Archives For Lisa Morton

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As October marches onward, many Americans are prepping their costumes, yards and homes in anticipation for the secular celebration of Halloween. What are you going to be for Halloween this year? Did you buy your candy? Are you going to a party?

Kids Trick or Treating [Credit: H. Greene]

Kids Trick or Treating [Credit: H. Greene]

To be very clear, this festival is not the same as the spiritual vigil of Samhain or any other harvest or religious celebration. For the purposes of this discussion, Halloween is an American and Canadian secular holiday, complete with candy, costumes and PVC pumpkins. It often begins with door bells ringing and ends with a sugar-high unlike anything you’ve ever known.

Halloween has a somewhat uneasy place in the family of North American holidays. On the one hand, some Pagans and Heathens fully embrace the festivities. It is a tradition that many have enjoyed since childhood. Halloween is the one calendar event that tangentially adheres to modern Pagan religious practices. And, for better or worse, the Halloween season openly unleashes the Witch-archetype into stores, homes and entertainment media. When else can you buy a pentacle and black candles at Michaels?

Halloween also attracts the local media to coven practice, real Witches and metaphysical stores. In most cases, these press encounters provide public teaching opportunities. For weeks, articles interviewing “real witches” grace the digital pages of mostly local newspapers, while the national media tend to focus on broader topics, such as the origins of the Witch, the story of Salem and even the cultural meaning within the witch-archetype.

But, on the other hand, the secular celebration also mocks any spiritual components, modern or otherwise, that exist within Halloween. For many real Witches, the playful and wholly-commercialized, secular side of the holiday undermines attempts to build cultural acceptance of both the Craft and the sabbat as a serious holiday. For example, requesting Halloween off for religious reasons might be met with ridicule. The secular festival feeds both negative witch stereotypes as well as the false truth that Witchcraft only exists in a fictional universe.

the-last-witch-hunter-Breck-Eisner-movie-poster
One of the main contributors to this problem is, not surprisingly, Hollywood. The industry typically provides at least one new film and several television specials “exploring” witchcraft. This year is no different. On Oct 23, The Last Witch Hunter, starring Vin Dieselwill make its debut. While such films are purely fiction, they exist within our cultural space as the flip side to the positive press interviews and similar work.

Pagans and Heathens aren’t alone in their unsettled attempts to navigate through the Halloween season. Many American religious and community leaders have repeatedly attempted to ban the holiday. Why? The list is endless including concerns over the overindulgence in candy, the potential dangers of trick-or-treating, the holidays Pagan origins, the increased popularity of over-sexualized or violently graphic costumes and heightened displays of horror.

As recently reported, one New Jersey man found himself at the center of controversy after setting up his seasonal yard display. Bill D’Catt, as he is reportedly named, told a local journalist, “We choose to be on the spookier side of Halloween. You know what’s scarier than this thing? The real ISIS.” The display, which was deemed too violent for the media to show in full, depicts hanged figures including one wearing a Pres. Obama mask, terrorists, caged criminals and bloody body parts. After numerous threats and complaints, D’Catt removed the display, but he has said it will likely return for Halloween itself.

But yard displays are not the only source of contention. Over the years, store-bought costumes have attracted debate as they have have become increasingly sexualizedSexy Pikachu, anyoneMaxim magazine recently interviewed Yandy CEO Chad Horstman about these “ridiculously sexy costumes.” Yandy is the main distributor of these products and, in the interview, Horstman expressed his lack of concern, saying “this is just the way this generation dresses.”

As an aside, Horstman also specifically stated that his company “[tries] to stay away from religious things.” Yet, at the same time, Vandy does sell a number of sexy “Voodoo Priestess” costumes and, of course, witches. This demonstrates the continuing disconnect between modern secular lore and Voodoo or Witchcraft as genuine religious practices.

