TITLE: Halloween Wolf Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: North America
COUNTRY: United States of America
ETHNICITY: Mixed
DESCRIPTION: Buckram Wolf Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Halloween
AGE: ca. 1930s
MAIN MATERIAL: dyed buckram
OTHER MATERIALS: paint

Halloween is one of the major secular festivals in the United States, celebrated on October 31st each year.  It originated in pre-Christian times, possibly among the ancient Celts, who practiced Samhain in late fall by wearing frightening costumes and lighting bonfires in mid-autumn to scare away ghosts. In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III declared November 1st as a day to honor all the saints collectively. The celebration prior to this All Saints Day became known as All Hallows’ Eve (hence the shortened name, All Hallowe’en, eventually elided to Halloween), and involved many of the same traditions practiced by the Celts.

Halloween formerly had many traditions that varied by region.  In modern and relatively homogenized practice, Halloween generally has three main components: costumed parties, “trick-or-treating,” and haunted houses.  Costumed parties are the modern descendant of social activities designed to honor the saints and create solidarity in the community. Children’s parties typically involved games with prizes, such as bobbing for apples and carving pumpkins and other relatively dry squash into frightening “jack-o-lanterns” with candles inside for illumination.  Adult parties commonly involve less innocent games and elaborate decorations to create a scary mood.

Trick-or-treating is the children’s practice of wearing scary costumes to extort candy and other sweets from neighbors. Like roaming goblins, the monsters visiting the house would demand a treat or threaten to play a nasty trick on the neighbor. The threat is of course a formality, as sharing candy with trick-or-treaters is considered a mandatory practice for friendly and community-spirited neighbors. In modern practice, many children have abandoned the tradition of wearing frightening costumes and have leaned toward fantasy characters such as superheroes, princesses, and fairies.

Haunted houses are a relatively modern innovation.  They may be designed and staffed by volunteers or for profit, and generally take the form of a decrepit mansion haunted by ghosts, mad scientists, monsters, the walking dead, etc. The idea is to inspire terror and wonder in a factually safe environment.

In addition, many Americans celebrate by watching horror movies (the release of which Hollywood times to coincide with the Halloween season), and in some regions, most notably Greenwich Village, Manhattan in New York and Salem, Massachusetts, major costumed parades are organized each year.  In many cities, “zombie walks” composed of masses of costumed zombies have been organized as well.

Popular masks and costumes include devils, zombies, skeletons, vampires, werewolves, mummies, witches, pirates, political figures, and characters from popular culture, such as Frankenstein’s monster. However, Halloween costumes can include almost anything, including inanimate objects and abstractions.  The choice is limited only by the imagination of the masquerader.  Masks and costumes depicting offensive racial stereotypes, popular prior to the 1980s, are no longer widely used.

This specific mask, representing a wolf, was made from dyed buckram, moistened and dried over a form, then hand painted with details. Such mass-produced masks were popular among the middle class in the 1920s to 1950s, when they were replaced by vacuformed plastic.

For more on 20th century American Halloween costumes, see Phyllis Galembo, Dressed for Thrills: 100 Years of Halloween Costumes and Masquerade (New York: Harry N. Abrams Inc., 2002).

Click above to watch a documentary about Halloween in the United States.

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TITLE: Marimonda Mask
TYPE: hood mask
GENERAL REGION: Latin America
COUNTRY: Colombia
SUBREGION: Barranquila
ETHNICITY: Mestizo
DESCRIPTION: Marimonda Mask
MAKER: Adelaide Agámez, Barranquila
CEREMONY: Carnival
AGE: 2015
MAIN MATERIAL: polyester fabric
OTHER MATERIALS: sequins; stitching

In some parts of Colombia, Carnival is celebrated with a masquerade that both invokes the protection of forest spirits and ridicules high society. The Marimonda is a character that originated in the town of Barranquila to represent a cross between an elephant and monkey. The costume was created by the poor, who had little to spend on elaborate costumes.  The masquerader formerly wore his cheap clothing inside out with a tie, whistling loudly to insult the ruling class and lazy public officials. Today, gaudier costumes are more common, and the Marimonda mask and costume are commonly made with shiny and colorful fabrics and adorned with sequins.

