Clown bans, cultural appropriation, and imagination mark Halloween

Haunted House US Route 50 Cambridge MD
Pumpkins at Kelp’s Pumpkin Patch near Nashville in Brown County, Indiana. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. US Library of Congress.
Pumpkins at Kelp’s Pumpkin Patch near Nashville in Brown County, Indiana. Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. US Library of Congress.

Halloween is approaching, and the natter class is having the customary argument about which costumes are offensive because the wearer might be culturally ‘appropriating’ someone else’s heritage. Yet millions of US children and adults of all cultural persuasion will dress up on October 31 and hit the streets or parties to celebrate. Halloween is traditionally silly. Taking the award for silly is a city whose officials have banned clown costumes. 

Oak Park, Michigan officials decided clowns are too frightening for the annual Boo Bash held at the community center. City leaders are afraid children will be scared. Personally I’ve never cared much for clowns, but I think an outright ban is a bit much.

On various TV networks, professional talkers collectively navel gaze about what is appropriate and what is not when it comes to costumes on Halloween. This year’s controversy has to do with black face, a form of makeup that began as early as 1789, according to the website Black History.

I’ve celebrated Halloween since I was a child. I love this holiday, and since becoming an adult, I’ve made it a practice to decorate and treat all manner of folks young and old who show up at my door. I’m not young, and I’ve encountered thousands of trick-or-treaters in person here in the South over the years. That includes my time here in Florida where every year I have between 60-80 ghosts and goblins knock on my door. Yes, we count them, just for fun.

I have never had an individual wearing black face makeup come to my door.

I have had just about every color and ethnicity come to my door in search of the treats that are the lure for this US holiday.

Among the young, super heroes, pirates, witches, and ballerinas have arrived here in great numbers. Cartoon characters, princesses, astronauts, ghosts—you name it. Every US president has been represented among the ‘tweens and teens who’ve knocked over the years. The funniest costume was a dragon. The dragon was big and green and had a great deal of trouble staying balanced.

There is no more fun day than Halloween, but when my children were young, I often wished schools would arrange for the day after to be a teacher workday or holiday. It was always a challenge to get the kids home, get them in costume and fed before the candy harvest, and then hit the neighborhood for the trick or treat tradition. We’d always come back to our house, and I’d feed the children and their friends and their friends’ families. I always wrote them a poem or story—we’d tell that out back in the dark while everyone had cocoa or coffee.

It seems foolish to me to make a controversy of an imaginative holiday like Halloween. There will always be people who are disrespectful of others—that is human nature. But those people, in my experience, are in the minority.

If you think about it, the whole concept of Halloween comes from culturally appropriating traditions of my long dead ancestors (both sides of my family and my husband’s). The Celts are pretty much credited with the origins of what we now call Halloween, with the ancient term being Samhain. According to the National Endowment for the Humanities:

“The origin of our Western holiday known as Halloween is found in the ancient Celtic festival, Samhain (pronounced SOW-in). From present-day Ireland to the United Kingdom to Bretagne (Brittany), France, the ancient Celts marked this as one of their four most important festival quarter days of the year. Samhain commenced on the eve of October 31st, and ushered in the Celtic New Year on November 1st. The Celts experienced this as a liminal (threshold) period when the normally strict boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead became mutable. On the eve of Samhain, they believed the veil between the two realms was the most transparent, allowing the spirits of those who have died to return to visit earth.”

The beautiful thing about my country is that so many different cultures have come together, sharing our traditions and cultures, and the melding of Samhain into Halloween is a perfect example. It’s often been said “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” That’s the other side of the coin the natter class cannot wrap their minds around.

No holiday inspires more imaginative engagement than Halloween. As artists working in different genres, perhaps we should celebrate that aspect of this fun day above all other matters.

Featured Photo:

Haunted House, U.S. Route 50 vicinity, Cambridge, Dorchester County, MD; Historic American Buildings Survey, creator, and E. H. Pickering, photographer. Documentation compiled after 1933. From US Library of Congress archives.

(Kay B. Day/Oct. 24, 2018)

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