the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Explaining Halloween to Foreigners

I was sitting on a bench in Los Angeles when I saw two college girls walking down the street.   Why not take an instagram photo of them?   As I pressed the button to the cameraphone, I saw one of the girls looking directly at me.

“Aw, crap. Caught,” I thought.

But it wasn’t what I thought.   They approached me, singling me out as a potential victim.

“Hello,” said one of the girls in broken English. “We are ESL students from Japan. Our assignment is to find an American person on the street and ask him questions about the American holiday of Halloween. Can we impose on your time and ask you questions?”

“Sure!” I answered, always a strong believer in helping strangers in a strange land.

They bowed to me, then giggled.  I was touched, and confused.

The more extroverted girl, with long brown hair and large glasses, stepped forward.  She was holding a piece of paper in her hand.  It was her homework sheet.   On the sheet were Halloween terms they needed to learn.

“What is Trick or Treat?” she asked, pointing at question #1.

I was frankly surprised that these girls were so clueless about Halloween. Doesn’t the world watch Charlie Brown?

Trick or Treat.  How was I suppose to explain Trick or Treat to two girls with a limited knowledge of English?

“Well, you know kids go house to house on Halloween and get candy, right?” I asked.

“Yes,” said the extroverted girl. “You get candy on Halloween.”

Perfect.  I was half way there.

“The candy is the “treat.” I said.   “But if the person doesn’t give a treat, then you are allowed to do a “trick.””


“It’s like a joke.   If you don’t get any candy — the treat — then  you are allowed to do something like put toilet paper all around the person’s car — the trick.  You understand?”

The two girls exchanged confused glances, not getting the toilet paper reference.

“It’s an either or thing.    If there’s no candy for kid… then the kid can do something back.”

“Out of anger?”

“Well, it’s not really anger.”


“OK, somewhat…”

“So if no candy, the child shoots person with gun?”

“No. No!  Not so extreme!” I insisted.

Is this how the world views America — shooting each other over candy?

“Just a funny trick,” I continued.   “Like toilet paper on the car! Understand?”

They didn’t understand.  I gave up.

“Let’s go on to the next one,” I suggested.

It was Jack O’Lantern.

OK, Jack O’ Lantern.   This would be easier.  And less violent.

“Do you know a pumpkin?” I asked the girls.

“Pump it?” asked the shy girl, the first and only time she spoke during the entire conversation.

“No.  A pumpkin?  The big orange thing.  The vegetable.  It grows in a pumpkin patch.  Like on a farm.  Like in Charlie Brown.   Big.  Orange.”

“Oh, yes.  Big Orange Vegetable.  Pumpkin.” said the extrovert.  “That’s Jack o’Lantern?”

“Not exactly.   The Jack o’ Lantern is what you make from the pumpkin.  The face.”

“The face?”

I pointed at my face.

“People make a face on the pumpkin.” I said.   “With a knife.  They cut out a face with a knife.”

The girls looked horrified.

“They cut people’s face with knives?”

“No. They cut the face out of the pumpkin.”

I made a cutting motion with my hand to better explain things. They moved a foot away, as if I was brandishing a samurai sword.

“How many more questions do you have?” I asked, feeling hopeless.

“Just one more,” said the extroverted Japanese girl. “Superstition.”

“Ah, yes. Superstition. Superstition is when people believe things that are not true.”

No reaction.

“Every culture has superstitions. In Japan, do you avoid walking under ladders or black cats?”


“I know there are ghosts in Japan.  I’ve seen Japanese movies about ghosts.”

“Yes, ghosts in Japan!”

“Do you believe in ghosts?”


“But some people do. That is superstition.”

“Superstition is ghosts.”

“Well, it can be.   But more than just ghosts.  Could be zombies, too.”

“So, all Dead People?  On Halloween, Americans dress up like dead people.”

I was getting bored with the conversation.

“Yes. Exactly,” I said.  “We dress like dead people.”

I sent the girls back to their ESL class, clutching their notes,  thinking that in America, the holiday of Halloween means dressing up as dead people, stabbing each other in the face with knives, and shooting those who don’t give you candy.

Happy Halloween!


  1. Hannah

    I suppose it *does* sound crazy if it’s not part of your traditions. Especially the ‘trick’ part.

  2. Shannon

    Oh, my. That is funny. I think you did your part in welcoming them to America.

  3. Ellen B

    This sounds EXACTLY like Halloween in my neighborhood! Good work!

  4. Sara Foley

    I am not Japanese, I am Australian. But I am confused too! Tell me how we can celebrate a northern hemisphere autumn festival in our spring. Tell me! And while you’re at it, tell me how we make sense of Easter, a spring festival with eggs and bunnies, in our Autumn! Oops. Accidentally engaged in my pet rant. back away, back away 🙂

  5. kris

    Loved this. Few people have a way with words like you do, Neil.

    I grew up fearing Halloween in a different way. It was the let’s-check-every-piece-of-candy-for-evidence-of-tampering-via-razor-blade way. Yay for innocence!

  6. Tucker

    …OK…we’re sending you back to Ambassador school.

  7. Marta

    I practically cried reading this and consistently laughing out loud much to the confusion of those around me. Way to confuse the Japanese!

  8. The Honourable Husband

    Welcome to my life, as it was for five years at the beginning of the last decade.

    It’s quite easy to explain Halloween to the Japanese. It’s a holiday they call obon. A three day festival during which you visit your ancestor’s graves and tend to them—a happy festival, in fact, with dancing and laughter and family.

    Americans may have forgotten, but Halloween is part of a three day festival, too. It’s the “Hallowed Eve” of All Saint’s Day, where traditionally one returns to the graves of one’s ancestors and makes them look jolly with flowers and general niceness. The evening before is the time when one makes fun of the bad spirits, and shoos them away. The day after, November 2, is All Soul’s day, making a three-day celebration. It’s a public holiday on Nov 1 across Europe, and the cemeteries are packed.

    Americans have forgotten the All Saint’s part of the holiday, and just make fun of the evil spirits. I imagine that’s the notion of the “trick”.

    Believe it or not, we dined in a Jewish restaurant in Krakow on Halloween. My party and I wondered if there might be any mention of it—after all, Halloween is a response to a Christian holiday. The lead singer of the band, on closing the final set, cracked wise about the holiday the following day. “Merry Christmas”, she said, in English, “or whatever.”

    Here’s a couple of pieces that talk about explaining Christian holidays to the Japanese, for your amusement, Neil. Happy Everything.

  9. Lily

    I found this exchange to be humorous. I can imagine it was also a little frustrating. People from other countries must find some of our holidays to be strange. Halloween is about dressing up as dead people, but sexy dead people. Candy and children are involved …carved pumpkins. It does sound like something only the mad would invent, doesn’t it?

  10. Kristen

    Ok. This is really stupid! I’ve been to a Japan and Halloween is actually very popular there. More so than here even!

    • Halloween Guy

      You told them incorrect information. The trick is to trick bad spirits. I had to stop reading your post knowing you were the American Ambassador to explain Halloween to foreigners. Use Google next time you need help. I can see it now, two Japanese girls arrested for toilet papering houses. You seriously thought that?

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