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Day of the Dead, Samhain, and Halloween: cultural appropriation or something wonderful?


Taos, where I recently moved, is famous for its celebration of Day of the Dead.  Not surprisingly Day of the Dead themes have been integrated in to Halloween celebrations here.  Day of the Dead also shares many points of overlap with Samhain.   For the previous two years I worked with Mexican friends to organize a joint celebration of Samhain and Day of the Dead in Sebastopol, California. 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 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.

Taos is perhaps unique in this country in being a town where no ethnic identity dominates. We are about one third Euro-American, one third Hispanic American, and one third Tiwa Pueblo Native American.  But individually and in our cultural identities there is considerable intermingling.  In addition, Mexican people have brought Day of the Dead with them, and elements of it have caught on particularly with the White population. 

As is always the case it seems, some people love merging various traditions while others are concerned acts of “cultural appropriation” are taking place that disrespect Day of the Dead’s traditional meaning. In this regard we Taos residents are not unique, and the issue of cultural appropriation has deep roots within the Pagan community.

Amber Lena offered a thoughtful critique of incorporating themes from Day of the Dead into White celebrations of this time. She defined “cultural appropriation as when the dominant culture, or the majority, borrows aspects of minority cultures outside of their intended context. It differs from cultural assimilation, in which minority cultures adopt aspects of the majority culture in order to fit in. Cultural assimilation is forced upon people – cultural appropriation is a means of oppressing minority groups.”

Both cultural assimilation and cultural appropriation arise from deep power imbalances between a majority and minority culture.  While these phenomena certainly exist, I think they do not capture what is happening in Taos or in other parts of the country where themes from Day of the Dead are extending far beyond the Mexican people who brought it here with them.

Sadly, there are clear examples of cultural appropriation as the author describes it. Consider a blackface minstrel show pretending to present, and lampoon, Black American culture as entertainment for Whites. It is clearly also an effort to put Blacks and their culture "in it's place." 

Cultural assimilation is also a problem. I have often written of my concern that as we Pagans grow in numbers there will be increased efforts to incorporate cultural and religious expectations rooted in monotheism into our practice. But that is another discussion.

However, for the most part arguing Day of the Dead symbolism in White culture constitutes cultural appropriation fails to grasp what is happening.   The model critics use seems to be a three way one. We can respectfully look at what others do or if our culture is dominant, we either appropriate or force them to assimilate. This is too simple a picture to understand what is happening.

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 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 depiction extraordinarily colorful. The colors are spectacular, and 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 Mexican Halloween. 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 it was delightful and beautiful. 

There are few if any connections between Day of the Dead and traditional Halloween trick-or-treating beyond a common focus on death or the dark and the humor often present in the costumes. On the other hand, Day of the Dead shares many similarities with Samhain.  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 have a dumb feast where food is offered to departed loved ones and family members.  Day of the Dead is celebrated during the day and night whereas we generally celebrate at night, but the symbolisms are remarkably similar.

But they are not the same.

Samhain also honors Death as a crucial part of the Wheel of the Year, and not just 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, and I have never seen Samhain treated as a fun family event.  Day of the Dead is filled with humor in a way Samhain is not.

The similarities are as fascinating to me, as are the differences.

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 profit center second only to Christmas. Over the top decorations push against its once dark atmosphere illuminated mostly by jack-o-lanterns, and store shelves are filled with all manner of ‘scary’ stuff.  Capitalism is polluting Halloween as it seeks to subordinate all cultural symbols to the corporate desire for wealth, which puts what is superficial ahead of everything of substance. 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 that this enhanced involvement speaks at least to some degree to people for whom traditional Christianity no longer speaks but 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 died in this life.

Both currents are signs of a weakening Christian hold on a culture long dominated by it. But they 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 it into their traditions whereas the indigenous people of central Mexico sought to assimilate enough to be able to preserve the core of their traditional celebration. Its success in addressing universal human concerns and ability to harmonize what in most respects were antithetical spiritual traditions gave Day of the Dead a life of its own.  It has spread throughout modern Mexico and Central America.

