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Halloween and cultural appropriation

30 October 2018

Someone asked this question on the Quora web site: How have Halloween celebrations changed in your country or region in the last 50 years?

And my answer was that 50 years ago they were only done by American expatriates.

Now I have heard that some locals are following the American customs, but I haven’t seen it with my own eyes.

But it’s not quite as simple as that.

Fifty years ago I was Anglican, and celebrated Halloween, if I celebrated it at all, by attending Solemn Evensong. I certainly did so in 1967 in England, as I recorded it in my diary. And I probably did so for a few years on either side of that date both in England, Namibia and South Africa.

Has that changed?

Yes, I’m no longer Anglican but Orthodox, and we celebrate Halloween on the Saturday after Pentecost, which this year (2018). was on 2 June and next year will be on 22 June.

And perhaps the Anglicans have changed too, and no longer celebrate Halloween with a First Evensong. The Roman Catholics stopped celebrating Hallowmas with an octave in 1955.

But the origins of Halloween have been lost in most people’s minds because most are aware of it only as a North American secular cultural observance in which children dress up and beg for sweets from their neighbours.

Halloween in Windhoek, Namibia, 1971, attended mainly by American expatriates.

About 50 years ago I observed that custom for the first and last time in my life, because a group of American expatriates in Windhoek, Namibia gathered so that their children could observe this cultural ritual. They debated whether they should go around the neighbourhood begging for sweets, and decided against it, because they realised that they would be met with either blank incomprehension, or hostility at the cheek of apparently well-fed children begging.

In the USA, and possibly in other parts of North America, people expect this kind of behaviour, and prepare for it by stocking up with sweets beforehand; in Namibia and South Africa 50 years ago it would have been entirely unexpected.

Now, fifty years later, it appears that some South Africans have adopted this American cultural festival. I gather this from things I see on social media, my Facebook feed in particular. It’s not something I’ve seen with my own eyes, and I’m pretty sure that, just as in Windhoek 50 years ago, people in our neighbourhood don’t stock up with sweets in the expectation of being called on by children in fancy dress.

But this American custom does seem to be spreading to other parts of the world, as the cartoon on the right shows. The irony is that the cartoon depicts American cultural icons Batman and Robin — you’re dominated by US cultural imperialism even in resisting it.

Adopting other people’s cultural customs is called cultural appropriation, and it happens all the time. In a multicultural society like South Africa we rub up against people of different cultures almost every day, and some cultural customs spread, while others remain localised. Who invented the expression “Eish!” Does anyone know? But it seems to have become universal in South Africa.

Words used in one dialect sometimes spead internationally, while others remain peculiar to local dialects. In the 1960s “hassle”, which I think originated in the US, spread worldwide. In the 1990s “gobsmacked”, which originated in the UK, seemed to do likewise.

French Skipping, Durban 1973. I believe it’s known in the USA as Japanese Jumprope

Children’s games spread across cultures, seemingly without adult intervention. Ten days ago we saw a group of black children playing French skipping in Mamelodi township. Fifty years ago, at the time of the Halloween party described above, it was popular in Windhoek, Namibia.  A couple of years later, in 1973, I saw children playing it in Durban. South Africa. It isn’t peculiar to southern Africa, either, though children of all southern African cultures play it — and two of the children in this photo are American.

But American Halloween, it seems, is not like this. American children in Windhoek wanted it, and invited a few local friends, but it didn’t catch on. If it’s spread, it’s spread more by adults.

Another American cultural custom that is spreading to South Africa is Black Friday, and there the transmission mechanism is clearer — it’s spread by retailers trying to lure people into their shops to buy stuff they don’t need. In the USA it happens on a day that has some local significance. In South Africa it is a day that has no significance at all. It is a case of inappropriate cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation? Five students at the Anglican Students Federation annual conference at Modderpoort in the Free State, July 1964.

In South Africa we have become more relaxed about cultural mingling since the end of apartheid, but Canadians, in particular, seem to get very twitchy about it, and seem to think that it always a Bad Thing. I think that some forms of cultural appropriation are bad. One of the academic American imports that I think we could well do without is Whiteness Studies, which promotes racism, and falls under the general umbrella of Grievance Studies. It seems to be part of a discipline called Identity Studies, which seems to operate on exactly the same premisses as the apartheid policy of the National Party.

But back to Halloween and the question about it on Quora.

There are lots of other questions about Halloween on Quora, like Do they dress up for Halloween anywhere in Africa? Well, maybe, but not in any parts of Africa I’ve been to on Halloween

And then there’s this one: Since Halloween was originally a pagan holiday, is it cultural appropriation to celebrate it?

And that is based on a false premiss, a factoid.

The very name “Hallowe’en” should indicate that it was originally a Christian festival, which pagans are trying to appropriate. For more details on that, see Who stole Halloween?

I suspect that the question of who is appropriating whose culture will remain a vexed question for many years to come.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 30 October 2018 9:10 am

    When I grew up in the Netherlands in the 1960s, we celebrated the feast day of St Martin of Tours in a similar way: less dressing up, but the same begging for sweets. This in a nominally Protestant but rapidly secularising area. I’ve been away too long to know the current state of this celebration, but apparently it still survives: https://nl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sint-Maarten_(feest)

    • 30 October 2018 11:55 am

      Ah, Martin! the patron saint of conscientious objectors! I have a soft spot for him

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