Ah, Halloween. The season of sugar and screams. The hour of dread as you bar the door against any costumed moppet that happens to come along with the purpose of demanding chocolate with menaces. Also known in my house as “oh god, not that American rubbish again.” Of course, I’m far from alone in being annoyed by this egregious import from our colonial cousins. Here’s what Fry and Laurie had to say about the tradition of trick-or-treating back in 1989, when the horror was fresh and new:
It’s annoying. It’s irritating. It’s just not British!
It actually is British.
You see, this is not really an American tradition. Not to begin with. I could be cruel and say this is because Americans have no traditions of their own, but this would be untrue (after all, they clearly observe ceremonial shutdowns of their government every twenty years or so).
No, this is a British custom, through and through. Back in mediaeval times, when Halloween was just the eve of Hallowmas, the poor would go from house to house on November the 1st, begging for the soul cakes that were made specially for this festival. In return, they would pray for the souls of the dead and help to get them through purgatory a bit faster. Well, that’s what they said, anyway.
In Scotland and Ireland, though, they had other traditions that went along with this. The old Celtic festival of Samhain, held on very nearly the same day, was all about appeasing the dead at a time when the otherworld came close to reality. People would go house to house, dressed in costumes and pretending to be evil spirits while carrying jack o’lanterns – carved-out turnips with lights in them that were supposed to frighten off evil spirits. If you put these traditions together, you get a practise called guising, in which people wear costumes as well as going house to house demanding cakes.
Guising is known to have been common during the 19th century in Scotland and Ireland. So it shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to find that the numerous emigrants to the US during that century carried on the tradition, substituting the turnip with a North American vegetable – the pumpkin. Somewhere along the way, it lost all pretence at religious purpose and became more to do with treating children to a vast communal game. By the time the prosperous 1950s rolled around, all the old traditions about appeasing the dead were mixed up with horror films, and the soul cakes were replaced by the candy that had become available again after wartime rationing had ended.
It crept into American culture like a zombie plague, and was at last exported back to us in TV and films (remember E.T.?) – our own forgotten traditions, garnished with enough tweeness and orange vegetable matter that it seemed alien and weird.
So when the kids come trick or treating this year, don’t slam the door in their faces. Explain to them the resolutely British history of going around the neighbourhood begging for sweeties, and why they should be proud of their heritage of centuries ago.
Because there’s nothing like a history lesson to get the little buggers to run away and stop bothering you.