Image of Mask
Image of Mask

Life’s a party mask

Ritualistic, spiritual and religious events often serve another, very important purpose. They bring the community together.

The event may be a birth, or a wedding, or an initiation to adulthood, or installing a chief, or a funeral, or commemoration of a religious holiday. The common element is the gathering of people, to share in the happiness or sorrow, and to bond through common activities that complement the event, such as preparing and sharing food, making decorations (and sometimes masks), and interacting through song and dance.

Many religious festivals such as carnivals and Mardi Gras have evolved to be more a community celebration of life than of a particular religious event.

Simply put, life can be more fun when wearing a mask.

Image of Mask
     Krampus often travels with St. Nicholas in Germany and Austria.
     Today these devilish characters travel in groups with St. Nicholas
     as they run through town on Dec. 5th, the eve of St. Nicholas Day.
     From the Christmas Collection of Val Berryman.

Whatever the original motivation that inspired the crafting of a mask and its subsequent use, one thing is certain …. masks are a very visible embellishment to many celebrations and general partying. From African and Asian religious masquerades, to carnivals and Mardi Gras everywhere, masks contribute to the sense of occasion. They are transformative certainly; but also, they are festive. This communal engagement can be a vital catalyst to maintaining coherence and harmony in the community. It is a human trait that when people gather, they have a tendency to want to socialize, however solemn the motivational event may be.

Masks can appear at the major celebrations that mark the annual cycle. The Carnivals and Mardi Gras festivities are set to a Christian religious calendar. In some parts of the world, Christmas is traditionally heralded by celebrations that included masks. Not only do we see the beaming face of Santa Claus or St Nicholas. In parts of Germany and Eastern Europe, the kindly St Nicholas is accompanied by Krampus, a beastly creature with horns, who punishes children for having been bad. In the weeks before Christmas, young men wearing Krampus masks frighten children in the streets of the villages.

Image of Mask
     Detail of Chinese Lion Dance Costume 2003;
     photograph by Dr. Haggis from Wikimedia Commons

Chinese New Year, a lunar year celebration, is one of the most widely recognized masked festivities. Dragon and lion dances are characteristic of the event. The masked dancers together with the loud noise of cymbals and drums dispel evil spirits and convey prosperity and good fortune for the year ahead.

The great parties of the world may have religious origins, as we see with Carnival, Mardi Gras and Halloween. Yet many of the participants will be inspired to exuberance and camaraderie that has little to do with the traditional intent of the festival. The line between spiritual observance and personal indulgence can become blurred. Masks help blur that boundary, because masks blur the distinction between reality and imagination.

For children of all generations, masks have been an easily accessible conduit for their capacities to create vivid alternative realities. Apply a simple cutout cardboard mask and the child becomes the bandit, the superhero or the monster.

In a world connected by new media and telecommunications, television and film characters can spawn a thousand acolytes in every town around the world. Spiderman masks are worn in Lansing, Moscow and Cape Town; Venetian carnival masks have clones in Sydney, Hong Kong and Amsterdam. Venice has little cultural significance to most of the people of Australia or New Orleans, but masks unite us all. We share the desire to be part of the big celebration.

And even better, to be able to party without shame.


In the digital age, is the mask in its senescence? With so many alternatives to expressing themselves, especially through digital media, will wearing a mask of paper or feathers become all too passé for the young people of tomorrow?

Or is it that the mask is simply evolving with the technology, to metamorphose into other forms that serve the same purpose?

Will the digital avatar be the mask of the 21st century?

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