For whatever reason, the end of October or beginning of November is a good time for a celebration. Maybe it’s an instance of weather determining destiny; each year it’s a flip of the coin to see whether we’ll get lucky and have one more pleasant evening outdoors, or be unlucky and have our first notice of what winter will be like, sort of a converse to Groundhog Day. Since we’re in the UK, but in an area with lots of US people, we took part in both Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night, and both times got a thorough dose of cold weather. The two holidays are observed in very different ways, but as we’ve recently found out, there are some interesting and little-known connections between them.
Roman wore a pumpkin costume to our Halloween events. At first Elena picked out a pumpkin costume to match his, but then she decided that she would rather be a princess–we were thankful for a good thrift store with a cheap Snow White costume in her size. After one party where she waited in the face painting line but didn’t make it to the front before we went out trick or treating, Jenny put special princess makeup on her before we went out to our second Halloween party. For Roman, we put a lot of effort into teaching him to say “trick or treat” and “thank you” so that he would be able to show off when we went from house to house or trunk to trunk. His mumbles became consistent enough that Jenny and I knew what he was saying, but in the live trick-or-treat environment surrounded by raucous candy-crazed children, his requests went mostly unheard. Since then I’ve noticed him saying and signing “thank you” much more, often without having to be reminded, so that’s a nice benefit.
Our first trick-or-treating experience, which actually took place the Friday before Halloween, was harsh. We made it halfway around the neighborhood loop before giving up due to the cold and wind, when Roman started to cry inconsolably and even our normally warm-blooded Elena wouldn’t stop complaining about how cold and tired she was. We were very grateful for a friend that offered us a ride home so we wouldn’t have to wait an extra hour for the bus. A few days later, the weather was a bit nicer and we didn’t have to walk nearly as far at the church trunk or treat. Elena and Roman built up a sizable stash of candy that lasted until today, even though Jenny and I did our best to help them–mostly Elena–work through it in a timely manner.
Although Halloween has ancient origins, the traditions that we associate with it started to take their current shape in America during the industrial revolution. The English had abandoned Halloween with their split from Catholicism, and America didn’t pick the tradition up until the large-scale immigration of the Irish in the nineteenth century. As globalization backed by American cultural hegemony continues its ascent, and the traditional strength of religion in determining the dates and observances of holy days remains in decline, Halloween is returning to England: in the last weeks of October there were candy displays in stores with spooky lollipops and Cadbury Scream Eggs and some of our neighbors decorated their doors and windows with spiderwebs and pumpkins. It’s not hard to see why Halloween is spreading–it has everything that people in our modern world want in a holiday; it no longer has any overtly religious connotations, it’s easily productized and marketed (candy, costumes, etc.), and is fun for children and a light-hearted escape for adults.
Even though it has evolved away from the strongly anti-Catholic sentiments that used to accompany it, Guy Fawkes Night is unlikely to spread beyond the bounds of Britain. It commemorates the unearthing of the Gunpowder plot, a conspiracy to blow up Parliament and restore a Catholic king to Britain. The night is celebrated by a bonfire and fireworks, but it isn’t just a bonfire, it’s a burning in effigy of Guy Fawkes, one of the plotters. It seemed like the whole town turned out for the bonfire, and it appeared to be a popular fundraising opportunity for the Boy Scouts; there were at least five or six concessions stands run by various local troops. We chose to patronize the troop selling fresh, hot popcorn–theirs was by far the best smelling stand. By the time the fireworks started we were almost out of popcorn, and Elena and Roman had started to send us their telltale we’re cold signals, but we stayed until the end. It was a nice fireworks display, but the spectator who told us it was “pretty much the greatest fireworks display” had clearly never been in even a small American municipality on the fourth of July. Probably the most memorable part of the evening was how muddy we got as we trudged back home with the rest of the crowds, cutting through the park to save time.
Earlier I mentioned a little-known connection between Halloween and Guy Fawkes night. Although the links are tenuous, here is what we recently learned. After the Gunpowder plot, certain parts of England that were still heavily Catholic sought to curry favor with King James, who was very much against witches and had even written a book promoting the denouncement of witchcraft. In 1612 there was an accusation of witchcraft in Lancashire, one of the aforementioned parts of the country, and the prosecution was allowed to proceed. In order to secure some of the convictions, the testimony of a minor was allowed–a nine year old testified that several members of her family were witches–because the King’s book said that children were good at identifying witches, despite the fact that the testimony of a child was inadmissible as evidence. Several decades later in the New World, most of the evidence at the Salem Witch Trials was given by children and was admitted because of the precedent. Although there’s no official connection between the Salem trials and Halloween, I claim that those trials are a part of the cultural baggage that has been associated with the holiday to make it what it is.