Learned #29: Pumpkin Christmas

In which we get spooky.

Let’s blame this one on Disney.

For years, Halloween just was not a thing here in Japan. Then, in 2001, Disney applied a thick layer of Nightmare Before Christmas to the (at the time) ailing Haunted Mansion ride. Add in reduced admissions for people in costume, Halloween themed events, drinks, and shows, and…soon enough, you have a repeatable formula that brings in money - er, visitors - to your park during an otherwise down season and Japan has a new holiday.

Since then, Halloween has spread outward from Disney to Universal Studios, who also slathered Halloween sauce on any and every property they owned, to the rest of Japan. Malls are decorated with pumpkins and ghosts and lovable characters like Hello Kitty and Doraemon get Halloween costumes. In other words, it’s a whole thing.

Of course, that doesn’t really help any of us whose job it is to explain all things Halloween to kids. Even in my own house, when my daughter tried to wrap her little mind around Halloween by declaring it to be like “pumpkin Christmas” I could offer no better explanation.

So, like last week’s take on Dia de Muertos, this week we’ll be looking at some of the traditions and associations around Halloween and trying to come up with some pithy, one sentence answers for the kiddies.

In this issue:

  • What We’re Learning: This is Halloween

  • What we’re Reading: Something Wicked This Way Comes

  • Down the Rabbit Hole: Motion, Stopped

Let’s get to it.

Photo by me!

What We’re Learning:

This is Halloween

It’s tempting to think of Halloween as either fully modern, as in totally commercial with no ties to the actual traditions that spawned the holiday, or as steeped in tradition with lots of ties to ancient cultures and traditions. The truth, as it so often is, is somewhere in the middle.

I’m going to stick with Disney for this one. Not only is it kid-friendly, but is shows that a lot of modern Halloween has been with us since at least the 50s. The video posted below is a 1952 animated short called Trick or Treat. It features Donald Duck, his nephews, and the witch, Hazel, as they, well, trick or treat on Halloween night. (The video runs about 8:00 minutes.)

Holds up surprisingly well, doesn’t it?

Let’s pull the three major Halloween arcana to talk about: the act of trick or treating, wearing costumes, and the assorted spooky monsters (the ghosts and the jack-o-lantern).

Trick or Treat

Trick or treating first became popular in America in the 1920s. In older traditions, people would hand out treats to children who were out singing carols and hymns to their neighbors. Somewhere along the way, the practice changed from being nice to get sweets to demanding sweets unless the home-owners paid some kind of bribe.

Source: How the Tradition of Trick or Treating Got Started

Spooky stuffs.


Costumes were first worn to blend in with the spirits of the dead so that when people handed treats out to the spirits they might give you one, too. This tradition evolved into the more modern one of dressing up as all sorts of things in the 20th century when Halloween parties became popular.

Source: Why We Dress Up on Halloween

Spooky Spirits

Halloween comes from several older traditions. In these older traditions, it was believed that people could talk to the spirits of people who had died during Halloween. However, evil spirits (like devils) could also talk to people during this time. Over the years, these evil spirits began to include all kinds of monsters including vampires and werewolves.

Source: Wikipedia - Halloween

I’m not sure those answers will actually satisfy the curiosity of any kids you happen to have lying about, but give them a try. Besides, if they don’t work, just stuff some candy in their faces and send them on their way!

Further Reading:

Shameless Plug:

My wife and I attended Tokyo Disney’s Halloween event a couple of times. We had more fun people watching than we did actually attending any shows or going on any rides. If you get the chance, I really recommend it; it’s like nothing else you’ll see in Japan. Here is my Flickr set from 2005 and one from 2007. Remember when Flickr was the place to share…?

What We’re Reading:

Something Wicked This Way Comes

by Ray Bradbury

In fifth grade, Mrs. Tucker handed me a battered copy of The Illustrated Man and told me to read it. I did. Once finished, I devoured The Martian Chronicles and Dandelion Wine and R is for Rocket and every other Bradbury book I could get my hands on. Including Something Wicked This Way Comes.

It is still one of the most atmospheric, creep-inducing, chilling books I have ever read. Given that it is all about learning to overcome one’s fears makes it that much more poetic and terrifying. Also, there’s a better than even chance that, after reading, you will never voluntarily go to a carnival again. It’s that good.

I considered Bradbury’s other Halloween classic, The Halloween Tree, for inclusion here as it is arguably more appropriate for the holiday - it’s about the history of Samhain and Halloween - but it’s just not as lyrical as Something Wicked and, frankly, I don’t like it as much, so…


While we’re talking about Bradbury, take a second and go read “The Laurel and Hardy Love Affair.” Trust me.


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Down the Rabbit Hole:

Motion, Stopped

We started this week's issue with The Nightmare Before Christmas. At the time the movie was made, it was hailed for being a return to stop-motion animation, one of those forms that never really went away but had been lying dormant for decades. Tim Burton's creation broke open the doors for a slow, steady wave of new stop-motion films and t.v. shows that shows no signs of stopping.

Here are some of the highlights:


This is Halloween, redux:

That’s it. Stay strong, stay healthy. Learn something.