Right, so I’ve got to capitalise on the season and write some seasonal posts. The next seasonal fun in store is Halloween. As I grew up in America, I think I have an unusual perspective on the whole thing.
First I should explain that I’m one of those immigrants who is more British than the British. I have a deep love of my hard-earned crimson passport and I embrace British culture wholeheartedly. I’ve assimilated. I can’t really change my accent, but I can choose to say trousers instead of pants. I know my aubergines from my eggplants and I never, ever talk about fanny packs (mind you, I’ve not even considered wearing one since the early 90s, but I saw a 6th-former wearing one today so maybe they’re back).
I drink real ale. I drink my tea with milk and would NEVER heat the water for it in a microwave (a popular American pastime). I am good at queuing. I am willing to accept less than impressive customer service because I wouldn’t like to make a fuss. I think baked beans are perfectly acceptable to eat at breakfast time.
But one time of year when I am entirely and unashamedly American is when it comes to Halloween. My childhood memories of getting dressed up and going trick-or-treating are among the best for me. I may have made a few dodgy costume choices as a pre-teen which got me teased at school, but the sweets (you see, I said sweets, not candy) made up for it.
I’ve been shocked over the years to find how resistant some British people can be to aspects of Halloween that they consider to be American imports. A recent Telegraph article quotes survey results stating:
Some people have negative impressions of Halloween, seeing it as an “unwelcome American cultural import” (45 per cent in agreement). Furthermore, not everyone is convinced that “trick or treating” is harmless fun for the kids (33 per cent).
So here is a bit of history to put Halloween in perspective, and an explanation of why people really ought to lighten up and embrace the fun of Halloween.
A Halloween history lesson
Contrary to popular belief, trick or treating is not wholly an American invention, and Halloween has a long provenance in the UK.
Halloween originally comes from the pagan ritual of Samhain. Celts believed that the dead would return to earth on Samhain, and they would wear “costumes made of animal skins to drive away phantom visitors” (History.com), and leave offerings out for roaming spirits.
After Christianity came along, Samhain got replaced by All Souls’ Day, in which people honoured the souls of the dead. Halloween is All Hallows’ Eve and is part of the All Soul’s Day vigil. In the middle ages, part of this festival involved “souling”, in which children and poor adults would dress up and beg for food and money by singing songs and saying prayers on behalf of the dead (Today I Found Out). Sometimes, people would even cross-dress while they prayed for fertile marriages during Hallow Mass.
The “trick” part of Trick or Treat also has more British origins than one might think. You may be familiar with “Mischief Night” in which traditionally young people played pranks and even damaged property on 4 November – the night before Bonfire Night (The Guardian). Leave it to the Americans to take something the British invented, slap a shiny name on it and sell it back.
Trick or treating is safe and fun for kids
Lots of people worry about the safety of Halloween for kids, but with the correct precautions there is no reason to worry about this. No one had more protective and cautious parents than me and I was still allowed to go trick or treating, with my parents when I was very young and with a group of friends as a pre-teen. There were simple rules:
- Don’t go to houses that haven’t turned on their lights and added some sort of decorations.
- Don’t go inside anyone’s house.
- Stick with your friends or a responsible adult.
- Don’t eat any sweets until parents have checked the wrappers for structural integrity, stray razor blades and/or poison (urban legend).
I was never allowed, nor was I interested in, performing any “tricks”. As far as I know, almost no actual trick or treaters do this. Adorning houses with toilet paper and throwing eggs are for bored teenagers who will find any excuse.
And kids just love trick or treating. What’s not to like about accumulating sweets? I took my older son out for the first time last year (at age 3), and I’ve rarely seen him quite so excited. He’s been counting down the days until autumn so he can go again.
Plus, I think trick or treating is good for children’s people skills. It takes confidence to knock on someone’s door and present yourself politely to be provided with sweets. When I took my son, I was so proud the way he said “trick or treat” with a smile and always remembered to say thank you.
Halloween is good for the community
I’m lucky enough to live in a little village where people have some semblance of community. We come together to prevent anti-social behaviour that ruins Halloween for everyone, but we can also come together to celebrate it. Besides the grownup fancy dress parties at local pubs, which often raise money for charity, there is a general festive feel on Halloween night in my village.
Not everyone participates, and that is respected, but lots of houses are lit up with jack-o’-lanterns. Some people even make little haunted gardens for people to walk through on the way to the door. The adults enjoy chatting at doors and while they pass each other on the streets.
Some people really resent the notion of being expected to provide sweets to children. No amount of British acculturation can get me to understand why anyone wouldn’t enjoy making children happy with such a simple gesture. I get excited to hear a knock at the door and see their smiling excited faces.
Dressing up is fun and not scary
Children love dressing up and role play anyway, so why not have a whole day that gives them an excuse to enjoy it? Fancy dress fosters imagination and creativity.
The thing that really confuses me is that many British people think you HAVE to dress up as something scary on Halloween, and that not doing so is uniquely American. However, my history lesson above describes a long history of non-scary Halloween outfits.
When I took my son to his school “Pumpkin Party” this year, I saw no less than 10 little skeletons waiting outside. Boring! My son was a completely non-scary fireman. He got to dress up as a hero! And someday, I’d like to think that he’d be perfectly free to dress as a burrito.
So get carving
According to this interesting history of the Jack O’ Lantern, the practice of carving them comes from a rather creepy Irish folktale about a jerk called Stingy Jack. Originally, in Ireland and Scotland, people carved faces into turnips and potatoes to ward off Stingy Jack and his unsavoury mates. When the custom came to England, they used beetroot, which sounds very scary indeed.
Using pumpkins is an American import, but they are clearly more fit for purpose than turnips. But if it makes you feel more British, go ahead and use some other sort of root vegetable. Or even branch out and use an alternative squash.
The point is, Halloween has a long tradition in this country, even though traditions have grown, changed, and been influenced by other cultures. So, turn off your lights, dress normally, and keep your sweets to yourself if you like … but Halloween is just as British as baked beans at breakfast.
How do you feel about Halloween? How do you celebrate it (or not) in your family?