Want to be culturally sensitive in your costume choices this Halloween? Well then consider the roots of this festival. Many people know that it's hurtful to wear costumes that reinforce stereotypes against groups of people, such as dressing up as an ethnicity not your own. However, there is also no need for Halloween costumes to be lacking in seasonal meaning. A good Halloween costume can speak to the present and the past and be both fun and true to the spirit of the celebration.
Samhain is the reason for the season: The origins of Halloween
October 31st is the year end of the witches, a festival called Samhain. Samhain is pronounced Sow-Wen (rhymes with 'cow hen'). The name comes from the words for 'Summer's End' in Old Irish, and it marks the end of the summer, and the beginning of a new year. It’s important to know that this festival traditionally honours those beloved persons who have died, including family, friends and people who might be role models. It also blesses the 'new year' to come.
Many witches and pagans serve a feast for their beloved dead on Samhain eve, or create an altar with photos of those they wish to honour and speak with at this time. This is because, in this space between the old year and new, the veil between the living and dead is thinner, and communication between them is more possible. Because on 'all hallows eve' or 'halloween' these beloved dead (and possibly angry or malicious ones) are closer to the living, a custom emerged of going about in scary costumes, mainly dressing as the spirits themselves, to make it harder for them to see the true identity of the wearer (think Walking Dead). This was particularly important for children, who were thought to need extra protection. It was also thought that some of those who appear to be in costume might actually be the spirits themselves, so it is best to treat everyone with respect even more so than usual, as you don't know who for sure they might be.
The custom of giving candy, coins or small gifts to children on this holiday is a way of blessing the future, with children representing the New Year and new life we are blessing. Death and rebirth.
Samhain Festival-Friendly Costumes
Because of this festival's focus on honouring the dead and the spirits, it is respectful to the festival and to the dead to wear costumes that reflect that intent. Dressing up as a dead person you particularly admire or wish to honour is a perfect choice. Dressing up as a bunch or fruit or this year's Disney character is not fit for a traditional Samhain. It is also appropriate to wear something that honours your own ancestors, admired or beloved dead, or that represents something you are releasing with the old year. Go as 'the spirit of procrastination', or as a famous and admired person from your own heritage, or as a crone, ghost, ghoul or monster. As a person of Scots origin, I have dressed up as Boudicca (pronounced Boo-dik-a), Queen of the Iceni during the iron age, a powerful warrior queen who stood up to the invading Romans.
Halloween is our holiday as Pagans - the one holiday associated in popular culture with us. We can claim it and embue it with as much sacredness and intention as it can hold. It’s easy to get overwhelmed with the popular culture Halloween customs that are inappropriate and out of keeping with our sacred holiday, but if we can collectively extract Samhain from the clutches of the market, we can shape this energy into a sacred and reverent container, while still having fun.
Happy Halloween! And more importantly, Blessed Samhain to you. Remember to give out the good candy to the children who come to you on this night. You never know who they may be. Blessings for the New Year - may it be bright!