Every year the same old story. English miserabilists complain about the polluting of our fine British traditions by the importation of the “American” custom of Hallowe’en.
At least Andrew Martin in Monday’s Guardian had a slightly different take on it, saying he remembers Bonfire Night as a much less sanitised, wilder experience than Hallowee’en.
However, Martin says, “The trick or treat component of Halloween was built up in the US because it offered the best merchandising opportunities” and mentions, “the rise of a ruthlessly commercialised, Americanised Halloween.”
Commercialised, yes. But rise? Rise? And built up in the US?
I’m glad he acknowledges that Hallowe’en didn’t start in the US. Yet he fails to mention the widespread practice of guising which (I hope!) still occurs in Scotland and, I believe, in Northern Ireland and the societally embedded nature of Hallowe’en, especially in Scotland.
For this is where the US custom of trick-or-treating must have its roots.
Guising consists in children dressing up – i.e. in a disguise – and going from door to door and then performing a party piece in each house to the assembled household, in return for which gifts of nuts, sweets or, in my youth much less likely, money, were bestowed. The treat was a reward for the performance, unlike in the US where, I always got the impression, no such activity is required.
The essential accoutrements for a guising expedition were the costume, usually lovingly hand-made by a nevertheless harried mother, and a turnip lantern. Note, none of your namby-pamby pumpkins (which are ridiculously easy to carve.) The average turnip took hours to dig out – and the resulting mashed neeps tasted much better than pumpkin ever will.
There were also Hallowe’en parties where people dooked for apples and attempted to eat treacled scones or bread (read that as black treacle if you’re English) which were hanging from a wire, all the while with your hands held behind your back! – imagine the mess you got into – and also the playing of other games not specifically associated with Hallowe’en. Dooking means plunging your head – no hands, remember – into a barrel of water in which apples floated to try to grab one with your teeth or, alternatively – no hands again – dropping a fork from your mouth, tines down, in an attempt to spear one of said apples.
All this in the local Church Hall: so much for the occult! And in staunchly Protestant Scotland too, where even the Catholics become imbued with Calvinism.
When I was young, kids loved all this stuff. I suppose they still do. (My own children are now adults so I’ve kind of lost contact with such things.)
Yes, Hallowe’en is now over-commercialised, but what isn’t? And the guising core of it has been rendered less innocent because of trick-or-treat. The modern age is harsher in all sorts of ways.
I do agree Bonfire Night is less anarchic now, but thankfully so. If you tried to set a buckshee fire now you’d rightly be arrested. In any case most of the bomb-sites these took place in have likely been built on.
Penny for the guy? Not likely.