Other popular Colombian Carnival characters (also shown here) are the jaguar, the little bull, and dog (not shown).  The negra puloy or palenquera represents a joyous black woman, descendant of the freed slaves brought to Colombia, who dances the fandango. Frequently, the negra puloy is not a masked character, but an Afro-Colombian girl wearing red, white and black costume with a short skirt and large necklace and earrings. The Congo is one of the oldest Colombian carnival characters and represents an indigenous war dancer. The dancers accordingly carry a wooden machete and dance in an organized group. The glasses are of course an anomaly, but non-masked Congo dancers frequently wear sunglasses.

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TITLE: Cajun Mardi Gras
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: North America
COUNTRY: United States of America
SUB-REGION: Acadiana, Louisiana
ETHNICITY: Cajun
DESCRIPTION: Burlap Mardi Gras Mask
MAKER: Chris Raymond (Metairie, Louisiana, 1964- )
CEREMONY: Courir de Mardi Gras
AGE: 2014
MAIN MATERIAL: jute burlap
OTHER MATERIALS: steel wire mesh; brass bells; polyester border and fringe; glue; paint; elastic band

In Catholic practice, Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday”) is the last day of celebration of Carnival before the fasting period of Lent. In the Acadiana country of southern Louisiana, the descendants of French Canadian immigrants known as “Cajuns” (short for “Acadians”) celebrate Mardi Gras in a manner quite different from the better known Carnival of New Orleans.  The Courir de Mardi Gras (Mardi Gras parade) occurs in most towns of Cajun country only on Mardi Gras itself.

Masqueraders wear full or partial wire mesh masks and quilted suits with tall, conical hats covered in colorful fabric.  They either ride from farm to farm on horseback or drive as a group in trucks with an unmasked leader wearing the traditional Mardi Gras colors of green, purple, and gold.  When they reach a farm, the captain, who carries a whip in one hand and a white flag in the other, approaches the farmer and asks: “Le Mardi Gras demande votre permission pour visiter ta maison” (“The Mardi Gras requests permission to visit your house”), or words to that effect. Upon assent, the revelers descend and run or crawl toward the house, singing a begging song, then exploding into pranks and comedic antics while the captain tries to subdue them with his whip. The only way to make them leave is to donate gifts or money, traditionally a chicken for the evening gumbo, in which the farmer is invited to partake.

For more on the Acadian Carnival celebration, see the excellent book by Carl Lindahl and Carolyn Ware, Cajun Mardi Gras Masks (University Press of Mississippi, 1997).


A short video featuring Cajun Mardi Gras in Eunice, Louisiana, 2019.

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TITLE: Seneca Hagondes Mask
TYPE: face mask
GENERAL REGION: North American
COUNTRY: United States of America
SUBREGION: New York State
ETHNICITY: Iroquois (Seneca)
DESCRIPTION: Hagondes Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: social control; entertainment
AGE: mid to late twentieth century
MAIN MATERIAL: cotton cloth
OTHER MATERIALS: dyed felt; yarn; thread; shoe strings

The Seneca people belong to the Iroquois League (Haudenosaunee) and inhabited the New York state area before being displaced by Dutch and British settlers.  They maintain tribal lands in the New York area today, reserved by treaty.  Among the spirits familiar to the Seneca is the Hagondes, or “long nose” spirit.  The Hagondes is a trickster, clown, and cannibal who frightens misbehaving children. As such, they have no ritual use, but are instead used as need arises.

In the past, Hagondes masks were made of buckskin, but changes in the Seneca traditional ways of life, including the reduced prominence of deer hunting to tribal life, led the Seneca to adopt new materials in some cases.

For more on Iroquois masking traditions, see William N. Fenton, The False Faces of the Iroquois (University of Oklahoma Press, 1987).

