Becca Jane St Clair

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happy-halloween-house-wallpaper This morning, I got the chance to speak on BBC Radio Lincolnshire about Halloween as an American now living in the United Kingdom, and it made me think of the holiday growing up.

First of all, a little history about Halloween — Did you know it didn’t originate in the USA? According to Wikipedia, Halloween has Celtic roots in the British isles, specifically in Scotland, Wales, and Ireland. In Wales, they still celebrate Calan Gaeaf on November 1. Halloween was then adopted by Christians as the day before All Hallow’s Day (Hallow in Scots Gaelic means Holy), like many other Christian holidays that have Celtic/Pagan roots.

It’s also interesting to learn that the idea behind trick or treating isn’t entirely American, either. This actually originated in Ireland, where it involved adults going door-to-door in costume, performing a song or play, and receiving food in exchange.

In the United States, the Puritans did not celebrate the holiday, and it was not celebrated at all (as far as historians can tell) until the Irish and Scottish began immigrating to America in the late 19th century and it did not spread beyond their culture until the early 20th century. Even the traditional Jack O’ Lantern carved out of a pumpkin is only a pumpkin because pumpkins were more widely available than turnips, the vegetable used in Scotland for carving lanterns.

Trick or Treating, called guising, continued in the United Kingdom until the 1930s, and first began in the USA in the 1920s. I can only assume it stopped in the UK due to WWII, though I can’t find any information to back this up. The use of the term ‘Trick or Treat’ did not come into use until the 1940s when it first appeared in children’s magazines in the United States. The term guising was still being used in the UK at that time and it wasn’t until the 1980s that the term ‘Trick or Treat’ began to be used here and it’s only become more and more popular in the UK as American mainstream media is imported more and more.

I find it fascinating to learn the holiday and practice has roots in the United Kingdom when so many people in the UK seem to hate Halloween and consider it to be “Americanising” children by celebrating it. Not so much, eh?

Halloween in the US and the UK are different, but also very similar. Like with the idea of Prom, it feels to me that the UK takes the American idea and makes it even bigger — possibly as a result of the public’s exposure to American television and films where most traditions are more over-the-top than they are in general.

While Halloween can have scary costumes, ghost hunts, and haunted mansions; Halloween also has home-made costumes, hayrides, and a lot of traditions associated with harvest and not scaring. In fact, I can’t actually remember my parents ever buying me a Halloween costume. Accessories to go with one perhaps, but most of my costumes were entirely home grown and either made specifically for Halloween or adapted from something I already owned. For example, if I wanted to dress as a black cat, my mom bought me a headband with cat ears and I wore a black leotard and tights for the body and my mom drew whiskers on my face with an eye pencil. I was fascinated with Little House on the Prairie when I was younger, so the year I dressed as Laura Ingalls I re-used my dress at Thanksgiving to be a pilgrim. One year when I was a teenager, my neighbour’s son asked me to take him Trick or Treating and as I had recently had knee surgery I wasn’t prepared and I managed to throw together “absent-minded professor” by wearing my Pajama bottoms with a white shirt and tie, one slipper on the leg that had surgery and a shoe on the other! But in the UK, I feel as though costumes are mostly bought and things are focused more on having scary/gory costumes.

Trick-or-Treating is also different. In the US, you would typically go out with your friends and maybe one parent when you were younger and you would only go to homes that had their porch light turned on. Here, the tradition seems to be a child going out with their parent, and only to the homes of friends/family. This year, I also heard about a UK tradition of putting out a pumpkin by your front door to indicate that you would allow trick-or-treaters, but more often I’ve seen online shares of signs to print that say things like “NO Trick-or-Treaters”, “Do not knock”, etc., and some of those have even been issued by local councils. I think the signs are unnecessary if you go by the rule of “look for a pumpkin”.

One thing I haven’t touched on at all is the idea of tricking or making mischief if you do not get a treat. I grew up in New Jersey, where we called it Mischief Night, but I personally was never involved in causing or receiving mischief, so I really don’t know how prevalent the practice is in the US or in the UK. I do remember being driven around the day after Halloween with my parents and you might see a few trees that had been littered with toilet paper, but not knowing who owned the house or who did the TPing, I don’t know if it was micheif or decoration!

Halloween, like any other holiday, is voluntary. If you don’t like it, don’t participate. Simple. Just please don’t ruin it for the people who do want to participate!


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