My mother spent most of my childhood complaining about the fact that there was no school on Martin Luther King Jr. Day or Columbus Day or, my personal favorite, Casimir Pulaski Day. She used to say that it was ridiculous for us to spend those days “celebrating” these great men outside of school when we could be learning about them in school.
You see, holidays meant to commemorate special times and people should come with education. All too often, though, we skip right over explaining why we have the celebration, and move right on to the pomp and circumstance (I still have no idea who Casimir Pulaski really was, although I do love getting the extra sleep in March).
Well, it’s that time of year again! That time where there is equal clamor by those desperately searching for the Halloween costume that will get the most attention, and those telling cautionary tales of the potential dangers of picking an offensive character to represent.
The level of competition for Halloween costumes has grown ever more fierce, with people desperate to come up with something that will catch everyone’s eye. This year, the Jameis Winston couples costume (one dressed as the Florida State football player, another dressed as crab legs) is a clever one. Ebola is an easy stab at news-based costumes. Of course, you can always go with the tried and true, adding “sexy” before either a profession or animal to get an easy (if not trashy) way of getting attention without putting in any extra effort.
While some are looking for the perfect get-up, others are adding their voice of reason to the conversation. Costumes have grown ever more offensive as feeble attempts at comedy drive the public toward caricatures of racial groups or other potentially insulting options. E! Online offered us their 18 costumes to stay away from, including Ray Rice, a Malaysian Airlines Passenger, and Michael Brown. (Thank you, E!, for putting this in your “News” section…)
My personal favorite is the fear associated with cultural appropriation on Halloween. Dressing up as a rapper or Indian princess are devastating examples of racial intolerance in the form of frivolous costumes. We can do irreparable harm to these cultures if we are unaware of the potential negative ramifications of belittling their identities with goofy dressing up and abuse of meaningful symbolism.
The problem is, that is exactly what Halloween is all about.
Halloween is the most famous example of cultural appropriation in American history (with maybe the exception being Christmas being on December 25th, although that’s a different blog post). You see, Halloween originates in a Celtic tradition, meant to commemorate the new year, which they believed to take place on November 1st. On October 31st, according to the Celts, the membrane between the world of the living and the world of the dead was particularly thin, allowing for prophecy and sacrifice to please their deities. For a full history of the holiday, see History.com’s detailed description.
Even the tradition of trick-or-treating has roots in the relationship between the living world and spirit world. Poor children went from door to door, asking for treats in exchange for prayers for the souls of a homeowner's dead relatives. Not exactly the same thing as a snack-sized Snickers bar.
Every year, we go out of our way to look for costumes, buy candy, and celebrate the holiday. Yet we have no real idea what we’re recognizing. This was the religious practice for an entire culture, their version of New Years Eve. It is the equivalent to turning Easter into a cave exploration holiday.
So while we are up-in-arms over what costumes some decide to wear, we all need to remember that, no matter how you decide to dress up, there is cultural appropriation going on.