Halloween is not an American import, says the American import

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 like Clintons in the White House – hopefully).

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?

Two Tiny Hands
Keep Calm and Carry On Linking Sunday
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34 thoughts on “Halloween is not an American import, says the American import

  1. I have to admit that im not a huge fan of halloween but your posts make a number of very good points. For me halloween has always been about harmless fun for the little oens although that was pre-children so utll be interesting to see how I feel once the little ones are a little more grown up and interested in the fuss Emily #FamilyFun

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  2. That’s interesting to read about how some of the Halloween customs that we might think of as being American do originate from Britain. We don’t tend to do anything in particular at Halloween. I do have sweets ready just in case anyone knocks the door, we carve a pumpkin but do it for the World Vision Carve a Heart campaign instead of a scary one and if the girls dress up, it’s usually in non-scary costumes anyway. I don’t mind trick-or-treaters but I’ve not taken the girls trick or treating – if we do ever take them, it’ll be knocking on the doors of people we know anyway. #FamilyFun

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  3. I don’t have a problem with little children who go Trick or Treating with a parent, or even slightly older children who go Trick or Treating with an adult waiting at the gate. What I object to is groups of teenagers or much older children going about in frankly quite scary costumes and jumping out at me from behind the doorpost when I answer the door, so I’m scared witless (this happened to me last year). I don’t take kindly to being frightened in my own house! Having said that, the vast majority of Trick or Treaters are very polite, and one group of older children even accepted apples as a “treat” as we had run out of sweets by then!

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  4. Oh wow I never knew some of that stuff! I have to say though I never understood why in America you can dress as anything, but this helps! My mum and dad were quite anti halloween growing up so I don’t have great memories of it, but I’m hoping to make it special for my daughter as she gets older. #FamilyFun

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  5. HA you certainly have adopted the brush culture! I must confess I am not one for Halloween (oh the brisitsh cliche) I think it is just a cultural thing although I do believe it is on the up and if and when my children are older enough to want to take part I will most certainly do it with them and make a big deal of it for them. Also I had.m no idea about this history behind it, very interesting to know! Thank you for sharing at #familyfun

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  6. As a fellow American, I’m with you on this. Halloween is great (what’s wrong with dressing up and candy?) and you’re right, it has British roots. I have friends who insist on carving a turnip instead of a pumpkin, and while I admire their efforts, it’s WAY easier to carve a pumpkin.

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  7. This is a very interesting read and i didn’t know a lot of this! I love Halloween and I really want to make my children love it (we were never allowed to embrace it growing up and as one of my favourite films was hocus pocus I was gutted I wasn’t american). I feel I am making up for lost time. I love that I now have a comeback to my husband calling it american rubbish! #KCACOLS

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  8. This is brilliant! I completely agree with you and I am British. My husband hates Halloween so I struggle to embrace it as much as my inner American wants to. I am very familiar with the Halloween history you have written here so I know it isn’t really an American import. I didn’t know about mischief night though. I can not ignore the fact that some Americans heat the water for tea in the microwave… Is this true? That really is the stuff of a Britishmans nightmare!
    #KCACOLS

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    1. Yes I have to admit I used to do the microwave tea thing. In retrospect, it really was awful. But of course American tea bags are made of the sweepings from the tea factory floor so no amount of properly boiled kettle water will fix it lol 😂

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  9. I really wish I lived in a community where kids went around trick or treating – I think it’s really hit and miss down here which is a shame as I agree it helps build the spirit of communty! YEs it might have American connotations but I kind of like how much of a fuss is made of certain holidays in the USA… I’m a little jealous! #kcacols

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  10. I take my kids trick or treating. We only go to house that have some decorations and I make sure they are always polite to people. Halloween is great fun x
    #KCACOLS

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  11. I can’t believe Americans microwave water for tea! As a tea lover, it’s making me feel quite ill! Haha! I have always loved Halloween, we went trick or treating every year growing up and always had a pumpkin, it’s certainly become more of an event in the more recent years, which I would say was an American influence. I know the Irish go crazy for it too! #KCACOLS

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  12. Oh I learned so much from this post. I love halloween and so do my kids. It is becoming more popular in Holland now but is not a big thing here (yet!) Last year we went trick or treating for the first time and whilst in the UK i bought costumes for the boys and we can’t wait to go out this year. But we only visit family and friends we don’t go to strangers houses. Thank you for linking up to #EatSleepBlogRT

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  13. we are big fans of Halloween in our house. What kid doesn’t love dressing up? I think part of my daughters enjoyment is the adventure of it, walking around the neighborhood, seeing all the other kids and the decorated houses. Leave it to the Europeans to think they are too cool and sophisticated for something! j/k #KCACOLS

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  14. We are big fans of Halloween here. What kid doesn’t like dressing up? I think a large part of the appeal for my daughter is the adventure, walking around the neighborhood, seeing the other kids costumes and the decorated housed. Leave it to Europeans to think they are too cool and sophisticated for something! j/k #KCACOLS

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  15. I’m literally having a moral debate with myself over this? It feels a little like its begging or a blackmail…but harmless fun can also be had? Hmm do I release the 3yo? #eatsleepblogRT

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    1. It’s so interesting that a lot of people worry about the moral implications! These had never occurred to me growing up in America. I think if you only go to houses that have displayed a pumpkin or decorations then you can’t go wrong. They wouldn’t do that if they didn’t want to. Or with a 3 year old you might just want to visit a few people you know – their legs won’t take it!

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  16. I love all of your ‘British-isms’! Thanks for the history lesson too. We used to have a little place in New Hampshire, and we loved that the entire Fall/Harvest celebration and decorating the porches etc just rolled into Halloween. I’m happy that we now have pumpkins, much more orange and tastier than turnips too! #EatSleepBlogRt & KCACOLS

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