I have always, always loved costume parties, the opportunity to become someone, something else for a day or night; the way costumed affairs cast a fanciful light onto even the most mundane times and places, from middle school cafeterias, to office parties with plastic cups balancing on the copier machine and bars lit dimly only to hide their prosaic features.
No matter how uninspired the event or the place or even its bearer, a true costume always lends some strange magic to them. A true costume, of course discounts "sexy nurses", "sexy firemen", "sexy air stewardesses" and "sexy garbage truck drivers", as well as giant alien heads, cheap, plastic presidents and werewolves, and most anything that smacks of store-bought packaged costumes. Only children have the transformative powers to make a plastic Darth Vader mask the terrifying presence of the Dark Lord himself. A true costume, you see, is a transformation. You put it on, piece by piece, and suddenly, inside that cardboard and facepaint, or even the cheap plastic mask, you are someone else.
Perhaps it is only because I was raised in a theater, but I truly believe in the power of metamorphosis as an ancient tool of self-knowledge. We no longer perform rites that require our transformation into deities and demons, our own ancestors and animal spirits. There are no sacred costumes, secret identities we get to assume yearly. We are not transported from ourselves, joined into the larger order of the universe or the chain of our predecessors, by a bit of painted clay or wood, a swishing reed skirt, or a heavy crown resting on our brow. Instead, we are our mundane, everyday selves 365 carefully meted out days a year.
(I do have to add that I actually happen to live in a community where masked rituals do take place as a part of our celebrations.)
The power of our chosen costumed affair, All Hallow's Eve, Halloween then, is actually quite significant. Far from just putting on your cardboard contraption and taking a child off to gather sweets from friends and neighbors for the empty threat of tricks, there is an air of genuine mischief about the celebration.
A nation as prim and "family-valued" as this, for a short season adorns it's front stoops and store windows with ghastly images, reminders of ancient terrors and the very modern fear of death itself. It dresses its' children up and lets them loose on their own tiny Bacchanalia, an orgy of refined sugar and corn syrup (surely every parent's nightmare). Its' grown-ups don ridiculous get-ups and mask their identities.
Covering your face affords you certain liberties, whether they are real or imagined. Masked affairs can easily lead to masked affairs, debauchery, property destruction, over-indulgence. They enable behaviors considered deviant, to become socially acceptable, if even for a night. Cross-dressing, explicit sexuality and morbidity abound.
Often our choice of costume reflects some facet of our personality, perhaps the way we wish to be seen, or a deeper subconscious part that we are free exhibit only through a frivolous activity, such as a character we inhabit for a masquerade.
There are the afore-mentioned sex-kitten costumes, telling perhaps of only our need to be pretty and accepted, rather than wild and dangerous, at all times. Then there are the humorous and ironic costumes, a lighter side of these darkening days, a need to not take ourselves seriously, or perhaps an inability to do so. And finally, the grotesque characters, the mutilated bodies, the zombies, the skeletons of our subconscious closets.
The American Halloween is but a variation of the Day of the Dead celebrations the world over. Where I'm from All Saint's Day is for remembrance of the dead, when cemeteries all over the country are lit up with hundreds of thousands of candles, illuminating this dark time of year. In Great Britain, remnants old of pagan traditions hold, the veil between the worlds thins on Shamhain, which may have also been a remnant of a Celtic new year's celebration, a time of harvest, cleansing and new beginnings. Dia de los Muertos, is in Mexican tradition, a twist on the catholic remembrance of dead loved ones and saints, as well a raucous celebration of life by acknowledging that which follows it.
It is from the latter tradition that I will borrow my costume from tomorrow night, going as a Calavera Catrina, or perhaps Mictecacihuatl, an elegant skull, a Lady of The Dead. Not content to with pretty finery (though being able to dress like a Mexican christmas tree is certainly part of the attraction), I look forward to adding some disquiet to the mix. I imagine the skeleton woman silent, smiling, having for a night transcended that which this holiday represents: The endless circle of life. Each death a new beginning.
And who or what are you going to swap your skin for this dark and stormy night? Happy Halloween!