Regardless, complaints against the Halloween costume industry go beyond the sexy and into the realm of offensive and excessively violent. Vandy and other similar merchants offer, for example, a Salem Witch costume complete with blood stains and a noose. Others note the deeply offensive nature of many ethnic or culturally -inspired costumes, such as “the Indian Sweetheart” or “Chief Wansum Tail.” The list goes on and on.

The costume industry is a major business. Last year, the National Retail Federation reported that the Halloween business reached all time high of $7.4 billion. And Halloween is ranked the number one fastest growing American commercial holiday. As Horstman said, “What sells is what sells.” That is the business of Halloween.

Halloween Party [Public domain]

Halloween Party [Public domain]

For the majority of Americans, Halloween is simply an excuse to party. Halloween provides a unique canvas that can only be topped by the decadent bacchanalia that is Mardi Gras or New Year’s Eve. It is an excuse to dress up, eat, drink and make merry.

Over the past decade, the Halloween debate has become quite larger. The secular holiday has spread across the globe, seizing the imaginations of youth cultures on every continent. Originally, it hitched a ride with missionaries, English language teachers and ex-pats. Now, it’s being promoted by imported American cultural commodities like internationally-based theme parks, McDonald’s stores, Coca Cola products and Hollywood movies. And, of course, the ever-increasing accessibility to the internet only fuels the fire.

In some regions, Halloween has been readily incorporated into long-established fall cultural traditions. In the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland, Halloween finds itself at its ancestral birthplace. It has returned, in some respects. Today, the newly-imported version has mixed with surviving local customs associated with, among others, Guy Fawkes Day.  As noted by English writer Chris Britcher:

Trick or treat has now actually become a bona fide tradition in the UK ….Fireworks were our autumnal treat of choice and for a good little while we fought off any competitor to it. But then we gave that up and decided to embrace both.

Across the globe in China, Hong Kong and Japan, people have been enthusiastically adopting the American holiday. Lisa Morton, author of Trick or Treat: The History of Halloween, attributes this acceptance to the presence of two Disney Theme Parks (Tokyo and Hong Kong), Hollywood horror movies and a fascination with American pop-culture.

During at 2012 interview with The Wild Hunt, Morton said,“In Japan, there is a love of festivals and affection for costuming or ‘cosplay,’ which is associated with anime and manga.” In mainland China, Halloween is slowly replacing Yue Laan or “Hungry Ghost Festivals” during which people appease and entertain ancestral ghosts. To fuel and solidify this cultural shift, China will be getting a new “Haunted Mansion” at the new Shanghai Disneyland in 2016.

On the contrary, in continental Europe, Halloween has not entirely received a welcome reception. In some countries, like the Netherlands, the secular holiday has been embraced, along side similar local traditions.

In other countries, it is being openly rejected. For example, in Oct 2012, the Polish Archbishop Andzej Dzięga, was quoted on Polskie Radio, as saying, “This kind of fun, tempting children [with] candy, poses the real possibility of great spiritual damage, even destroying spiritual life.” He warned against the “promotion of paganism” and a “culture of death.”

More recently, in Russia, the war over Halloween rages on. In 2012, ABC Online reported that one Russian Education Ministry official called the holiday “a destructive influence on young people’s morals and mental health.” Moscow city schools have banned Halloween celebrations claiming that they were concerned about “rituals of Satanically-oriented religious sects and… the promotion of the cult of death.” In the same article, an unamed Russian psychologist warned:

Halloween poses a great danger to children and their mental health, suggesting it could make young people more likely to commit suicide.

Despite this heavily Christian rhetoric, the resistance is not entirely about religion. Morton explained that, “While it is difficult to fully separate the expression of nationalism from religious tradition, many European countries, like France and Slovenia, have strong anti-American undercurrents.” Religious fervor may, in fact, be serving nationalist interests. Morton said, in the end, she “believes the protests are far more about nationalism than religion.”

