Why first Halloweens aren't so terrifying after all.

Joss paper, aka Ghost Money aka Hell Banknotes are burned to honour ancestors during China's Ching Ming Festival.

Co-written with April Barrett, with contributions from the Barrett and Welsh team

As seasoned Canadians, we often take holidays like Halloween for granted. But imagine landing in a new country, and then on October 31st, seeing a bunch of tiny people dressed up in animal onesies, begging for candy at your door.

Super weird.

Interestingly, the core concepts behind Halloween are not entirely unfamiliar to many new Canadians.

In China and among the Chinese diaspora, on Ching Ming Festival or Tomb-Sweeping Day (usually April 4th or 5th), graves are swept and Ghost Money (joss paper) is burned in homage to ancestors. Among Catholics in places like India, Hong Kong and China, Poland and the Philippines, it’s not All Hallow’s Eve that is observed but the two days that follow – All Saints Day and All Soul’s Day – the latter especially is reserved for visits to family graves, to clean them, leave flowers, pray for the souls of the departed and to light candles of remembrance. Among Mexicans, pre-Columbian ancestor worship rituals have syncretised with the Catholic traditions of the conquistadors and have re-emerged as the Dia de Muertos or as gringos have back-translated it, Dia de los Muertos – celebrated over several days.

But the particular candy-flavoured variety enjoyed with such commercial gusto in North America is a little disconcerting at first to Canadian newcomers.

It clashes with health-related customs. “Candy is bad for you!”

It runs afoul of immigrant concerns about frivolous expense. “That black halo is how much?”

Sonia’s most terrifying avatar
And it crashes in confusion as it runs into what is appropriate and what is not, as the kids stare wide-eyed at some waspy stereotype or insensitive pastiche of one’s own culture that is indubitably going to win this year’s gold medal for Most. Offensive. Halloween. Costume. Ever.

To those who are just getting the hang of this holiday, we feel you. Here are some stories straight from our staff, about their first Halloween in Canada.

Sonia My first Halloween? I was in college — it was fun to see all the makeup artist students creating Halloween characters — I got an artificial scar on my arm. The family I was living with went out trick-or-treating. Assignments were scarier to me, so I stayed home alone to work.
Ben tells Agnes about the new deadline
I was warned to not answer the door as the apartment building didn’t allow door-to-door trick-or-treating on Halloween and there were some nasty elements in the building. Around midnight, I heard a knock on the door. I ignored it but the knocking continued and didn't stop for about 10 minutes. Foolishly, with only a shoe to defend myself, I opened the door to find a bunch of drunk teenagers. I was so relieved it wasn’t a masked killer! I didn't have any candy, so I gave them a few muffins and sent them on their way!

Agnes My first Halloween in Canada was... cold. It actually snowed that day. The country that I moved here from, in October, we still wore shorts.

Ben Two months after we landed in Canada, I opened my door to an army of little ghosts, witches and blood-splattered creatures. My kids shrieked with joy as they recognized their schoolmates and blended right into this beloved Halloween tradition that we also celebrated back home. I ate most of the candy.

Savio threatens to edit Gavin's copy
Savio I had heard a lot about Halloween before moving to Canada. Boy, was I in for a treat. Weeks before the day itself, I saw houses adorned and decorated to look terrifying. I was scared just thinking about how the property value would diminish if their houses really became that way. On Halloween, my 3-year old was inexhaustible. He could barely say 'trick or treat' but every house he went to he left with his hands full. He wanted to visit every house in the city. At the end of the night, we had enough sweet treats to open a small store. Kids would not stop visiting our house screaming trick or treat. But when adults started showing up, pretending to be kids, the situation became frightening.

Gavin Not my first Halloween - but the first in our first Canadian home. I went mad — I made jack-o’-lanterns. Inspired by not-yet-a-jailbird Martha Stewart, I carved 13 or 14 pumpkins and squashes. And realized, with a horror that any well-raised Indian will understand, that a tremendous amount of gourd was going waste. I soothed my conscience by cooking every cup of carved-out calabash cavity into a curried soup rich with coconut milk. I served it to the parents who accompanied their kids on their rounds.

Notice anything in these true stories? We’re being let into a secret.

New Canadians want to adopt the rituals of the new home they’ve chosen, mysterious though they may be at first. Canada has embraced them.

Their instinct is simple.

Return the hug.

Happy Halloween folks.

Gavin Barrett is Chief Creative Officer and Ideawallah at Barrett and Welsh, Toronto's most award-winning multicultural agency. Barrett and Welsh is also the official Embassy of the Democratic Republic of Insight in the Kingdom of the Blind.

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