Dispatches from England: Our First British Halloween – Do the British Celebrate?

 

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As I’m sure you noticed, Halloween came and went last week. I got a lot of questions about how the holiday is celebrated here (or if it is celebrated at all). Here are a few of my observations from our first British Halloween.

  • Trick or treating is not the focus. Yes, kids do trick or treat here. But it is not as widely accepted as it is in the U.S. In other words, most kids where we live don’t. I live on a fairly busy street, and we had one trick or treater that evening (and the weather was beautiful). Where I live, you indicate that your household is participating by putting a pumpkin by your door. I know several families who actually gave their neighbors some candy in advance to give to their kids in order to ensure there was a treat on hand for them.
  • The costumes are spookier and scarier. In the U.S., you can dress up as anything, from a baseball player to a beloved cartoon character to a princess. It’s what the British would call “fancy dress.” But here, the costumes are very much Halloween-focused. Ghosts, skeletons, witches, etc.
  • The grocery stores are trying to make it a bigger deal than it actually is. You can tell that the stores are trying to capitalize on candy, decoration and other related purchases. In fact, the only real decorations I saw for Halloween were in the stores themselves. No home had decorated door fronts, at least not in my village. I did spy the occasional carved pumpkin in a window.
  • There were several Halloween-themed events scheduled, particularly as a draw to get visitors to touristy places, like National Trust properties, farms, and theme parks. And I noticed this weekend that on Strictly Come Dancing, the popular ballroom dance competition television show, Halloween was the theme.

So how did we celebrate? We started the week by buying some pumpkins at the grocery store, which we painted. In the U.S., we would have definitely visited a pumpkin patch for that, but frankly I didn’t have time to research if there was anyplace to go for that near us. Picking a couple up while I was at the store was much more convenient.

We chose not to trick or treat. I wasn’t sure how popular or accepted it was in our village, and I wanted to respect the local culture here. In hindsight, I think we could have visited a few homes without much fuss. We will probably plan to do that next year. Frankly, it’s not all the candy that I missed. It is the comraderie with neighbors that I love about Halloween… your yearly excuse to knock on doors, say hello, and marvel at how much the kids have grown and changed since last year.

Instead, we went to a Halloween party at our village pub. It was lots of fun, with games, stories, pumpkin carving and cupcake decorating. My four-year-old, dressed as Spiderman, observed that the costumes were “really scary” and complained that he didn’t get any candy. Luckily, his grandmother back in the U.S. sent him a package full of some of his favorites (and candy corn for my husband and I, which we don’t have here). So we “treated” him when we got home from the party.

All in all, while it was different than how we would have celebrated in the U.S., it was an enjoyable day. And when asked by friends and family back home if they celebrate Halloween here, my answer remains, “sorta.”

 

Comments

  1. avatar says

    When I was a kid in Scotland we usually had a house party. I remember only going out to trick or treat once, and in order to get something you had to sing or perform in some way.

  2. avatarPhilip says

    It’s the same in London. We had a lot of trick or treating in our neighbourhood, but not so much on our street (just us). Look for a light, a pumpkin and a decoration it’s fair game to knock on the door. We also did a local pub where the adults were having some “beverages” and the kids were playing all sorts of games. Everyone was dressed up and it was very much evil this, dead that, vampires, ghouls, etc. We also do an “American” party every year that is, as you rightly noted that the British call it, “fancy dress”. When we first came 10 years ago, there was hardly any Halloween at all. Today, it’s much more common; but, it’s not the same as in the US either.

    • avatar says

      Interesting to know that it seems to be picking up momentum. (Quite honestly, I’m not that big into Halloween myself, but since my 4-year-old distinctly remembers it, we had to figure out something!) :)

  3. avatarCathy Keathley says

    Just wait….once British stores figure out how many £££ they can make from Halloween, they’ll be all over it!
    Like anything else that’s new & untested, it may take a while…..but probably not too long.

  4. avatarMJ says

    The KCWC is a London Women’s club that has a huge Halloween party every year. Your kids will love it! They’re easily found online. It is a life saver for expats of all nationalities who want to make friends in their new home city.

  5. avatarAmy says

    We lived there about 10 years ago and we did have about 10 to 15 kids each year. They didn’t really dress up though. Just some paint splattered all over themselves to look gory. We sort of stuck out like a sore thumb with my husband’s F-150 truck, so all of our neighbors would send their kids to us to help celebrate.

