Halloween and the Spirits of Pura Vida

On October 31st the holiday of Halloween will make its annual appearance in many of the ex-pat enclaves throughout Costa Rica. Some of the origins of the traditions of this holiday are as much a mystery to the “gringos” that celebrate it as they are to the Ticos who view trick-or-treating, jack-o-lanterns, and the costumed parties with mixed emotions. Yet, in true Pura Vida fashion, Costa Ricans have taken this “foreign” holiday and used it to revive an ancient Costa Rican custom: Dia de la Mascarada Tradicional Costarricense- Masquerade Day.

Halloween originated in northern Europe and what is now Great Britain as the holiday of Samhain-which means, literally, End of Summer. The ancient Celtic people believed that spirits could enter the living world at this time. Apples were left by the roadside to feed lost spirits who had no one to provide for them. Candles and fires were lit to help the dead find their way home and places were made for them at family tables and hearths…

If you went outside at all, you would dress in white or straw to confuse the nature spirits (not ghosts) who may visit the living world. Turnips were carved out to resemble protective spirits and lit with a candle. The tale of Stingy Jack, doomed forever to wander the world with nothing more than such a turnip to light his way was brought from Ireland to the new world and is the origin of the carved pumpkins called Jack-o-Lanterns.

Later, when Christianity was brought to northern Europe by the Romans, the day became known as All Hallows. It began with a children’s parade with the young ones dressed as saints, angels and devils. As a reward for being energetic and excited, those in the parade would receive sweet pastries known as “soul cakes”. Playing tricks on the adults (and on each other) was also part of the celebration. Today, of course, these two traditions have merged to become trick-or-treating.

While Costa Rica did not have a tradition of Halloween, wearing costumes has been an important part of the culture of the land of Pura Vida. As the Spanish brought their Carnival masquerade dances to central and South America, the practice of costumed parties and dances became a part of many celebrations such as marriages, holidays, birthdays and the like.

The Costa Rican people readily adopted masquerade parades and celebrations to mark the various festivals throughout the country. These celebrations, called mascaradas, use giant paper mache’ masks or puppets and parade them through the streets with La Cimarrona, a local band providing music for everyone to dance to.

As the tradition of mascaradas was fading, the Cultural Committee of Awerri decided to provide a Pura Vida flavor to Halloween and, at the same time breathe some life back into the mascarada tradition. On Halloween 1996, a traditional masquerade parade was held and, the following year, the government established Dia dal Mascarada Tradicional Costarricense-the Day of the Traditional Costa Rican Masquerade-to be held on Halloween each year.

So this ancient celebration of Summer’s End when the veil between the worlds is drawn back has become a celebration of culture and joy in the land of Pura Vida merging the worlds of those expats who call it home with that of the Ticos and providing a time of festival and fun for all.

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