Flickering Lights, Scary Stories, and Round Pumpkins

Flickering Lights, Scary Stories and Round Pumpkins: Halloweens in China

—by Jinny Batterson

Boo!  Holidays are one of the most potent vehicles for teaching about language and culture.  I spent two Halloweens teaching English and American culture in China, each in a different part of the country. In both places, students were intrigued by the customs surrounding this holiday of ancient Celtic origin. Many had seen some of the spooky movies that Hollywood typically churns out around Halloween. Some had heard of “trick or treating;” others had seen Internet images of lighted jack-o-lanterns.

To teach about Halloween, I boned up a bit myself—the original holiday, Samhain, celebrated the end of harvest and the start of winter in parts of Ireland and Scotland. The separation between the living and the dead was thought to be thinner at this time of year, so small gifts of food and wine were left on doorsteps in the evening to appease roaming spirits.  As Christianity spread in Europe, the holiday got a make-over with a Christian overlay—November 1 became “All Saints’ Day,” and the evening before, “All Hallows Eve,” became an excuse for various kinds of deviltry and trick-playing. The tradition of pumpkin carving arose from an Irish folk tale about a con man, “Stingy Jack,” whose bargain with the devil went sour. After death, Jack wound up roaming the earth as a spirit, his way lighted by a small hot coal carried inside a carved-out turnip (or “Jack’s lantern”). Irish immigrants brought the custom to America with them, abandoning turnips for larger, easier to carve local pumpkins.

In Xinjiang, where I first spent Halloween in China, I created a small evening Halloween celebration with students at our weekly “English corner,” chased indoors earlier that month because of rapidly chilling weather in this outpost not so far from Siberia. Several Chinese colleagues, also teachers of English, picked out spooky stories in simplified English to read to participants.  I crafted a scaled-down version of Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Telltale Heart” as the final story of the night. A week or so earlier, a student had brought me two fairly decent pumpkins from one of the local markets.  We’d carved them into basic jack-o-lanterns to adorn the front of the meeting room. About ten minutes into the hour-long program, the celebration got spookier when the electricity suddenly went out. Power outages were not a rare occurrence in Xinjiang, but the timing of this particular outage was interesting.  We continued by the light of the jack-o-lanterns, a couple of candles, and students’ cell phone flashlights (becoming more common everywhere). Just as I finished “Telltale Heart,” the electricity came back on. I suspect I was not the only person on campus who checked behind doors, under the bed, and in closets before going to sleep that night.

Two years later, I approached Halloween in Ya’an, Sichuan, envisioning a group pumpkin carving bonanza. I thought pumpkins would be plentiful and easy to find in this rainier, more fruitful part of China.  However, my mid-October search of local vegetable markets failed to turn up a single pumpkin suitable for carving.  There were lots of tubular pumpkins in this province noted for its fiery cuisine and wealth of winter soups and stews. It turned out that the idea of growing a pumpkin for purely decorative purposes was almost sacrilege in this heavily populated area. Tubular pumpkins were thinner skinned and could easily be sliced, then sold in appropriate family-meal sized chunks. Local wisdom went that “everything in the pig got eaten except for the squeal.”  Likewise, pumpkins—skin, pulp, seeds and all—were meant for eating, not for making jack-o-lanterns.

Eventually I enlisted the help of my students in the round pumpkin search. A couple of days later, several of the young women returned triumphant with a large round pumpkin—the best one of only three in the whole town, they swore.  We carved it carefully, saving the seeds, later awarding it to the student who’d earned the highest score on their recent mid-term exam. Instead of using a wax candle for light, we opted for a cheap LED, which also put out light. More importantly,  it didn’t put soot or smoke into the pumpkin’s flesh. After a short interval as parts of dorm Halloween decor, this mutant “Westernized” pumpkin likely served its intended Chinese purpose: a nutritious part of someone’s November dinner.

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