Students, Evanston residents reflect on local Halloween celebrations

Halloween has been a childhood staple for a lot of history. Dressing up in costumes, meeting up with friends and getting candy from neighbors are all common traditions. Its roots lie in a Pagan Celtic festival called Samhain that celebrates the end of the harvest season and the entrance into the wintertime, according to CNN

Historically, Samhain celebrations involved bonfires and feasts. During the celebrations (which, depending on location, took place on Oct. 31 or Nov. 1), it was said that the barrier between worlds was breachable, and spirits could come from one world to another. To protect themselves from the spirits, Celts would dress in costumes of animals or monsters. 

Early celebrations of Halloween in America consisted of children and adults “masquerading” as monsters and demonic beings. Yet, the development of the media and pop culture caused a sway towards less scary costumes and more of a child-like celebration involving dress-up. Halloween became a major money-maker for marketing companies, and in the mid-20th century, companies dedicated entirely to costume production began to emerge. 

Cities across America have been celebrating Halloween with trick-or-treating, dressing up and putting out decorations for more than a century. Elementary schools became one space in which these celebrations were common. However, two years ago, in 2019, Evanston’s own Lincoln Elementary School released a statement saying that the school would no longer be taking part in Halloween celebrations in school. 

“We support our schools that are moving away from Halloween celebrations that include costumes and similar traditions,” says a District 65 statement from September 2019. “We are confident those who are choosing to move away from traditional Halloween celebrations will find new and engaging ways to build community within their schools.”

Allowing Halloween costumes in school has been a matter of debate for many years. To junior Skye Elzaurdia, wearing Halloween costumes is a staple of their year. 

“I went to Baker, which was a private, independent school,” Elzaurdia says. “They were very open to [Halloween costumes. Almost] everyone dressed up on Halloween.”

At Baker, Elzaurdia says, there were guidelines that must be followed in order to wear the costume to school. 

“My past school had a no-weapons policy and no face masks, either. If you go too far, your costumes could come off as scary,” Elzaurdia says. “If you have the right regulations, [Halloween] can be really fun for everyone.”

There has been a history of incredibly culturally insensitive and offensive Halloween costumes. Cultural appropriation in Halloween costumes has been a problem for as long as it’s been celebrated but hasn’t been spoken about much until relatively recently. 

For example, it is relatively common to see culturally insensitive costumes sold in Halloween stores. These costumes are blatantly racist and play into stereotypes of different ethnicities or races. There are other costumes that can be considered appropriation but are more veiled—such as dressing up as a celebrity of another race and using makeup to darken your skin. These costumes actively target almost exclusively people of color and create the impression that someone’s culture is just a scary, funny or weird way to dress.

The Evanston community has had to reckon with these racist infractions in its own way. In 2010, the Northwestern University Dean of Students, Burgwell J. Howard, sent out an email to students addressing a scandal involving a picture of multiple PhD students wearing blackface at a Halloween party. One student wore blackface and a t-shirt with the word “Jamaica” on it, while the other was dressed as a tennis player with blackface and a stuffed bra.

Northwestern graduate Carlton Barzon wrote in the Daily Northwestern about the photograph. “How can someone intelligent enough to be admitted to Northwestern University lack the tact to recognize such a racially inflammatory costume choice?”

At ETHS, though, students have many memories and feelings attached to Halloween celebrations throughout their lives. 

“Halloween allows for a lot of different cultures to show their true colors,” freshman Nathan Greenwald says.

“Evanston is a very diverse place,” Greenwald continues. “[Dressing up] allows people to show their personality and how they feel about certain things and just show themselves.”

“I like Halloween because… you can dress up as whatever you want… You can be whatever you want, which is so fun to me,” Elzaurdia recalls. “It’s such a fun way to escape.”

Halloween celebrations both in and out of school have been a hot topic for years—with the tense political climate we live in today, it’s impossible to say that there’s any one right answer. Is there a way to make Halloween fun for everybody, without making people of certain religions feel uncomfortable and without risking offensive cultural appropriation in costumes? 

All we know for sure is that this Halloween is going to be one for the books—the first one out of a global pandemic. With any luck and any sort of political self-awareness, this Halloween just might be able to be the best we’ve had in a while. So put on your costumes and go buy a massive bag of fun-sized candy bars—it’s Spooky Season! And isn’t there something a bit beautiful about being able to live for a night as a being of your wildest dreams?