  6. avatarJulie McCoy says

    Everything American crosses the pond eventually, with the exception of July 4th for obvious reasons :) They even have proms now, which we never had when I was growing up there. I love the custom of Trick or Treating and my kids loved it when growing up in California.

  7. avatarMinerva says

    It depends…………….if you are pagan, then the Samhain festival is important……………..but then it’s a ‘religious festival’, not just an excuse to wander about demanding sweets.
    We have a fire, food, ceremonies & singing………..for us it’s not just entertainment in a daft outfit.

    Glad you have fun your own way……but it must be remembered there is a deeper meaning for Hallowe’en for some of us.

  8. avatarBill says

    Just stumbled across this article and it made an interesting read. I do agree with a lot of points that have been made about Halloween in Britain but I also feel, as is often the case, it’s been overlooked that certain parts of the UK have celebrated Halloween for a lot longer than others.

    Firstly, Halloween (or Hallowe’en) is a Scottish word and I’d recommend reading the Robert Burns poem of the same name if you haven’t already. It does make quite an interesting read.

    Secondly, I can appreciate how Britain might be regarded as only “sorta” celebrating Halloween, that’s because it does only “sorta” celebrate the modern, more mainstream, American interpretation of Halloween. Worth noting also, British people that have always celebrated Halloween will probably recall using swedes, turnips and other vegetables to carve faces in to and so it’s no surprise that people tend to buy their pumpkins at a supermarket or a greengrocers here rather than a pumpkin patch, the fact is we have adopted the pumpkin from the American model of the celebration.

    Lastly, trick or treat! Completely agree, we just do not do it the same here and it’s often frowned upon. That said, the customs of “Souling”, “Guising”, “Mumming” and “Mischief Night” have all had some degree of influence on the ritual of children dressing up and knocking on doors for sweets. I’d conclude that the modern form of Halloween is every inch the American holiday and has in a sense been reintroduced to Britain (in some cases successfully and in others, less so) but I also feel it’s overlooked far too often that a lot of it came from here in the first place.

    • avatar says

      Halloween is not specifically Scottish, it was know all over the British Isles – it comes from the contraction of the Christian festival imposed on the earlier pagan one and called All Hallows Eve – for the same reason as Christmas Eve, Celtic and Saxon festival days began at sundown and the ‘Eve’ was as sacred as the ‘day’. All Hallow’s Eve quickly deteriorated, as such things always do, into the vernacular ‘Hallows e’en’ and say that quickly and you will find where ‘Halloween’ comes from.

      Traditional celebrations differ widely over the islands, as they reflect the various historical cultural heritages. And by the way there is as much Celtic heritage within England as there is within the other nations.

      Here’s a link to the BBC coverage of the ancient customs of England for the ‘End of the Summer” festivals. You might find out why, ‘dressing up and asking for candy’ doesn’t really cut it for us, except in the cities driven by commercial interests.

      http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-29742774

      • avatarBill says

        Absolutely Michele, the regional variations throughout the whole of the British Isles are brushed over far too quickly.

  9. avatar says

    No one seems to have mentioned the fact that Halloween is only five days before Guy Fawkes night which IS a big holiday in Britain. Also, kids go around with an effigy of Guy Fawkes they make themselves singing ‘Penny for the Guy’ people come out and give them money. I think dong it twice in one week is a bit much to expect of ones neighbors.
    I am British from Manchester but have lived in California for over 30 years. One of the times I went back over Halloween/Bonfire Night our friends decided to throw a Halloween party in our honor. I brought costumes for us all. My friends kid who was about 12 at the time wanted to go ‘trick or treating’ she took my kids. My two year old was in a stroller dressed as a cowboy. I guess he fell asleep and hi hat slipped down over his face. When they returned they didn’t have any candy but they had made themselves over 12 quid!

    • avatarBill says

      I deliberately avoided this Lyne as quite a lot of people blame the rise in popularity of the commercialised Halloween throughout Britain for a drop in our love of Bonfire Night. Some of us have truly always observed both. Personally, I’m from the “Pendle witch country” of Lancashire. I’ve always done both Halloween and Bonfire Night and I always will do both.

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