If you believe the media, we didn’t celebrate Halloween here in the UK before the yanks inflicted upon us both their unpalatable orange monster (no, not that one – I mean the pumpkin) and their apparent legalisation of child thuggery in the name of trick or treat? For the many of us here in Scotland who remember the last day of our childhood Octobers with fondness, the very notion of Halloween as “only American” is almost guaranteed to leave us fair birlin’ in oor graves. Halloween is ours, we cry in a variety of accents and dialects. We took it to that lot over there across the Pond. Not the other way around. It wisnae yous at a’.
Why then, in the face of anecdotes from old fogeys like me, do many people over here think that Halloween is a recent American import and not something that was a thing here? Why do they suggest it is little more than a cultural appropriation? Well, cultural appropriation comes into quite considerably – just not in the way you might think.
For historical evidence of Halloween being a “thing” in Scotland, need we look further than the work of one Robert Burns, Scotland’s national bard? In the late 18th century he wrote about the myths, legends and traditions associated with Halloween in Scotland. His poem – somewhat tellingly titled ‘Halloween’ clearly indicates that there was such a festival in Scotland, and it featured all the usual suspects of the superstitions, witches, spirits and fire.
But what makes Burns’ account of a Halloween in Scotland even more important is that the poem was written in 1785 – a mere nine years after the land we now call America was born. Add to this that Burns’ poem mentions many Ayrshire Octoberly customs and traditions, and we clearly see that Halloween had been around for quite a while prior to that.
And the Celtic connections don’t stop there: the origins of Halloween can be traced even further back to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain. Marking the end of summer, the taking in of the harvest and the beginning of the dark cold winter, the festival also symbolised the boundary between the worlds of the living and the dead as the Celts believed that on the night of 31st October, the ghosts of the dead would walk again amongst them. To ward them off, large bonfires were lit in each village and town. Hearth fires in people’s homes were put out before this and new fires were then lit from these great bonfires. The origins of the Halloween costume is also seen at this point as people dressed up as strange creatures to frighten away the evil spirits.
And then, interestingly, we do start to see the early examples of cultural appropriation; and none involving the big land across the Atlantic. First, the Celts traditions became intermingled with those of the Romans, including Feralia, a day in late October when the Romans traditionally commemorated the passing of the dead, and a day at the beginning of November to honour Pomona, the Roman goddess of fruit and trees. The symbol of Pomona is the apple, and this might just explain the tradition of bobbing or dooking for apples that is practised today.
The second cultural appropriation was when the Christian church started to amalgamate pagan traditions into its own – no doubt in an attempt to appease the locals on one hand but to exert some control on the other. It appears that in Britain we were celebrating All Hallows Eve (from which we get Halloween) on October 31st and All Saints Day on November 1st by the 8th Century. The church also made November 2 All Souls Day, a day to honour the faithful dead. In addition to masses, the time was also celebrated in a similar way to Samhain with big bonfires, parades, and dressing up in costumes – albeit this time as saints, angels and devils.
And so to more modern times of my own childhood, growing up in the 60s and 70s. Halloween bonfires were replaced by “neep lanterns” which were made by scooping out a turnip and cutting through the skin to create a face. A candle was then placed inside to make the lantern. These lanterns are also supposed to ward off evil spirits and are a fond memory of my own childhood. My other memories – consisistently backed up by those of my Scottish friends – are of dressing up and going guising (or galoshins) round the neighbours where you were expected to do some sort of a party piece to earn your treat of monkey nuts and tangerines rather than shed loads of Haribo. If you were very lucky you got a threepence or perhaps even a sixpence. Our party pieces included reciting a poem or singing a song, although the telling of bad jokes also featured. It never occurred to us that we might be able to extract money or sweets from complete strangers by threatening to throw eggs at their windows, and I am mightily reassured that the kids next door who visit us on Halloween still do their wee turn. The fact that the jokes quite often embarrass accompanying parents rotten is an added bonus.
