Since the United Kingdom is today virtually the 51st state of the USA, through the influence of popular entertainment such as films and TV, we’ve ended up with the tentacles of US ‘culture’ reaching into every corner of British life.
One recent development is the fatuous American spectacle of the High School Prom, where 5th and 6th formers somehow seem to ape the debutante season with girls wearing expensive dresses and their school beaus trying desperately to look like James Bond.
And now, once again, Halloween is upon us, with all its American connotations, such as ‘trick or treat’. We should remember that back when Hollywood was still a patch of empty scrubland and Native Americans still owned Manhattan, 31st October belonged to Europe and especially the British Isles. All Hallows’ Eve was a yearly celebration observed on 31st October, the eve of the Western Christian feast of All Hallows’ Day. It represents the time in the liturgical year dedicated to remembering the dead, including saints (hallows), martyrs, and all the faithful departed believers.
Providing kids and their parents actually stick to the correct day on the calendar, then you’d have to be a complete killjoy to not enjoy the spectacle of little vampires and face-painted witches and demons on your doorstep. A few well-chosen sweets and they’re happy. The night also has a much deeper root, the pagan Celtic festival known as Samhain, when the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead overlapped and ridicule was used to confront the power of death.
The trouble is, last year, there seemed to be about two or three Halloweens. If the traditional 31st October doesn’t fall on some ‘convenient’ day of the week for some parents, it seems that this ancient tradition can be ignored, and you might still be dishing sweets out two days later. One enterprising kid came a week early, giving the reason “Well, next week I’m going on holiday”.
All of which brings us to Guy Fawkes Night. This used to be one night kids fervently looked forward to, 5th November. Now it kicks in immediately after Halloween and goes on exploding every night into mid-November. This abandonment of tradition may seem innocuous, but would we move Christmas, or our birthdays, around in the same fashion?
The true history of 5th November (originally called Gunpowder Treason Day) has also been blurred. Most children think Guy Fawkes was burned on a bonfire. He wasn’t. He was arrested and tortured until his planned execution on 31st January 1606, where it was intended he would be hung, drawn and quartered. Fawkes jumped from the scaffold and broke his neck, thus avoiding the agony experienced by Mel Gibson at the end of Braveheart. What our ancestors were burning on bonfires was not the effigy of Fawkes, but that of the Pope.
In many instances, a break with tradition is a good thing. But I’m a grumpy old Brit, and that’s one tradition I’m sticking with.
Roy Bainton: “Halloween is upon us, with all its American connotations, such as ‘trick or treat.’”