Wednesday, October 31, 2007

What Halloween's about

When I was growing up in the UK, for the couple of weeks before the 5th of November, Guy Fawkes' (or Bonfire) Night", you could be fairly sure if that if there was a knock on the door in the early evening it would be kids dragging a scarecrow-like figure around with them and asking for a "penny for the Guy." Not 'guy' as in 'bloke' or 'man', but Guy Fawkes, the man who is infamous for being one of those who tried to blow up the houses of Parliament in the year 1605. The 'pennies' the kids were asking for were usually to buy fireworks for Bonfire Night. My siblings and I were never allowed to participate in this ritual. My parents bought the fireworks and certainly would not have approved of us begging for money in that way.

Over the years, because of safety concerns retailers have stopped selling individual fireworks and age restrictions have been introduced so that children can no longer buy them. The tradition of asking for money seems therefore to have carried over to the 'new' tradition in the UK of trick-or-treating. I've written here before about how in the 20+ years since I left the UK, Halloween has claimed a place in British culture and I bemoaned the homogenization of cultures. But wait - it seems the British have added their own small twist to the tradition of trick-or-treating. I had heard my mother mention it, but was not sure whether to believe her. Today I read on the BBC site about how
On Halloween in 1986, the House of Lords debated the "recently imported trick-or-treat custom of demanding money on threat of playing a nasty trick, now being used by youths to obtain money from old people and others.
Their lordships saw trick or treating not as a tradition, but as American for begging.
I get the impression that there are many who go out trick-or-treating in the UK prepared to 'trick' - throw eggs at cars or commit other acts of vandalism. I have never seen that happen here in the US. In some communities I've seen 'TP Night' celebrated the night before Halloween, when kids throw large quantities of toilet paper at trees, but I've never seen any really damaging vandalism. This year the kids here were particularly polite. Although some of the kids had pillow cases for their candy, none were particularly greedy, and almost all asked if we were offering them one candy or more than one. Even the older kids, though noisy as they moved from one house to the next, were unfailingly polite and had made an effort to dress up.

On National Public Radio this morning there was a report about how Halloween is the 4th most commercial 'holiday' in the US nowadays (the others being Christmas, the SuperBowl, and New Year!) It seems that one way or another, it's all about the money.


Anonymous said...

They do Trick or Treat here in France but in the few years we have been here the custom seems to be diminishing.
At first, the children enjoyed dressing up but there have been fewer of them about in latter years and less effort put into their costumes and make-up. Last year it rained so no-one braved knocking on doors. This year I had three rings at the doorbell. The children were all polite and carefully took just one sweet until I invited them to have a handful.

Anonymous said...

Hmm I heard it was second, commercially.

But yes, the 'nastiness' of Halloween at 'home' doesn't appear to have crossed over.

Anonymous said...

My mother told me that they didn't do the "treat" part of Halloween until people got tired of the "trick" part. I've never researched this, but I've thought about it when watching "Meet Me in St. Louis" where the kids dress in costumes and throw flour in adult's faces, thereby "killing" them. If they didn't go trick-or-treating in the 1940s, when she was a kid, when did it start? Maybe some day I'll be curious enough to find out.

Almost American said...

Sablonneuse - how does one say 'trick-or-treat' in French?

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