British Guide: Halloween

Posted on October 31 2018

British Guide: Halloween


Halloween, a night when ghouls and goblins take to the streets, and the only known occasion where parents actually encourage their children to accept candy from perfect strangers.

For many Halloween is a quintessentially American occasion, for others, it’s yet another example of a British idea stolen by our US cousins and injected with coma-inducing levels of sugar, much like breakfast cereal and remakes of British TV programmes. Halloween however, is neither British nor American, but actually descends from the Celtic festival of Samhain (Sow-In) a night when the line separating the realm of the dead from the world of the living was believed to become so thin that evil spirits could cross over at will. To scare them away, villagers would dress in macabre costumes and leave offerings of food outside their homes, while Celtic druids sacrificed animals upon a large fire. As this fire was soon choked with the charred remnants of fluffy offerings it became known as a bone fire, and later a bonfire.

Eventually, however, the Catholic Church arrived on the scene, and in order to make itself more marketable to their new audience, they incorporated many of Samhain’s strange traditions into the festival of All-Hallows Day, or All Saint’s Day, with the night before becoming known as Hallowmas Eve, and then finally shortened to Halloween. From there millions of Irish immigrants took the concept to America, where before long the entire country was having the kind of fun the British have always secretly frowned upon.

Despite the shared origin, Britain and America each approach the occasion differently. In Britain, for instance, it was traditional to hollow out and illuminate a turnip, whereas America’s lack of turnips - surely a factor for Irish immigration in the first place - caused the sweeter and more commonly available pumpkin to take its place. Likewise, the concept of trick or treat divides the nations. Whilst the treat part is fairly universal, Britain has no answer to the trick part, and whilst their American counterparts might unleash a rampage of toilet paper or a well aimed barrage of eggs, British children are more likely to a) cry or b) congregate into a confused-looking huddle, followed by half-hearted promises to return at some unspecified juncture.

The biggest difference, however, is in the amount of effort put into Halloween. America spends an eye-watering £5.3 billion on Halloween - with nearly a quarter of all candy sold across the nation each year reserved for the occasion, compared to Britain’s more thrifty £283 million. Nowhere is this disparity more evident than in the nation’s costumes, and whilst Americans might spend hours creating a mobile work of ghoulish art, in Britain, what was intended in a parent’s mind to look like a Disney princess, will certainly resemble the work-wear of a cost-efficient prostitute by the time it’s finally ready.

Despite this, Britain has grudgingly readopted Halloween in all its sugary glory, and though we might pretend to hate it - and spend most of the night hiding inside with the lights off - deep down most recognise that if all it takes to keep the excitement in a child’s eye alive is a snack-sized Mars bar and a semi-aflame gourd, then it really is a small price to pay.

For beautiful books and unusual presents, head to the Bluebell Abbey shop and see our lovely range of quirky British made products and classic novels.

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