It’s Halloween, everybody. Are you gussied up and sugar-high?
So, I’m not going to go into whether Christians should celebrate Halloween (really, this is a thing—there are “fall festivals” and, er, “Jesus-ween”), or pass out tracts and set up “Hell Houses” (these exist?!), or how concerned you should be about how those fun-size candy bars you got sick on were produced (but, really, read that post).
I want to talk about costumes.
I didn’t have a Halloween costume this year. I thought about dressing as a mime, or as my old homie John Calvin, but I kept putting off costume-hunting. I ended up not going to a costume party anyway, so no matter. I guess you could say I’m dressed up as a TA. Wearing orange for Reformation Day counts for something, right?
Anyway, I’m a costume fan. I dressed up most years as a child. I remember using a pumpkin costume for a few years—it was ideal for Michigan trick-or-treating because it was stuffed with pillows to make the pumpkin part round, like a really, really heavy coat. I was a black cat, a hippie. I might have been a pioneer, but I wore pioneer costumes year ’round, so I can’t say for certain if that was Halloween-specific. My costumes became increasingly haphazard as I got older. The last couple of times I dressed up, I went as my mother. Well, I went as a nurse, but I wore my mom’s old uniform.
When I wore these costumes, it was to go to parties, or to join a group of friends for trick-or-treating followed by candy counting, dividing, and trading. These were times of community and fun.
The tradition of Halloween costumes is not much more than a century old, though according to legend, can trace its roots one or another Pagan/Celtic/Catholic ritual (Christmas trees, anyone?). Some say it was to ward off evil spirits and/or ghosts by altering one’s appearance.
Dressing up is a way to try on different identities, or at least to shade our identities. For me this wasn’t necessarily an act of stepping into the (literal or figurative) shoes of a farmer-hobo, black cat, or hippie, but these costumes give me the permission to be brave and bold, and to laugh at myself until my abs were sore.
Jennifer Fulwiler has a great post on the National Catholic Register blog that’s titled, “What Dressing Up as a Scorpion Taught Me About Halloween.” She writes about how tromping around the house in a sort-of-scorpion costume and laughing about it helped her work through her fear of scorpions—it’s hard to fear what we can ridicule.
This is Halloween as theatre. But Halloween isn’t the only time we dress up. Neither is theatre—though anyone who’s acted can connect with the idea of trying on a different identity: in theatre it’s called “getting into character.” Think about it—what is a costume, anyway? By one definition, it’s “Fashion or style of dress appropriate to any occasion or season; hence, dress considered with regard to its fashion or style” (OED).
I’ve worn several important “costumes” according to occasion and season. Twice now I’ve worn a cap and gown, and next year I’ll do it again with a fancy hood—academic dress is fascinatingly intricate. I’ve worn bridesmaid dresses, and glimpsed the crazy world that is bridal attire. Each Sunday I wear a cassock and surplice along with the rest of the choir.
Liturgical vestments are perhaps even more intricate and fascinating than academic dress, especially if you add clerical dress (or “clerical costume”—which is indeed a synonymous term). I learned this new vocabulary when I came to TEC: stole, alb, chasuble, biretta, miter. Most of my pastors had just worn suits (which are costumes of a sort, too).
I’ve heard many defenses of vestments: they’re an expression of the joy and solemnity of worship—a festive adornment for a special occasion; they’re a symbol of the participant’s position (for instance, the stole as marker of ordination); they cover the personality of the person wearing them in order to emphasize her/his role or function; they mark a continuity with history and tradition; they’re a reflection of God’s beauty. These purposes make sense to me, and I appreciate vestments as part of the symbolic and sensory worship I thrive on (though they, too, can be ridiculed).
Symbolic and ceremonial as these life-costumes may be, they also involve playing with our identities. By donning something with symbolic import we mark ourselves as “graduand” or “doctor (of philosophy)” or “bride” or “priest” or “deacon.” The costume doesn’t make us any of these things—our actions and decisions and long hours of living do that—but it marks us. We work at fitting into the role, like we work at fitting into mortarboards or girdles or plastic collars.
So the next time you put on a costume—perhaps today?—think about how you’re being shaped. Are you laughing at your fears? Loosening control and stepping outside your comfort zone? Accepting the responsibilities of your vocation? Marking a great accomplishment or sacred vow? Being “in costume” can be fun and funny and clever. It can bear a correlation to massive candy consumption. It can also tell the world who you are, what you’ve done, and what’s important to you. What is your costume saying?
What was your best Halloween costume? Best “costume” in general? Do you wear a “costume” for any aspect of your vocation/occupation? Do you feel it marks you or sets you apart somehow?