This is expressed in an article by Paul Wood, an Englishman living in Bucharest:

Just as the North American grey squirrel has made the red squirrel almost extinct so has the North American Hallowe’en taken over with extraordinary swiftness, extinguishing older, weaker traditions. This too is life, I suppose, but it is part of the process by which the whole world is becoming plastic.

Despite the rejection, Halloween is still growing, albeit very slowly within these European youth cultures. According to Morton, in some regions of Italy, Halloween is called La Notte delle Streghe or “Night of the Witches.” In Romania, home of the Carpathian Mountains, the local economy is profiting from world’s fascination with Count Dracula. What a better way to spend Halloween than in Transylvania on a “real Dracula Halloween tour” complete with a four-course dinner and prizes.

Moving into the Southern Hemisphere, Halloween faces a new obstacle. The harvest-based tradition simply does not apply. In this part of the world, Oct. 31 marks the middle of Spring, not Fall. Pagans are readying the Maypole and not jack-o-lanterns.

[Photo Credit: Cindy / Flickr]

[Photo Credit: Cindy / Flickr]

Despite the seasonal difference, youth cultures in some of these countries are showing a small amount of interest in the October-based Halloween celebration. This is mostly true in the English-speaking countries of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand. If for no other reason, the Northern holiday offers a chance to party and dabble in the macabre – even if it’s completely devoid of its seasonal aspects.

What about the Americas? As noted above, the countries in the Southern Hemisphere do not recognize Halloween chiefly due to the geographical complications. However, the closer you get to the U.S., the more the secular Halloween has influenced local October traditions. In Costa Rica, for example, some people “have taken this “foreign” holiday and used it to revive an ancient Costa Rican custom: Dia de la Mascarada Tradicional Costarricense or Masquerade Day,” as reported by the Costa Rican News.

Closer to home, in Mexico, the celebration of Dia de los Muertos is sometimes now called Dia de las Brujas or “Day of the Witches.” Halloween practices have been woven into this largely religious holiday. While there has been some backlash from Mexican nationalists and religious leaders, resistance may ultimately be futile. Mexico is just too close to the U.S. to prevent the blending of two very similar October holidays. And, for better or worse, that sharing is happening in both directions.

Just as Halloween has infiltrated Mexican culture, elements of Dia de los Muertos are now increasingly showing up embedded in U.S. Halloween celebrations. In an interview, Morton explained:

Last year I saw my first piece of major Dias de los Muertos American retailing – the Russell Stover candy company released several themed candy bars… That’s probably a sign that Dias de los Muertos is starting to be accepted into the American mainstream. It’s certainly very popular in those areas of the U.S. with large Latino populations. More people seem to be joining in large-scale Dias de los Muertos celebrations in America every year.

Since Morton’s book was published, this trend has only increased. Is it this a good thing? Some view the trend as culturally appropriative and symptomatic of the all-consuming capitalist engine. Most Dia de los Muertos products are, in fact, purely commercial in nature and devoid of their religious roots. It becomes part of the business of Halloween. As quoted earlier, “what sells is what sells.”

However, there are also those that view this sharing as an example of cultural exchange providing a teachable moment that can serve to increase respect for Mexican culture within the U.S. Certainly awareness of religious tradition has increased within the general American public. Regardless, the debate over Dia de los Muertos, whether appropriation or cultural exchange, wages on.

IMG_0850-2

Dia de los Muertos display at the Fall Atlanta Botanical Gardens Festival [Photo Credit: H. Greene]

There are some areas of the world in which Halloween has yet to find a home for reasons already listed. These areas include the Islamic Middle East, the heavily Christian areas of sub-Saharan Africa, Israel, India and parts of South East Asia.

Generally speaking, modern Pagans and Heathens collectively may continue to find their relationship with the secular Halloween difficult. How it is handled is a personal choice. Some will embrace it, seeing this secular holiday space as an opportunity to educate the public or simply a time to host a Witches Ball and have some fun. Others will renounce it, along with all of the derogatory effigies and movie representations. They might join similar protests saying, “We’re a culture. Not a costume.”

