flower shop I see a red light, in the shape of a ghost, shooting out of a giant plastic pumpkin that has a face carved with sharp teeth and is next to an enormous pumpkin-headed ghost who wears green and orange and is next to a building-high orange balloon that reads in big letters: “Halloween.”

Right.   This is where I need to be.

Inside this place is a plastic smiling lady standing as a welcome, a horse head mask, a vampire mask, a green tree full of wide-open hanging eyeballs, a skeleton with red and yellow light coming out of both eyes, and a recorded voice that says, “Welcome to your worst nightmare.”

I ask Robin, a customer: What does Halloween mean to you? She thinks about this for few seconds and finally says, as she is trying to decide between two wigs, one the color of blood and one the color of concrete: “It’s for kids.” In Mexico the festive holiday that takes place this time of the year is for honoring dead people, she says, but not in the U.S.

In the pumpkin patch down the street, wearing a king’s crown and sitting on top of the biggest pumpkin I have ever seen, 10-year-old Tobias Catalano from Oakland is shopping with his mother and sister for a pumpkin.  “It’s a night for trick or treat,” says Tobias, who is going to be a ghost this year.

“It’s a day that is different, for doing something silly that you don’t normally do,” says Anthony Sperber, 49, from Oakland.  He’s also in the pumpkin patch, surveying. “When I was a kid it was about candy, when I was a teen it was about partying, and it’s about my daughter now that I am a father.” He is looking for a big pumpkin to carve for his daughter, who is choosing to be an Emperor of Evil.

For John Goldstein, it’s all business. “It’s about selling pumpkins and making lots of deliveries to people,” says Goldstein, who runs both the patch and the temporary seasonal shop, the one that drew me in with the building-high Halloween balloon.   According to Goldstein, the prices of the pumpkins go between a dollar and $300 dollars (that’s the one Tobias was sitting on), depending on size.

I continue talking to different people, at various places in Oakland and Berkeley, just to understand what this day means.

Amy Sivilay, 28, of Oakland: “It’s a time to dress up and be a different character.  I was introduced to Halloween as a time to get candy, and now I am passing that to my son. It’s a fun experience.”

Stephen Renz, 29, of Oakland: “It’s a night where you can be something else. I want to dress like a dead nerd.”

Chloe Gregori, 20, of San Leandro: “It’s a weird holiday where you can be a different person. Last year I went as a lion, wearing just a t-shirt and drawing some lines on my face. I connected with Halloween when I was little.  Now I am not. I am not a person that puts lots of time into their costume. But it’s still fun.”

I am coming to understand that most people who celebrate Halloween get their already-made costumes from stores, or make them at home where they come up with the ideas from friends or in social media, which is filled with celebrating ideas, games, and tricks.

It seems to me that it’s about buying candy (money), and buying costumes (more money), and drinks (even more money).

This Halloween, the average person in the US will spend around $77.52, compared to $75.03 last year, and the total spending on Halloween this year will reach $7.4 billion, according to a National Retail Federation Halloween Consumer Spending Survey conducted by Prosper Insights & Analytics. <>

For Hannah Ehrinspie, 25, and her friend Katie Pondy, 24, who are both from Oakland, it’s all about spending time with friends. According to Hannah she spent between $20 and $25 dollars on her costume, which is about 10 percent of what Anael Spindler, 24, of Oakland spends.  Last year he spent around $150, but this year he is going as a Ringmaster, because he likes the ringmaster jacket he plans to wear – he’s still looking for the right one, he says.  He figures he might pay $200 for it.

As for Colter Simpson, 18, and Bin Johns, 18, both new students at U.C. Berkeley, they are trying to keep it as simple as possible, looking through the eye masks in a Berkeley Halloween store on Bancroft. John never bought a costume before, but this year he is willing to spend $10 on a sailor suit.

In the Piedmont Avenue pumpkin patch's "House of Horrors." Photo by: Sanosi Osman

In the Piedmont Avenue pumpkin patch’s “House of Horrors.” Photo by: Sanosi Osman

Christina, a mother who lives in Oakland, says she is not buying a costume for herself, but is getting a bee custom for her little kid.  According to Christina, people are not supposed to give kids homemade cookies. But she will stay at home on Halloween night to answer the door and give candy and toys.

To my understanding, kids are not supposed to take candy from strangers, yet they do in this specific occasion.  Why? Why do people spend all this money? Why do many people say that it is for kids while almost everyone participates?

I think it’s the one day that rules are suspended, when it’s forgivable to act as someone you’re not, when kids can get candy from strangers, when people can make a statement about who they are by the way they dress. It’s one big show, only without audiences.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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