The masks we wear

day-of-the-dead-1868836_1920Another Halloween is done and dusted except for putting all the decorations away. For years I’ve thrown parties for friends and for my girls and their friends. This year was no exception. Our parties have become a bit legendary and are a mix of fun, dressing up, and silliness, tossed with a bit of gruesome and grossness.

Who doesn’t like a bit of that? Kids love it. Adults not always.

It’s funny. When we are kids we see things fairly clearly. We don’t put a lot of meaning or external crap on anything. We just take things at face value. As we get older, we are quick to judge or express our opinions, often without educating ourselves beforehand.

I often hear from people that I throw a great Halloween party because I grew up in the United States originally. I also get a lot of flack from other people about ‘bringing American ideas to Australia’. And I’ve even had people tell me they pray for my soul because I celebrate a pagan holiday.

I have to laugh at those ideas. Maybe I do throw a good Halloween party because I grew up in the US. But I never had a Halloween party in all of my growing up years. I think I just throw good parties in general. It’s one of my special gifts.

And as far as bringing either American or pagan traditions to Australia, I have to shake my head. Most of the people complaining about Halloween have Netflix accounts and I’d say the trash on there is more subversive and threatening to society than giving some candy to a few kids one night a year.

Trick-or-treating blossomed in the US, sure. But Halloween and trick-or-treating itself is much older. It originated with the Celts in Ireland, England and northern France and was a night where they believed the veil between the living and the dead was thinned. They lit bonfires and wore masks to hide from death and from the ghosts thought to walk the night before the new year started on 1 November. Once the Romans conquered the Celtic areas, these traditions were melded with Roman beliefs and festivals that also involved the dead.

Over the passage of time, Halloween on 31 October, All Saints Day on 1 November, and All Souls Day on 2 November have been linked and different cultures found different ways of marking the occasions and remembering the link between life and death. My Swedish dentist told me this week that back home in her parish, the names of the dead are read out in church and everyone in her village places candles on the graves. Graveyards are beautifully lit by candlelight across Sweden each year.

Many ancient cultures have festivals honouring the dead and the spirit world. It doesn’t surprise me that with so many different cultures blending together in the United States over the past 250 years, that Halloween survived there. Unfortunately, like many things in the US, it has become over commercialised with one quarter of the candy sold in the country each year, sold for Halloween.

The trick-or-treating and Halloween of today is a commercial, glamorisation of the original purpose of Halloween. Who wants to celebrate or be reminded of the dead, right? It makes us uncomfortable. And too often, when something is uncomfortable, what do we do? We dress it up. Put a mask on it. That’s one way Halloween has morphed into a commercial candy dispenser and profit maker for the chocolate companies rather than what it was originally designed for.

Dressing something up or masking it to make it more palatable has become normal, hasn’t it? We do it every day to avoid facing the things that are difficult or ugly or that we just don’t want to face.

Last Saturday night my youngest daughter’s Halloween party was attended by a number of her friends who had never been to my house. I’ve heard about many of these girls (yes, they were all girls) and I looked forward to meeting them in person.

They were lovely, typical 14 year old girls. They all had made an effort with their costumes and enjoyed the games that we played and the spooky supper served. There was a lot of drama (as there can often be with 14 year old girls) too.

I enjoyed watching them interact. At fourteen, they are no longer children, but not yet adults. They are swimming in hormones, trying to determine how to act, what to look like, how to dress, how to talk, how to be — so they won’t be laughed at and ridiculed by their peers and others. They still have some childhood innocence around them. And they haven’t fully learned how to wear the masks that adults wear to protect themselves from the outside world.

For we do wear masks as adults. Every day. We put them on to protect ourselves from life, from others, from ourselves. We don’t allow ourselves to just be who we are. We are often too scared to show our real selves. We wear a mask to be polite, to hide our grief or our anxiety, to appear as if we can perform a job that we aren’t qualified for, to be someone we don’t even want to be. There seems to be as many reasons to put on a mask as there are people on this planet. Often we put on masks to make those bits of ourselves that we are unsure of, more palatable to others.

Sometimes we put on our masks deliberately. Sometimes I think we find ourselves wearing masks in situations and we don’t really understand how we got there. I was like that for many years. I wore the mask of superwoman — able to do and have it all. I also wore the mask of a happily married woman as I thought that was what I was supposed to do. I didn’t realise at the time that the masks I wore were hurting me more than helping.

As I watched the 14 year olds and overheard some of their conversations, I was struck by how similar my 14 year old daughter is to my 14 year old self. If I could give my 14 year old self some advice I would tell her that masks can protect you, but they can also keep you from realising your best self. Hiding behind a mask might shield you from disappointment, but it also keeps you from living a life full of love. I would tell her to resist wearing masks for as long as she can.

It’s no wonder that our kids learn to wear masks. Not only do we as adults wear them, but we dress societal issues up in them too. Often we just don’t want to take a hard look at the problems we face or deal with issues that might make us feel uncomfortable.

It takes courage to take off a mask and show the world your real self. But that’s what I’m working on. I’ve realised there’s no one who is better at being me than me (to paraphrase Dr Seuss). I’m trying to show my girls what that looks like. And the more I do it, the more I see the rewards can be great for living without a mask. It allows me to connect with others like me, to live with courage and to live wholeheartedly.

And by the way, for Halloween each year I dress up as a good witch. I don’t need a mask. I just do what comes naturally and perform a bit of magic. That’s my secret ingredient for a great party! 🙂

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