Regardless of personal feelings about the secular celebration, Halloween does continue to gain popularity worldwide year after year. As a result, each October as the veil thins and the media comes knocking, Witches can say that both the Ancestors and the world are listening.

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[This article was adapted and updated from its original form published here in 2012]

Before we move too far into the future, let’s pause a moment to talk about Halloween. Not the spiritual vigil of Samhain or seasonal harvest celebrations.  Let’s discuss the wholly secular, American and Canadian holiday of Halloween, complete with candy, costumes and PVC pumpkins.

Vintage Halloween Pumpkin Men

Vintage Plastic Halloween Pumpkin Men by riptheskull

It’s fair to say that Halloween has a somewhat uneasy place in the family of North American holidays.  On the one hand, we, as Pagans, fully embrace the festivities. It is the one calendar event that openly clings to its Pagan origins. When else can you buy a pentacle in TJ Maxx?   But, on the other hand, the celebration mocks its own spiritual roots, something that we hold very dear.

We aren’t alone in our unsettled attempts to navigate through the Halloween season.  American religious and community leaders repeatedly attempt to ban the holiday.  Why?  The list is endless including concerns over the overindulgence in candy, the potential dangers of trick-or-treating, the increased popularity of over-sexualized or violently graphic costumes and, of course, its Pagan origins. But the majority of folks really just want an excuse to party. Halloween provides a unique canvas that can only be topped by the decadent bacchanalia that is Mardi Gras. (The Atlantic, 10-30-12)

Japanese McDonalds Costumes

Ronald McDonalds Girls
Photo courtesy of Japan-Talk.com

More recently, the Halloween debate has been getting larger – much larger. Over the past two decades, our secular holiday has been spreading across the globe, seizing the imaginations of youth cultures on every continent. The holiday has hitched a ride with missionaries, English language teachers and ex-pats. It’s being promoted by imported American cultural commodities like internationally-based Theme Parks, McDonald’s stores, Coca Cola products and Hollywood movies.  And, of course, the ever-increasing accessibility to the internet only fuels the proverbial fire.

In some regions, Halloween has been readily incorporated into long-established fall cultural traditions. In the U.K. and the Republic of Ireland, Halloween finds itself at its ancestral birthplace. Today, the newly-imported version has mixed with surviving local customs associated with, among others, Guy Fawkes Day.  As noted by English writer, Chris Bitcher:

“Trick or treat has now actually become a bona fide tradition in the UK ….Fireworks were our autumnal treat of choice and for a good little while we fought off any competitor to it. But then we gave that up and decided to embrace both.” (Your Canterbury)

Disneyland Honk Kong on Halloween

Disneyland Honk Kong
During Halloween

Across the globe in China, Hong Kong and Japan, people have been enthusiastically adopting the holiday. Lisa Morton, award-winning writer of Trick or Treat: The History of Halloween, and noted Halloween authority, attributes this acceptance to the presence of two Disney Theme Parks  (Tokyo and Hong Kong), Hollywood horror movies and a fascination with American pop-culture. During my own discussion with her, Lisa added, “In Japan, there is a love of festivals and affection for costuming or “cosplay,” which is associated with anime and manga.”  In mainland China, Halloween is slowly replacing Yue Laan or “ Hungry Ghost Festivals,” during which people appease and entertain ancestral ghosts.  To fuel and solidify this cultural shift, China will be getting its very own “Haunted Mansion” at Shanghai Disneyland in 2015.

On the contrary, in continental Europe, Halloween has been receiving a less than welcome reception. In Oct 2012, the Polish Archbishop Andzej Dzięga, was quoted on Polskie Radio, as saying, “This kind of fun, tempting children [with] candy, poses the real possibility of great spiritual damage, even destroying spiritual life.” He warned against the “promotion of paganism” and a “culture of death.”  In 2003, CNN.com reported that France’s Catholics are trying everything to fend off a Halloween celebration they say is an “ungodly U.S. import.”

