Trying to understand an art tradition through Halloween can be a difficult topic to research and write about. What Halloween stood for and what it has transformed into, chart a unique and meandering path.
I talked with three individuals, each from different parts of the world, in order to understand how the celebration is interpreted in their culture and how it influences art.
But first, a history lesson on Halloween. Halloween is actually the first of a three-day annual tradition, known as Allhallowtide. Halloween or All Hallow’s Eve, takes place on Oct. 31, and was a Christian or Pagan practice to mock the power of death through humour.
And this is where much of the artistic symbolism can be found. Our contemporary celebrations around Halloween typically have ghosts, skeletons, cemeteries, and other ghoulish delights. But in dressing up in these costumes, we are also participating in the subversion of what these symbols commonly stand for.
Skyla Wayrynen, managing director for the Vancouver Visual Arts Foundation (VVAF), grew up in the Vancouver area. Her Halloween experience mirrors that of many in Canada and the United States, where the dominant view of the celebration comes from today.
“It’s more tradition as opposed to religion, something that’s transformed over the years,” Wayrynen says. “But it’s still, at least in North America, it’s still a significant holiday.”
She says most people no longer know about the religious roots of the day. Costumes are no longer chosen to ridicule death, but are instead chosen to be fun.
Maybe as a holiday, it has lost its religious background, but it is still something that is meant to be communally enjoyed. And this idea of bringing people together for Halloween influences the art traditions we see come out of it. These traditions are then passed down through the generations as a way to keep family together and not for a religious purpose.
This is important to Wayrynen, and it is still significant in her memories associated with the day.
“We both [Wayrynen and her mom] had matching, homemade dresses. And that’s something that I will keep my whole life, and maybe if it fits me and my kid when I’m older, then I’ll probably reuse it,” she says.
“It just makes me think of Halloween,” she adds.
But in other cultures, Halloween is viewed quite differently.
Viviann Daza grew up in Colombia and says as a child, there were no Halloween celebrations.
“There is still the belief that Halloween comes from the Devil,” Daza says. “Some people believe very strongly in that.”
But this perspective has been transformed by the importation of North American culture.
“The newer generation is starting to get this North American tradition,” she says. “They’re changing their values. They say, ‘This is nothing. It’s just wearing costumes.’”
Daza says the artistic tradition of wearing costumes to ward off death is recognized, but people are just as likely to wear one of a “Disney princess” as they would one of a skeleton.
But this does not make Halloween a Western tradition. In fact, many Western countries throughout Europe are similar to Colombia in having only recently adopted the celebration.
Kristyna Burgetova, events manager for VVAF, grew up in the Czech Republic. And rather than Halloween, her culture traditionally celebrates All Souls Day, the third day of Allhallowtide on Nov. 2.
But Halloween has entered into the mainstream here as well through the influence of North American culture. The symbols of spiders, pumpkins and cemeteries are now common.
“We do carve pumpkins and put them in front of our houses. We also dress up and organize Halloween parties, but I would say that it's only the younger generation,” she says.
But for All Souls Day, Burgetova says candlelight is dominant as an artistic symbol of peace.
“The tradition is to go to the cemetery with our family and light up a candle on the grave of our ancestors,” Burgetova says. “It is a nice, very humbling tradition.”
By Nathan Durec