The Latest from Mind The Gap
As if getting to grips with a multitude of new Christmas customs wasn’t already a challenge for Brits in America, […]Read Now
Toby Whithouse, creator of BBC AMERICA’s 1970s-set spy drama The Game and the original U.S. Being Human, joined us, tweeting […]Read Now
Before we really get into it, 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 17th 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 (the Welsh do it at New Year), 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.
How to Appreciate an All-American Halloween
Five Birth Traditions of the British Isles (Some Of Which Are Disgusting)
5 Things Only A British School Kid Would Know
The 20 Rudest Places In Britain
See more posts by Fraser McAlpine
Fraser has been writing and broadcasting about music and popular culture for over 15 years, first at the Top of the Pops website, and most recently for the NME, Guardian and MSN. He also wrote BBC Radio 1's Chart Blog and reviews albums for BBC Radio 2.
He is Anglophenia's current resident Brit, blogging about British slang and running around the Mall taking snaps of the crowd at the Royal Wedding, as well as reigniting a childhood passion for classic Doctor Who and cramming as much music in as he can manage.
Fraser invites you to join him on Twitter: @csi_popmusic