More recently, in Russia, the war over Halloween rages on. ABC Online reports that one Russian Education Ministry official called the holiday, a destructive influence “on young people’s morals and mental health.” The Moscow city schools banned Halloween celebrations claiming that they were concerned about, “rituals of Satanically-oriented religious sects and… the promotion of the cult of death.”  In the same article, an unamed Russian psychologist warned:

Halloween poses a great danger to children and their mental health, suggesting it could make young people more likely to commit suicide.”(ABC Online)

Despite this heavily Christian rhetoric, the resistance is not entirely about religion.  In our discussion, Lisa explained that, “While it is difficult to fully separate the expression of nationalism from religious tradition, many European countries, like France and Slovenia, have strong anti-American undercurrents.”  Religious fervor may, in fact, be serving nationalist interests.  Lisa said, in the end, she “believes the protests are far more about nationalism than religion.”

This is expressed in an article by Paul Wood, an Englishman living in Bucharest:

Just as the North American grey squirrel has made the red squirrel almost extinct so has the North American Hallowe’en taken over with extraordinary swiftness, extinguishing older, weaker traditions. This too is life, I suppose, but it is part of the process by which the whole world is becoming plastic. (Romania Insider)

Despite the rejection, Halloween is still growing, albeit very slowly, deep within European youth cultures.  In Italy, Halloween is called La Notte delle Streghe or “Night of the Witches.”  In Romania, home of the Carpathian Mountains, the local economy is profiting from world’s fascination with Count Dracula. What a better way to spend Halloween than in Transylvania on a “real Dracula Halloween tour” complete with a four-course dinner and prizes!

Now, let’s move into the Southern Hemisphere where Halloween faces a new obstacle. Simply put, the harvest-based holiday does not apply. In this part of the world, October 31st marks the middle of Spring, not Fall.  Over the summer, I was reminded of this fact when wishing an Australian friend, “Joyous Lughnasah.” She responded with an equally joyful, “Happy Imbolc.”

2671887 eeda9c5cIn the Southern Hemisphere, traditional festivals continue to be celebrated in accordance with appropriate seasonal shifts with no noticeable attempt to transplant Halloween to May.  However, youth cultures have been showing a small amount of interest in an October-based Halloween celebration, particularly in the English-speaking countries of Australia, South Africa and New Zealand.  If for no other reason, the Northern holiday offers a chance to party and dabble in the macabre – even if it’s completely devoid of its seasonal aspects.

What about the Americas?  As noted above, the countries in the Southern Hemisphere do not recognize Halloween chiefly due to geographical complications.  However, the closer you get to the U.S., the more our secular Halloween has influenced local October traditions.  In Costa Rica, for example, locals “have taken this “foreign” holiday and used it to revive an ancient Costa Rican custom: Dia de la Mascarada Tradicional Costarricense or Masquerade Day,” reports the Costa Rican News.

Closer to home, in Mexico, the famous and mystical celebration of Dias de los Muertos is, now, often called Dias de las Brujas or “Day of the Witches.”  Halloween practices have been woven in to this largely religious holiday.  As expected, there has been backlash from Mexican nationalists and religious leaders.  However, Mexico is just too close to the U.S. to prevent the blending of two very similar October holidays. And that continues to happen in both directions.

Just as Halloween has infiltrated Mexican culture, elements of Dias de los Muertos are now showing up within U.S. Halloween celebrations.  In an interview, Lisa Morton explained:

Last year I saw my first piece of major Dias de los Muertos American retailing – the Russell Stover candy company released several themed candy bars… That’s probably a sign that Dias de los Muertos is starting to be accepted into the American mainstream. It’s certainly very popular in those areas of the U.S. with large Latino populations.  More people seem to be joining in large-scale Dias de los Muertos celebrations in America every year.

