Culture NOT Costume

Trick or Treat sign near a pumpkinWritten by: Hanbi Lee, 5th Year Arts and Humanities and Computer Science 

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

This year, being home from school due to the pandemic, I hadn’t planned on a costume for Halloween and consequently, hadn’t even registered that Halloween was coming up very soon. So when my sister asked me for a costume idea for work, I was stumped. After 10 minutes of brainstorming together and not finding any good last minute options, she begrudgingly said, “Why do we even dress up for Halloween again?” Despite it being a rhetorical question, it got me thinking. Halloween was one of those holidays that I never really knew the history of, and I didn’t know why we had the traditions we had, including costumes. Because holidays and traditions are celebrated year after year for generations, we often forget why we celebrate these days and how these holidays were even established in the first place. To quench my curiosity, I decided to do a bit of digging around to see where this celebration originated.

It is a bit of a windy tale, so buckle down for this next bit:

Turns out, Halloween stems from an ancient Celtic festival called Samhain (pronounced sow-in). The festival marked the beginning of a new year for the Celts, who also believed that on the night before the new year, the worlds of the living and the dead blurred together briefly. Part of the celebratory process was wearing costumes, which were made of animal heads and skins back then.

The Celts then got conquered by the Roman Empire, who fused their own traditions that involved honoring the passing of their dead with the Celts’ celebration of Samhain.

Almost 500 years later, Pope Gregory III moved a Catholic feast called All Martyrs Day from May 13 to November 1 and decided that all saints should also be commemorated as well as the Christian martyrs on this day. This became known as All Saints’ Day. Later, All Saints’ Day was followed by All Souls’ Day, which was celebrated on November 2 to honor all the dead. The Celts were also influenced by the growing church, and their festival was replaced with these similar church-sanctioned holidays, though they were still celebrated similarly. By this point, the costumes had evolved into ones of saints, angels, and devils. They did this to avoid being recognized as humans by the ghosts that were believed to be roaming about during these celebrations. All Saints’ Day (November 1) started being called All-hallows or All-hallowmas, which in fact is Middle English for All Saints’ Day, and the night before All-hallowmas started being referred to as All-Hallows Eve, which later evolved into Halloween.

As these traditions were carried on and eventually arrived in North America, it was celebrated as a community holiday, where people in a neighborhood would dress up, have parties, play pranks, and go trick-or-treating (an activity that also has European roots). Because the holiday started off as a commemoration of the dead, the frightening and grotesque aspect remained as an integral part of the celebration, and costumes were a big part of how one would depict such eeriness.

Fast-forward to today, Halloween is a widely celebrated holiday that still involves many of these traditions. But as we attempt to find our best scary or funny costume, it’s possible we forget that the costumes we choose to wear might be appropriating another culture, race, religion or ethnicity.

Cultural appropriation is the act of taking significant elements (symbols, dress, words, practices, etc.) from a culture that is not your own and removing the original context and meaning. This occurs more than we think, especially with Halloween costumes, where we rely on cultural signifiers or stereotypes to deliver the effect of our costumes. For example, dressing up in blackface is never okay. Dressing up to role play a disability or medical condition is also not okay.

It’s easy to think, “But it’s just a costume. I’m not trying to harm anyone.” If you are thinking this, take a second to reflect on why you might be thinking this way. It’s likely that your culture or identity has not been trivialized, mocked, and perceived as “funny”, “scary”, etc. It is this type of stereotyping, where the people of a culture are dehumanized through jokes and caricatures, that also contributes to holding up oppression. In a nutshell, dressing up as an ethnicity, race, religion or culture that is not your own is problematic and racist, especially when we are removing the original context and meaning and/or reclaiming it as your own. It’s equally as important that we don’t dress up as any kind of marginalized or stigmatized group – including people with health issues or disabled people. It is up to those who are not impacted by these situations to work together to ensure that it is not being perpetuated within our communities.

Here are a few places to begin: 

Ask yourself these critical questions about your own Halloween costume:

  • Is my costume depicting and perpetuating a stereotype or stigma associated with a particular race, culture, or religion?
  • Is my costume depicting and perpetuating a stereotype or stigma associated with another marginalized or stigmatized group – including people with health issues or disabled people?
  • Does my costume include a replication of a garment that is a significant component of a particular religion or culture with which I do not identify?
  • Is my costume depicting a historical time-period where that look is now considered offensive and discriminatory?
  • Does my costume represent elements of a culture or cultural practice that is being commoditized for consumption?
  • Can I look in the mirror and confidently say that my costume choice would not be considered offensive?


Respond to cultural appropriation that you see:

  • We can attempt to do better by being accountable and educating ourselves on cultural appropriation.
  • Start the conversation with someone engaging in appropriation. Ask the person why they chose a costume, and whether they realize it’s appropriative and offensive. If you come from many places of privilege, challenge them in practical ways (e.g., share articles written by marginalized folks who write about cultural appropriation).
  • If you are met with negative reactions of those whose identity/culture you’ve appropriated, apologize for any harm you have caused. Do not make excuses and make necessary changes.
  • Continue to assess how you are moving forward. Always be open to learning and encouraging others to do the same whenever possible.


If you are witnessing appropriation of your own culture:

  • You have every right to be hurt and angry. Even if you don't know exactly where the discomfort is coming from, trust your gut. You don't have to speak up against the costume in question. Just know that your feelings are valid. 
  • Find support for yourself and your feelings. This can be a trusted classmate, family member, friend, prof, counsellor, etc. Self-care is very much encouraged whenever possible. 
  • The responsibility of not appropriating an identity falls on the appropriators, whether their intentions were or weren't malicious. 
  • Seek out others with similar identities and experiences. Being able to talk to folks who understand and have also experienced the same situations is often easier and comes with much less expectation to explain things
  • Know that you aren't obligated to educate everyone on why they need to stop engaging in harm. Your time, energy and emotions are your own and you do not owe anyone education or training. It is up to the people grappling with their privileges to put in the time and work to unlearn problematic behavior, and to do so with humility, accountability and persistence.


Even without the need to wear costumes that may be negatively impacting others, there is still a plethora of creative costume ideas to tap into. At the end of the day, it’s better to participate in creating a safe, respectful environment to celebrate this much-loved holiday than wearing a costume at the expense of someone else.

As we attempt to work towards building a society that is more embracing of one other’s various backgrounds, it’s important to actually start integrating what we learn into the seemingly trivial choices in our daily life, even something like what to wear for Halloween.

Published on