With Samhain just around the corner, its relation with Day of the Dead is an issue of some importance to many Pagans. Taos, where I now live, is famous for the ubiquitous presence of decorated Day of the Dead skulls in many shop windows, all over town, all year long.  Of course, Day of the Dead themes have been integrated into Halloween celebrations as well, even though Mexicans are a small part of the population. The dominant Hispanic community had been here for centuries when Mexican people brought Day of the Dead with them. Since then, elements of it have caught on, particularly with the White population. 

As it has, the issue of cultural appropriation has arisen.  Cultural appropriation is when the dominant culture, or members of it, borrow and use aspects of minority cultures outside of their intended context. Recently, Aya de Leon offered a thoughtful critique of Anglo celebrations of Day of the Dead as cultural appropriation.

De Leon writes she was shocked “to find Day of the Dead events in my native Oakland Bay Area not only that were not organized by [email protected] or [email protected] or [email protected], but events with zero [email protected] artists participating, involved, consulted, paid, recognized, acknowledged, prayed with.”  She criticized this as an attack on both Mexican culture and a deep disrespect for the celebration’s meaning, arguing “Don’t bother to build an altar because your celebration is an altar of death, a ceremony of killing culture by appropriation. Do you really not know how to sit at the table? To say thank you? To be a gracious guest?”

The nature of this controversy has great relevance for we NeoPagans everywhere, for some have criticized us for those aspects of our daily practice inspired from other cultures. I agree with de Leon to a point, and disagree past that point. I think the reasons why I both agree and disagree shed light on these issues within the broader NeoPagan community.

There are clear examples of cultural appropriation as de Leon describes it. Consider a blackface minstrel show  pretending to present Black American culture as entertainment. It appropriates elements of Black culture for White amusement by emphasizing its strangeness as inferior to ‘White culture,’ and in doing so, helps keep Black Americans subordinate to them. One could defend blackface as satire, but it is the dominant satirizing the subordinate, the strong the weak, by a direct assault on their feelings of worth as selves and as a culture.

However, simply arguing employing Day of the Dead symbolism in White culture as constituting cultural appropriation such as this is a mistake.  

What is Day of the Dead?

Day of the Dead’s celebrations honor deceased relatives and friends. People bring food, candles, and sugar skulls (calaveras) as offerings to the graves of loved ones who have died.  Marigolds invite the departed spirits back to earth.  The altars created for this time are colorful, bedecked with portraits of the departed, and offerings connected with their favorite pastimes while among the living.  In more rural areas people visit cemeteries and make their offerings there. In cities and in the US, much of this takes place at home.

Day of the Dead is both a deeply personal and a family event, one whose mood is upbeat and depictions often spectacularly colorful, with the celebration often accompanied by dancing and large puppets.  On the one hand people invite back and honor the departed. On the other hand, the skull masks and humor help them to “laugh at death” as some celebrants explain.  Death is not the end of life, it is another step along our path.

Day of the Dead is not Samhain under another name, nor is it simply a Mexican Halloween. When it came out, my Mexican friends urged me to see the movie The Book of Life    to get a sense of how they view Day of the Dead. I did, and the was delightful and beautiful. 

Beyond a common focus on death and the humor often present in the costumes, there are few if any connections between Day of the Dead and traditional Halloween trick-or-treating, which has lost nearly all connections with its early origins.

On the other hand, Day of the Dead shares many similarities with Samhain, but with differences as important. The time of year is virtually identical, both honor those who have passed on, and in the coven with whom I have most often celebrated Samhain, we celebrate a dumb feast, where favored  food is offered to departed loved ones. However, the dumb supper is not treated as a happy reunion with those who passed on and, while Day of the Dead is celebrated during the day and night, we generally celebrate at night.  There are other differences.

Samhain honors Death as a crucial part of the Wheel of the Year, and does not just focus on those who have passed on. As a time when Death will dominate at least symbolically until Yule, or the Winter Solstice, colors are usually dark, we make offerings to Hecate at night, where three roads come together, and I have never seen Samhain treated as a fun family event.  Day of the Dead is filled with humor and Samhain is not.

Given these differences as well as the similarities, are NeoPagans engaging in cultural appropriation if they include a colorfully decorated skull on our altars, or otherwise employ some of its symbolism and art?

In general, no.

As usual, context is everything.

Halloween in America

Around 60 years ago, when I was a kid, Halloween focused on kids going door to door collecting candy and fruit, while dressed up as princesses, pirates, ghosts, and other fun outfits.  Halloween decorations were usually made by the children, perhaps along with their parents.  It had already changed from many of its earlier manifestations. Since that time, two big changes have happened to Halloween.

Today corporations have made Halloween a holiday profit center second only to Christmas. Over-the-top yard decorations overwhelm its once dark atmosphere illuminated by jack-o-lanterns. Store shelves filled with all manner of ‘scary’ stuff begin appearing in early Fall, far from Oct. 31.  As with Christmas, capitalism is polluting Halloween by seeking to subordinate all cultural symbols to the corporate desire for wealth.

That is one big change, but there is another.

Adults now get more involved than the past in parties and celebrations.  It seems to me this enhanced involvement reflects at least to some degree the concerns of people for whom traditional Christianity no longer speaks, but who still must come to terms with two of life’s most unsettling truths: we all will die, and we will (almost certainly) never again see those we love who have preceded us in death.

