by Katie Antoniou
I grew up with the idea that Halloween is a very commercial holiday, an American import which is simply being used to sell us more stuff, and in asking some of my fellow Brits, I’ve discovered that they also shared this opinion. However, in the last few years I’ve had a few experiences which have changed this perception altogether.
A few years ago I was working part-time as a nanny in a very nice part of Pimlico where many of the squares are inhabited by Americans. To my surprise, come Halloween, the little girls I nannied got very excited and explained to me what a big deal trick or treating was in their area. I helped them plan a little party at theirs before we set off around the neighbouring squares, in fancy dress, with a few parents along too. The surrounding streets resembled some sort of film set- with houses and doorways decorated from floor to ceiling- windowpanes covered with cobwebs, carved pumpkins lining doorsteps and all sorts of frightening props on display. But from within the houses came the warm, welcoming glow of light and the noise of chatter and play- all the homes were happy to receive trick or treaters, with buckets of sweets at the ready.
I suddenly understood what all the fuss was about. In America this must be what has made the holiday so popular- the sense of community, the chance to craft and hand-make decorations and costumes, combined of course with the thrill of the dark-side which fascinates children and adults alike.
It seems to me that Halloween was slightly lost in translation when it came back across the Atlantic (it originated in Ireland, of course with the celebration of Samhain)- we got the commercialism first and only now are the good bits starting to filter through. It’s easy to dismiss Halloween as being a rather silly festival too- unlike other cultures that use the time of year to actually remember the dead as in the Spanish and Mexican celebration Dia de los Muertos or the Chinese ghost festival, for Halloween we tend to steer clear of anything so real, and celebrate rather the ghostly and monstrous.
Some people still seem to be uncomfortable with this- I have a number of Christian friends who find the whole affair rather unsavoury and too reminiscent of pagan traditions. Funnily enough, however, in the area where the children I nannied lived, their local church held its own Halloween celebrations, inviting trick or treaters to get sweets from the church hall, and come in for games and craft activities. Obviously they have decided that the community spirit element of the night is worth embracing.
I spoke to a few of my American friends about what they remembered and loved most about their Halloween experiences back home. A number of them described to me ‘feely boxes’ created by parents for local children- where boxes would be filled with strange-feeling substances which the kids would have to blindly delve their hands into; peeled grapes were meant to be eyeballs, spaghetti was brains and suchlike.
Making your own costume seems to have been a highlight too- my American friend Karla Richards managed to hunt down some pictures from her childhood, including this marvellous refrigerator costume from the early 80s!
Trick or treating goodies range from candy to baked goods and fruit- and I have one account of a neighbour who would give out a little bag of pennies. I was curious about the etiquette of giving money in the place of treats, as my mother and sister recently stayed in a New York hotel over Halloween, where children who were guests were allowed to trick or treat in the hotel itself, and a guest who was unprepared gave my sister 10 dollars. But apart from the bag of pennies exception, I gather this isn’t generally the done thing. Similarly, I’ve yet to hear any account of actual tricks being played if people have no treats to offer- which is reassuring I suppose!
Of course in Britain we also have fireworks and bonfire night on November 5th, which seems to often half absorb Halloween into its folds, with lots of events happening between 31st October and 5th November which embrace both traditions. Here are some of our favourites lined up for this year, that might help you get into the spirit of Halloween!
The Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall is holding a traditional Mexican Day of the Dead party on 30th October, as well as an evening of ghost stories on the 31st and the Bonfire Night Fire Festival on 1st November: http://vauxhalltrust.wordpress.com/upcoming-events/
Drink Shop Do have pumpkin carving sessions all week ahead of their Halloween party.
English Heritage have ghostly goings on for all ages, all over the country:
There are also eerie evening tours at Kensington Palace:
Art Macabre are also celebrating Mexican style- this one’s for adults only though:
The wonderful Ms Marmitelover is holding a fondue night in her garden, round the bonfire on 5th November
And our top tip for buying the best treats- Monsters Supplies in Hoxton- supplying all the best monster essentials from fang floss to tinned Mortal Terror- which comes with a wonderful short story by Zadie Smith. All the tinned supplies include works of fiction by eminent authors sure to ignite your children’s imaginations!
We’d also love to hear about what you celebrate at this time of year, wherever you are in the world- do tweet us @mienmagazine.