Before we really get into this, can everyone just take a moment to have a look at this video clip?
That’s right, that’s Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie comically trotting out a fairly widespread line of argument among a certain portion of English people, namely that trick or treating is a vile American import, little better than going from door to door begging, and should be banned from our shores in favour (deliberate British spelling) of more traditional Hallowe’en excitements like apple bobbing or putting up a sign that says “No Tricks, No Treats” and sitting in a darkened room with your arms folded, ignoring the doorbell.
However, have a bit of a poke around in the history of this supernatural celebration, and it quickly becomes clear that this is not a case of brash American customs making their way, unwanted, into British households. If anything, it’s the other way around.
For starters, the word Hallowe’en is Scottish, a contraction of All Hallow’s Even, where even means eve, or the day before All Hallow’s Day. It’s a fittingly celtic term—dating back to the 1740s—for a very celtic event, the origins of which go back into the murk of medieval tradition and beyond, maybe even as far back as pre-Christian times, under a variety of different names: Allantide, Kalan Gwav, Samhain.
Essentially, October 31st and November 1st mark the boundary between the end of the harvest period and the beginning of winter, and this gateway moment is marked with customs that were intended commemorate the dead, and ensure that the living would survive into the spring.
Offerings would be left out for the souls of the dead, who would be said to revisit their old homes. Vegetable effigies were created of their faces, out of turnips, mangelwurzels or beets, and in latter years, people would go from house to house mumming (dressing up in costumes and performing songs or skits in exchange for little gifts or treats), and if you were not generous enough to offer food, it would guarantee bad luck for the rest of the winter.
This later lead, in Ireland and the highlands of Scotland, to the playing of pranks on certain householders, in imitation of the more mischievous sprites that were said to be afoot.
So that’s tricks and treats, isn’t it?
Even the bonfires that Brits light on November 5 come from this tradition. They got moved from Hallowe’en in the 17rh century after the famous gunpowder plot to blow up Parliament was discovered. But the purpose of the fire, to protect the community and hold back the darkness of winter, is far older and more significant than any mere act of foiled terrorism.
So, while it is true to say that the English have less of a tradition for visiting households with outstretched hands, their prejudice that this is purely an American celebration of sweets and greed isn’t just snooty, it’s factually wrong. And you know how much the English hate being corrected.
Oh, must go, there are children at the door.
Fraser McAlpine is British. This explains a lot.
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