Today some celebrate Day of the Dead in an entirely Christian context. It is also inspiring some Mexicans to a renewed attachment to their pre-Christian heritage, emphasizing its Pagan dimensions. 

I will never forget a Day of the Dead celebration I attended in 2014 in Santa Rosa, California.  Many beautiful altars had been erected in the center of the city, and various Mexican dance groups put on performances while food vendors made sure no one would be hungry.   The dance troupe Danca Azteca closed the evening with a spectacular performance. The group is a well known Mexican group that performs not just at Day of the Dead celebrations, but elsewhere throughout the year.  For example, they honor Coyolxauhqui, the Aztec Moon Goddess.  During their Day of the Dead performance their second to last dance was a . . . Spiral Dance, with the audience invited to enter and participate.  I felt very much at home!

For some Mexican people Day of the Dead is mostly Christian, with a veneer of traditional practices as well.  For others it is returning to its 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 the departed, even among Mexicans. With this comment we retiurn to the issue of cultural appropriation.

Beyond appropriation and assimilation

As I write this blog I am reminded of a conversation I had years ago with a Sun Dance Priest on the Crow reservation in Montana. I had taken a German friend there as the end of a road trip exploring Yellowstone in the Fall. 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.

While there he and I talked and at one point Larsen 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.”

Medicinehorse did not mean anything goes. 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 at the core was preserved but something new would also emerge.

Day of the Dead/Halloween/Samhain in America

In this time of deep cultural division I think we see something new and wonderful emerging in the changed context of how Halloween is celebrated in America.  The celebrations I know of in Taos are both respectful of the deeper meaning of the celebration and modifications for it to fit easily into EuroAmerican traditions. Certainly the joint celebrations I conducted with Mexican people in Sonoma County were. People were invited to light candles on the altar of their choice to recognize and honor loved ones of their own. Something similar happens in some Taos celebrations. When people paint their faces to resemble skulls, there cannot help but be a recognition that underneath our skin we have skulls, and in time they will probably be the last evidence we existed here.   White celebrants have the opportunity to laugh at death.  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.

The risk to Halloween/Day of the Dead/Samhain is not people integrating these themes in different ways from their traditional meanings. That to my mind is almost entirely positive, if not entirely so.  The risk is the commercialization of this time of the year by the amoral forces of corporate capitalism.

This year I will once again have a colorful skull on my Samhain altar, and marigolds as well.









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Gus diZerega DiZerega combines a formal academic training in Political Science with decades of work in Wicca and shamanic healing. He is a Third Degree Elder in Gardnerian Wicca, studied closely with Timothy White who later founded Shaman’s Drum magazine, and also studied Brazilian Umbanda  for six years under Antonio Costa e Silva.

DiZerega holds a Ph.D. in Political Science from UC Berkeley, has taught and lectured in the US and internationally, and has organized international academic meetings.

His newest book is "Faultlines: the Sixties, the Culture Wars, and the Return of the Divine Feminine (Quest, 2013) received a 'silver' award by the Association of Independent Publishers for 2014. It puts both modern Pagan religion and the current cultural and political crisis in the US into historical context, and shows how they are connected.

His first book on Pagan subjects, "Pagans and Christians: The Personal Spiritual Experience," won the Best Nonfiction of 2001 award from  The Coalition of Visionary Resources. 

His second,"Beyond the Burning Times: A Pagan and a Christian in Dialogue" is what it sounds like. He coauthored it with Philip Johnson. DiZerega particularly like his discussion of polytheism in Burning Times, which in his view is an advance over the discussion in Pagans and Christians.

His third volume, "Faultlines: The Sixties, the Culture War, and the Return of the Divine Feminine," was published in 2013 and won a Silver award from the Association of Independent Publishers in 2014. The subject is obvious, and places it, and the rise of goddess oriented spiritual movements and our "cold civil war" in historical context.

His pen and ink artwork supported his academic research in graduate school and frequently appeared in Shaman’s Drum, and the ecological journals Wild Earth, and The Trumpeter. It now occasionally appears in this blog.


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