And indeed we would never have considered going to the houses of people we didn’t know, seldom in fact moving outside of your own street. You went to the neighbours, and there were also those in the street who would welcome you in even if they cursed you for accidentally kicking a football into their gardens at other times of the year. There you would often get to play fun games like dooking for apples, trying to eat treacle scones on a piece of string without using your hands, and my mother’s speciality; getting poor weans to stick their heads into a bowl of flour in search of a Malteser.
Yet my English friends report that Halloween per se wasn’t celebrated in England. The north of England on both sides of the Pennines indulges in something called Mischief Night on 31st October which may or may not involve dressing up. But for many in England the main festivity at this time of year was Guy Fawkes Night – often called Bonfire Night. Kids would, appropriate their Dad’s old suit and hat and stuff them full of straw to make a guy which was then carted around the streets with the sign “penny for the guy” attached. On November 5th, the guys were thrown on to a bonfire and burnt to the accompaniment of fireworks and sparklers.
The history of this is factual rather than superstition-based like Halloween. In 1606 the English government passed the Observance of 5th of November Act to ensure that the populace remained grateful for the failure of Catesby’s plot to blow up the English parliament and with it King James VI. Few would doubt that the festivity has its origins in an early outburst of religious persecution given the anti-Catholic basis for the whole sorry affair. But that is for another debate, along with the issue that maybe the plotters had a point – I rather suspect many in Scotland were only too glad to offload Jamie to England. What is far more relevant is that this was an almost entirely English affair which perhaps explains why England went down the route of celebrating November 5th rather than the Halloween of its Celtic neighbours. Even more interestingly, prior to the Declaration of Independence, our friends in America also celebrated November 5th. But not Halloween – that was in fact exported to the fledgling States a century or so later by Irish and Scots emigrants.
So what has happened in the last decade or so to change the situation? In my view it is all down to a third and to my mind far more insidious cultural appropriation of Halloween: that carried out by the retail industry in particular the big supermarkets. I rather suspect that when people say Halloween wasn’t celebrated until recently what they really mean is that it wasn’t commercialised until then. And boy has that been a game changer. Halloween is now the third largest retail fest, coming after Christmas and Easter. Brits will spend a staggering £300million at Halloween (as compared to a mere £12million in 2001) on costumes, decorations and sweets and other foodstuff. Even some poor household pets get gussied up for Halloween these days. (Buddy, you are quite safe)
Perhaps we had been more exposed to the movies and TV from across pond but nowadays the influence of American culture has certainly made itself felt and that, I believe is mostly the result of aggressive marketing by the big supermarkets. I and several friends loved the Peanuts works of Charles M Schulz as kids but they didn’t make us believe in Linus’ Great Pumpkin or want to indulge in Trick or Treat along with Charlie Brown and Lucy. If I were being cynical I would suggest that the fact that timing of this version of Halloween might just be telling as it coincides with the take over of ASDA by US supergiant Walmart in or around the year 2000.
I am certain this is when we started to have an Americanised version of Halloween and perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the pumpkin. TV gardening guru Monty Don claims that hardly anyone grew pumpkins in the UK twenty years ago. Yet a staggering 15 million pumpkins annually pop up in fields kept solely for their cultivation. They are destined mostly for the Halloween market, predominantly for use as decorations and mostly because pumpkins have usurped turnips for lanterns. Few are actually ever eaten and The Guardian estimates the UK will bin 8 million pumpkins after Halloween, which is the equivalent of enough pumpkin pie to feed the entire nation, research has found. At least our American cousins actually eat theirs.
So who gave what to whom? It is true is that the UK and the US both developed their own versions of the festival. And equally true is that fact – as should be perfectly obvious to anyone with a brain cell – is that what has been “imported” to us Brits in recent years is simply several aspects of the US version. I fear that in our haste to laud all things Murrican, we are slipping into the Trick or Treat incarnation of the festival and losing sight of our own perfectly good traditions. I for one think this is a great shame, not the least because our traditions teach kids that their treats have to be earned and not extorted with thinly veiled threats and on occasion actual vandalism.
So don’t tell me Halloween is an American thing. It isn’t. It was ours way before you were even born America. I am perfectly happy with our guising, thank you.
Trick or Treat? Aye, that’ll be right. Tell us another joke.