Modern Samhain Celebrations

Halloween began as Samhain, a Celtic festival that took place at the end of summer when the veil between the spirit world and the living earth was said to grow thin. In order to drive off trespassing specters, the Celtic people would dress up in frightening costumes and party the night away. With time, Christianity’s rapid spread through Europe leads to pagan marginalization.

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All Saint’s Day was enforced in place of Samhain in hopes that as the Celtic people were pressured into observing a new holiday, the old traditions would fade away. As hindsight clearly shows, this strategy fell short, and in the nineteenth-century Irish immigrants brought the tradition of Samhain to America. Modern Samhain celebrations, now known as Halloween, have been exported to the rest of the world in varying degrees. America has a complicated and oftentimes dark history. Most cultures do, but recently North American racism has been a contentious and continuously discussed topic. The concept of race and racial inequality seems to be pervasive throughout all subjects in recent years, and with good reason. From coverage of police shootings of unarmed Black people to the disproportionate disappearances of indigenous women in Canada, news cycles constantly remind their viewers that race is not yet a thing of the past. One aspect of race that has been discussed time and time again is cultural appropriation, where a piece of a minority culture is taken by a dominant culture. Cultural appropriation as it is defined only exists where there is an imbalance of power between social classes, and should not be confused with cultural exchange which takes place between groups of equal standing. Halloween is the poster child for cultural exchange, at least it in its historic journey across the Atlantic ocean. It traveled through Europe and into America despite attempts to snuff it out and was adopted and celebrated as it was and is still celebrated as it has grown to be. But even the time-honored tradition of Samhain cannot escape the scrutiny of American race politics. It has been put under the social microscope, not as an example of cultural exchange, but as a vector for cultural appropriation.

Costumes made to resemble Native American, Asian, or Hispanic traditional wear, black and brown face, and other things viewed as insensitive have been popping up on specifically on school campuses. As fate would have it, college campuses are also popular places for conversations about social issues. As someone who belongs to a minority, I understand the feelings behind pushing back against cultures being used as costumes. To see traditional dress turned into a cheap stereotype to be worn once and thrown away feels like a reflection of how the wearer views culture, even though they usually mean no harm. It reminds me of how children growing up become jokes for wearing things that belong to their culture, or even just for looking different than everyone else. For minorities, culture is not something we can choose to put on and take off as we see fit, and we can never sit down and change our skin once we get tired of being brown. People celebrating Halloween also wear costumes that evoke images of violence, such as military costumes, or go heavy handed with fake blood. On the other hand, I understand how people who wear costumes with complicated implications feel. Halloween is supposed to be a lighthearted night of partying, not a college debate class. Plus, everyone has the right to free speech and expression. Is banning or shunning certain costumes not a violation of that right?

Freedom is an abstract concept, but also one that is very important. This is part of why the debate over costumes is so lively. No one has the freedom to do absolutely everything they want, whether by law or by unspoken social rules that we learn in order to have a place in a group, be it college or the world at large. Costumes obviously aren’t illegal. You have the freedom to dress up as a Native American, a particularly gory zombie, or a caricature of a political figure. You also have the freedom to challenge people on their standards regarding cultural appropriation. This does not mean that the people around you are not allowed to comment on your actions, in a civil manner of course, or choose to not associate with you because of it. Your freedom lies in your ability to make a choice, but the way people react to your choice is their freedom. Freedom of speech has always been about discussing topics that might be considered inflammatory or taboo, and it is a great privilege to live somewhere like America where debates are able to be passionate and open.

It exists to protect these kinds of conversations between people, and though no one wants a party to turn into a conversation about race, maybe this is something one should think about before wearing a costume they know could ruffle some feathers. The bottom line is that you are always free to make a choice, but you may have to face consequences for that choice, whatever they may be. There are always rules restricting what one can say in a given environment, and it should be expected that college campuses are no different. I think that anyone who disagrees with any kind of rule should exercise their right to challenge that rule, and if you feel strongly about college campuses changing their standards regarding costumes you should pursue that. No matter what you believe, you have to be open to hearing what others have to say. It is the only way that we can grow as people with diverse viewpoints that all want to make the world a better place. My personal beliefs about cultural appropriation are pretty complicated, but if I see someone do something that doesn’t sit well with me, I usually want to approach them and at least ask what their intentions are. I think treating people like an absolute enemy in these kinds of situations is counterintuitive, everyone is a person with their own perspective on the world. Even if they end up hating my views, I still want to hear theirs. When it comes down to it, Halloween is still a tradition of dressing up and having fun, and it happens to be my all-time favorite holiday. This year I’m dressing up as a “thi”, the Vietnamese version of Chinese hopping vampires. I’m really looking forward to all of the questions I might get about my costume and being able to explain a fun, festive aspect of my culture to the people around me.

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