Thinking on the wider issue of new culture and celebrations and my colleagues at History SA and their connection to communities and the cultural celebrations of those communities, led me to reflecting on Halloween once again. Are festivals such as Halloween part of our business in museums? Are they simply something to hang a promotional opportunity off of? A way to make our institutions more relevant to our visitors? Are we passive absorbers, or observers, of these events in the broader community, or do we help to shape them?
As the National Motor Museum Director, there’s not much Halloweenish about motoring, apart from the haunted car trope (think Stephen King’s novel Christine and the subsequent movie ). For the actual Museum, there are rumours of ghosts in the library, but really, what library doesn’t have a ghost or two?
Anyway, I do get on a hobby-horse when it comes Halloween time, and I thought I’d share a piece that I wrote back in 2013, which was posted on my own Blogger account and subsequently picked up by The Advertiser and published on All Hallow’s Eve of 2013…
‘We don’t do Halloween in Australia.’
‘Because we are not American.’
This is an often heard conversation this time of year. So, we don’t celebrate a centuries old pagan festival that has its roots in Celtic culture and is widespread throughout the world because it is vigorously celebrated in the United States and we are not Americans.
Well, I hope you don’t mind me pointing out that this is dumb, a bit numbingly boring and just a little glum. [Irony alert!] All Hallows’ Eve is a Northern Hemisphere cultural celebration and being Australians we should stand by our strong tradition of rejecting such cultural imports, just like we reject those other celebrations from the dreaded north, such as Christmas, Easter, St Patrick’s Day, Valentines Day, Greek Easter, Oktoberfest and Schutzenfest, etc. Hmm?
I grew up celebrating Halloween in Cymru (Wales), or as it is known there – Nos Calan Gaef – the name for the night before the first day of winter when spirits are about and you do the best to avoid them by dressing up and playing games. In general, it is best to avoid churchyards, stiles, and crossroads, since spirits are thought to gather there. Since arriving in Australia in the early 1980s, I have gone about celebrating Nos Calan Gaeaf in my own way, which means generally messing about, going topsy-turvy-like and causing mayhem inside my home and in my community. What has pleased me is the undoubted growth in popularity in Australia over the last decade of the trick or treating component of Halloween. I agree, this has been popularised and commercialised in the United States, but Guising, the Scottish and Irish tradition from the 16th century of dressing up and walking around the village scaring the bejesus out of each other, should not be ignored as a major influence on the great pranking and Lords of Misrule tradition either. So for those that in a xenophobic fit point to the US and scream “J’accuse!” at this time of year, I fart in your general direction.
The problem I have lies with such Halloween deniers who regard the neighbourhood children that come to their door, after making variously graded efforts to dress-up, as nothing other than Americanized zombies of mass consumer culture (although I rather think that the thinking or shouting from behind closed doors is a little less sophisticated than that).
Such people are also likely to bemoan the loss of community and human connection and interaction in our modern age, especially pointing another loosely connected finger at those pesky youngsters with their gadgets, their computers and their screens and their Twitters, etc. Come Halloween, these people seem incapable of recognising the community that they so long for even when it actually comes knocking on their door.
The idea of children parading in their streets, owning the space around them and yes, entering into normally verboten private property and asking for a treat for their efforts is, if nothing else, community building. What is there to fear from getting to know your neighbours and their children a little bit better once a year?
I have yet to bump into the neighbours that two years ago told my children to ‘F*** off, we are not American.’ They only live five houses down from me, but they remain complete strangers.
Every year I see Halloween participation grow in popularity through the trick (usually an idle threat) or treaters – guisers – who are gaining in force. Last year we had more visitors than any other – and my apologies to the little boy that found my mask to be too much to bear when I opened the door – but they do come back, and we are now starting to see the same kids each year and see them change and grow up and we now nod to parents that chaperone them when we bump into each other in the shop down the road. This stuff is the glue that holds a community together. Halloween on its own is not it, but it can be a part of it.
My only regret is that the Australian experience of Halloween has not yet encompassed and taken on the Mexican Day of the Dead (Nov 1-2). I can see an opportunity to really get dark and dirty with the dead for a three-day period starting with All Hallows on 31 Oct and ending with the Day of the Dead on 1&2 Nov. Why not?
Okay, we may be on shaky ground when we get involved in northern hemisphere-based cultural celebrations Downunder. For sure, the winter vegetables are not abundant. But take the snow out of Australian Christmas Cards and turn the lights off on the decorated houses and get the Coca Cola influenced Santas to start wearing something more sensible for the weather conditions and then, maybe then, people can have a crack at Halloween.
With the looming Asian century we should see more Asian-based celebrations coming into Australian culture. The Moon Lantern celebration was little known to the general population in SA until the OzAsia Festival started to mark it in Elder Park. We also have Indofest at Rymill Park in April. Around the same time, Adelaide’s Indian community holds its Mela festival. As mentioned before, spring is a special time for Adelaide’s Chinese and Korean communities and the moon lantern festivals take place to celebrate the equinox full moon. We have opportunities to celebrate Aboriginal culture during NAIDOC Week and celebrate the Anniversary of the Apology on National Sorry Day each year. There’s other European culture celebrated through Carnevale, which is described as the last big Italian knees-up before Lent, and Glendi, the Greek word for party, does it well on a weekend in March when the community lays on a feast of food, music, dancing and art.
These festivals and cultural celebrations are great learning opportunities for children and adults alike. They are opportunities to engage with the community around us. We learn history, we see culture alive, we understand boundaries and traditions and we learn about differences.
With Halloween, the celebration is at your front door. We can all learn from it and hey, you never know, we may even get to know each other’s names.
As museums what’s going on in the broader community can inform our own thinking, planning and connection with the people that make up our museum community. Institutions such as the Immigration Museum in Melbourne build programs around the Day of the Dead and related cultural activities. While for us the connections are not always as obvious perhaps they do provide an opportunity for a connection with our community, if we’re prepared to put out our pumpkins and join in.