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TITLE: Santa Claus Mask
TYPE: hood mask
GENERAL REGION: North America
COUNTRY: United States of America
SUBREGION: New York City
ETHNICITY: Mixed
DESCRIPTION: Buckram Santa Claus Mask
MAKER: Dessart Brothers
CEREMONY: Christmas
AGE: 1940s
MAIN MATERIAL: buckram
OTHER MATERIALS: paint; flannel hood; cotton batting

Christmas is the Christian celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, the principal Christian prophet, observed on the 25th day of December.  It is one of the most important Christian holidays.  In North American observance, heavy emphasis during the ceremony is placed on the Christian virtues of generosity and charity, expressed in part by gift-giving.  Gifts are left for family members in stockings symbolically hung to dry a chimney mantel or under a decorated tree.

The decorated tree is among the North American traditions brought over from Germany, where pre-Christian peoples had decorated trees with candles to celebrate Yule, the mid-winter ceremony.  To emphasize the additional Christian virtue of humility, gifts were not attributed to the actual giver, but to a supernatural visit from Saint Nicholas, a fourth century Greek bishop, whose image merged with the gift-giving Germanic father of gods, Wodan (Norse Odin), to because Santa Claus.

Like Wodan, Santa Claus has a long white beard and flies through the night sky to bring gifts. Germanic peoples have long celebrated in December by dressing up to represent some form of the Santa Claus character, and the Christians of the United States adopted the custom, primarily to present children with the image of a benevolent old man at parades, shopping malls, and parties.

This mask is an inexpensive, mass-produced buckram version, produced by the Dessart Brothers of Brooklyn, and presumably designed for private parties or home use, better to disguise the wearer. This specific mask was used in a classroom in the Midwest in the 1940s and 1950s for the benefit of school children.

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TITLE: Hopi Koyemsi Katsina
TYPE: hood mask
GENERAL REGION: North American
COUNTRY: United States of America
SUBREGION: New Mexico
ETHNICITY: Hopi
DESCRIPTION: Koyemsi (Mudhead) Katsina Mask
MAKER: Unknown
CEREMONY: Katsina Dance
AGE: mid-twentieth century
MAIN MATERIAL: linen
OTHER MATERIALS: cloth wadding; string; clay

Among the Puebloan nations of the southwest United States, the Hopi people of Arizona and New Mexico are known for their katsina (also spelled kachina) dolls, given to children to help them recognize the spirits that will protect and benefit the Hopi people. These dolls represent masked dancers who have assumed the form of spirits and gods, dancing at ceremonies from the winter solstice (December) to just after the summer solstice (July). The ceremonies especially focus on the planting season and ensuring a fruitful crop.  The katsina dancers perform important religious and social roles in purifying the village, policing Hopi behavior, and in some cases entertaining the audience.  They are also used in adult initiation ceremonies for boys.

Hopi society is infused with religion, in which the katsinam play a major role during half the year.  There are numerous dances and ceremonies involving the katsinam between February and August, including the Powamuya (Bean Ceremony) in February and talangva (summer solstice). Some of these ceremonies are complex, involving night visits by the katsinam to regulate village conduct, adult initiation of boys between 10 and 15 years into the Katsina Society, and dances during the daytime to increase the fertility of the crops and wildlife upon which the Hopi depend.

Both the Hopi and Zuñi nations use the koyemsi katsina. Koyemsi translates roughly to “mudhead.” The character has slightly different meanings to different nations. To the Hopi, the koyemsi represents the first being to emerge onto the earth from a sipapu, which is why he is covered in mud. Unlike other katsinas, he does not represent a god spirit.  The koyemsi appears in most dances and plays multiple important social roles, from policing behavior to clowning. The koyemsi may drum, dance, play games with the villagers, or award prizes for the races and guessing games they organize. For example, a koyemsi leads the Hototöm (racing katsinam), who challenge village men and boys to races in early spring, and he carries food prizes wrapped in a blanket for the winner. Koyemsimu also organize groups of singers, who sing to other katsina groups and bring them gifts.

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