Both capitalist degradation and the increasing role of adults in Halloween’s celebration are signs of a weakening Christian hold on a culture long dominated by it. But the two have very different foci, and it is this context that we should think about Day of the Dead, our own Samhain, and how they fit into the needs of modern America.

Day of the Dead – a second look

Day of the Dead’s roots are in pre-Christian central Mexico.  The indigenous Aztec and other peoples apparently had a similar celebration.  The conquering Spanish first tried to abolish the celebration, and when that failed, integrated it into a Christian context. Originally taking place in August, it was moved to November, focusing on All Souls Day.   Today Day of the Dead altars will often have Christian symbols such as crosses, which would have been absent in celebrations 500 years ago.

So Day of the Dead is itself a kind of hybrid   where, on the one hand, conquering Catholic Spain sought to appropriate a Pagan sacred observation into their traditions whereas on the other, the indigenous people of central Mexico sought to assimilate enough of this effort into their traditions to be able to preserve the core of their ancestral celebration. In addition, Day of the Dead’s success in addressing universal human concerns and ability to harmonize what in most respects were antithetical spiritual traditions gave it a life of its own.  It has spread throughout modern Mexico and Central America, far beyond the culture of its origins.

For some Mexican people, Day of the Dead is mostly Christian, with a veneer of traditional practices as well.  For others it involves returning to their Pagan roots. For most Mexicans I suspect such issues are of little interest: it is a time to celebrate the lives of their departed loved ones and invite them back at a time when the veils are thin. In short, Day of the Dead does not have a universal coherent spiritual framework beyond the core of celebrating departed loved ones, even among Mexicans. With this comment we return to the issue of cultural appropriation.

I will never forget a Day of the Dead celebration in 2014, in Santa Rosa, California. Many beautiful altars had been erected in the center of town, and various Mexican dance troupes performed while food vendors made sure no one went hungry. The dance troupe Danca Azteca closed the evening with a spectacular performance. The group is a well-known Mexican dance troupe, apparently with branches in different communities, for I have seen them here in Taos.

Day of the Dead is far from their only celebration as a group. For example, they also honor Coyoxuahqui, the Aztec Moon Goddess. Many are quite clear in their intention to honor the pre-Christian deities of their ancestors' past.

In Santa Rosa, during their Day of the Dead performance, their second to last dance was a . . . Spiral Dance, with the audience invited to enter and participate.  This dance was Wiccan, not Mexican. I felt very much at home! This dance was not appropriation, for the culture Dance Azteca celebrates is hardly a dominant force in this country. Nor was it cultural assimilation, for there was hardly any need for one culturally weak group, Mexicans in America, to seek to preserve its traditions by incorporating elements of an even weaker group, Witches.

Something else was going on.

Beyond appropriation and assimilation

Years ago I had a conversation with a Sun Dance Priest on the Crow reservation in Montana. I had taken a German friend there at the end of a road trip exploring Yellowstone. Ellen had friends who had studied with Larsen Medicinehorse in Germany, and urged her to meet him. I provided the transportation, since Crow Agency was not that far from Yellowstone.

Larsen and I got along well, and at one point he told me if he were to teach me how to conduct sweat lodges, “there will come a time when you change it.”  I waited for some words critical of EuroAmericans appropriating Native traditions. They never came. Instead he said “And that is how you make it yours.”

By this, Medicinehorse did not mean anything goes. For example, he told me he had stopped teaching some Germans because they had started charging for Sweats. “Making it yours” involved respectfully integrating one tradition into another context. Something important at the core was preserved but something new would also emerge.

Day of the Dead/Halloween/Samhain in America

I think we are seeing something hopeful emerging in the changing context of how Halloween is celebrated in America.  Before moving to Taos, I conducted joint celebrations of Samhain and Day of the Dead with Mexican people in Sonoma County. We had side-by-side altars. and people were encouraged to light votives honoring their deceased loved one, and to place them on the altars of their choice.  My Wiccan-style altar had marigolds on it, and the skull was a colorful one, in keeping with Day of the Dead symbolism. Otherwise it was very traditional. Beyond the flowers and skull, their had little in common visually.

More generally, when people paint their faces to resemble skulls, there cannot help but be a recognition that in time our skulls will probably be the last evidence we existed here.   White celebrants have the opportunity to laugh at death, something lacking in our culture.  This is neither assimilation nor appropriation. It is creative integration.

As a culture we are rethinking the place of death and the departed in our lives and this time of year provides a great framework for it to happen. Already in many more liberal parts of America there is growing recognition of Samhain as well as Day of the Dead, and I am sure it will not be celebrated by non-Wiccans in the way we traditional Witches do.  This bothers me not in the least.

But there is also a point to the worries of those who, like de Leon, worry about cultural appropriation.  Cultural appropriation as a bad thing is not mixing compatible symbols and practices in new ways, it is in using such practices and symbols removed from any traditional context, and in ways that are not respectful of their origins.  For example, a contest as to who has the best skull face decoration. The risk is the commercialization of this time of the year, or of its symbols.

Worse, excluding Mexican people from planning and participating in celebrations, such as Aya de Leon described, can easily become a version of the Blackface Minstrel shows. Customs and images taken out of context can be played with and used to emphasize the strangeness of those for whom they are an important part of their lives.  Fraternity Blackface parties are the opposite of any honest engagement with African American culture. This is genuine cultural appropriation reinforcing power and domination as ‘entertainment.’

This year I will once again have a colorful skull on my Samhain altar, and marigolds as well (if I can find some- mine died a few days ago in a hard freeze).