Happy Halloween! I suspect some are planning to do some serious partying this evening. As an American of Celtic descent growing up in the northeast of the United States, Halloween was always one of the major events on my yearly calendar. Not only the festival day itself, but the weeks leading up to it were filled with fun and excitement.

In the Appalachian Highlands we observed a custom known as Goosey Night. This was officially celebrated on Oct. 30, but the preparations and warmups started weeks in advance. At the most basic level, Goosey Night festivities, which were all conducted under the cover of darkness, involved drawing designs in colored chalk on buildings and sidewalks, and in soap on car and house windows.

One level up was sneaking up on houses and smashing the pumpkins that had been set out on the porch. Eggs, to be thrown at rival kids, houses, and even passing cars, also played a vital role. Later on in life, I eventually outgrew egg-throwing, but continued to love Halloween. From the moment I first feasted my eyes on “witches” dressed up in black corsets and fishnet stockings, I knew this would be a holiday to treasure all my life!

Despite the prominent role played by chalk, eggs and kinky costumes, the true stars of Halloween are always the big orange pumpkins. These are plants classified in the Cucurbitaceae, or Squash Family (uri-ka in Japanese), which includes such familiar vegetables as squashes, gourds, cucumbers, watermelons and cantaloupes. Pumpkins are annuals, grown from seeds sown in spring, but some varieties can reach weights of several hundred kilograms. Farmers need a lot of room to grow these big Halloween pumpkins.

The origins of Halloween are obscure, but most folklorists agree that the modern celebration is a fragmentary survival from a much more important Celtic festival, called Sanheim. This festival marked the beginning of the year for the ancient Celts, and also functioned as a late harvest celebration and a welcoming back of ancestral spirits much like that seen in the Asian Bon customs.

The pumpkins are often said to serve as spiritual guardians. According to folk tradition, on Halloween night a portal opens up between the realm of the living and the spirit world. Ancestral spirits pass through this portal to join their descendants in the harvest celebrations. Other, more harmful spirits, however, can also cross over through the portal, and the scary-faced pumpkin placed outside a front door is a guard to keep these frightful spirits away from the house.

Halloween, however, must also contain many cultural motifs added at later dates. Some of these are Roman, and others early Christian. Still more may be more modern and American in origin. The pumpkins, in particular, are originally New World plants, and as such would not have been available to the ancient Celts. If the Celts did place spirit guardians outside their houses, they would have had to carve them from different plants.

Japanese commercial pumpkins, or kabocha, belong to different varieties that the Halloween carvers. Pumpkins were first introduced here by Portuguese traders in the 16th century, and developed into the small, thick-skinned kabocha varieties we see today. On the other hand, Halloween has been growing steadily in popularity here, and big orange carving pumpkins are now readily available at reasonable prices.

For those out walking in the suburbs or countryside, there are even native vines with bright orange fruits that resemble miniature pumpkins. In Japanese these are called karasu-uri, literally “crow gourd” (Trichoanthes cucumeroides). A close relative, the ki-karasu-uri (T. kirilowii) has more yellowish fruits. The roots of this second species is used in traditional Asian herbal medicine to reduce fevers. Another close relative, called snake-gourd (T. cucumerina), has long fruits, and is a popular vegetable in South and Southeast Asia (not found in Japan).

Karasu-uri crow gourds are light-loving vines that climb up along the edge of the forest or sunny hedges. They have large, heart-shaped leaves with wavy edges, and put out long tendrils to help them climb. Male and female plants grow separately. The white flowers have long, frilly edges, but bloom in midsummer and only at night, when few people are around to see them. The fruits are just ripening at this time of year. They are pumpkin-shaped, but only about eight centimeters long. Inside, nestled among sticky juices, are several dozen black seeds.

From an ethno-botanical standpoint, the little Japanese crow vines are as interesting as their huge Halloween cousins. The seeds are often identified with the Buddhist deity Daikoku, a popular agricultural spirit or guardian of business and also a member of the famous “Seven Lucky Gods” that bring good fortune. Daikoku is usually depicted carrying a kozuchi, a sort of rattle-hammer, which when shaken can spew out gold coins. The crow gourd seeds resemble this rattle-hammer, and a dried seed placed in a wallet or purse is said to increase the owner’s fortunes. Elderly farmers also report having rubbed crow gourd juice on their legs to help them run faster during the autumn school sports festivals.

Today, the crow gourd’s magic associations have been completely forgotten, but the bright orange fruits are now popular in flower arrangements and interior decorating. As a result, the vines are becoming a bit scarce in heavily populated suburban areas.

Social scientists immediately recognize Halloween as a psychological safety valve. For a brief period, the normal constrictions on individual behavior are lifted or lightened, giving both children and adults a chance to vent-off accumulated stresses and frustrations. The Japanese aki-matsuri harvest festivals also function in a similar manner. For a day or so it’s okay to get drunk, fight, and generally engage in the sort of behavior that would normally be strictly sanctioned.

Short is a naturalist and cultural anthropology professor at Tokyo University of Information Sciences.

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