Dias de los Muertos Candy

Dias de los Muertos Candy
Photo Courtesy of Lisa Morton

There are some areas of the world in which Halloween has yet to find a home for reasons already listed. These areas include the Islamic Middle East, the heavily Christian areas of sub-Saharan Africa, Israel, India and parts of South East Asia.  I’ll go out on a limb and add Antarctica to that list – just to complete the geography lesson.

What does all this mean for Pagans? First of all, in every article for or against Halloween, a discourse emerges surrounding the origins the holiday.  In many of these reports, the author includes a reasonable account of Halloween’s Celtic origins and Samhain-based traditions. Modern Pagan language is, unwittingly, hitching a ride on Halloween’s broomstick.

With the growing public interest in Halloween, we may find ourselves more able to openly join in the global conversation and, at the same time, deal with our own reservations. Maybe we should embrace the evolving holiday, “seize the spotlight” and become the stewards of Halloween worldwide?  After all, the U.S. media loves interviewing witches in October.  Or, we could completely renounce the secular holiday and its derogatory effigies. We could join others in protest with slogans like “We’re a culture. Not a costume.”

Regardless of our personal feelings about the secular celebration, Halloween continues to gain popularity worldwide, year after year.  As a result, every October when the veil thins, a brand-new door opens for us providing a unique opportunity for a teachable moment.  Now, we can say that both the ancestors and the world are listening.

 

Trick or Treat: The History of Halloween

Note about Lisa Morton: Trick or Treat:  A History of Halloween. This book is an historical and cultural survay of Halloween’s evolution from early Celtic traditions and lore through the ages and across the globe. It is a good read for history junkies, like myself, or students of comparative culture. Within her detailed work, Lisa did reach out to consult Wiccans, world-wide, and gave a decent nod to the modern-day Pagan spiritual celebrations of Samhain or Halloween. 

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up.

Chico Goddess Temple entrance.

Chico Goddess Temple entrance.

  • The Quietus interviews Hexvessel’s Matthew McNerney, who talks about his band’s unique mix of metal, jazz and psychedelic folk, and also opens about Paganism, the natural world, and practicing magick. Quote: “I was brought up a Catholic, so I know about organised religion. I’ve always been interested in the occult and magick. I don’t know how much you can say about practising magick, because I think it’s something that’s very personal and very subjective and I think this album is about that. It’s about “When does magick become objective? When does religion become an objective thing? What does it mean to be holy?” It’s all connected with nature and how we see ourselves in relation to the world around us. It’s definitely the theme of the album, and I believe that we’re creating and practising magick all the time.”
  • Gina Athena Ulysse, Professor of Anthropology & African American Studies at Wesleyan University, writes about defending Vodou in Haiti at The Huffington Post. Quote: “In recent years, defensive tactics have included the formation of umbrella organizations (such as Zantrayand Bode Nasyonal) that brought practitioners together to address common concerns. It must be noted that these groupings are not necessarily representative of all Vodouists and are not without controversy. Nonetheless, with the persistent presence of protestant missions and increasingly aggressive spiritual cleansings and other attacks especially since the 2010 earthquake, Vodouists have become increasingly vulnerable and have to be on the offensive.” Ulysse also notes the recent controversy over the amended Haitian constitution, and the fear that it may have removed protections for Vodou practitioners.
  • Boing Boing’s Gweek podcast interviews Lisa Morton, author of “Trick or Treat: A History of Halloween,” about, well, the history of Halloween. Quote: “Have you ever wondered about the origins of Halloween? Where does the word Halloween come from? What is the origin of the term trick or treat? Why do we carve jack-o’-lanterns? And how did costumes come into play?”
  • Tourist-trade witch, living in cave, seeks potential suitors. Seeks someone less “goody-goody” than Merlin, but not as evil as Voldemort.

That’s it for now! Feel free to discuss any of these links in the comments, some of these I may expand into longer posts as needed.