Sunday, October 30, 2005

Trick or Treat? Or Penny for the Guy?

When I was a small boy in the 1960s there was no doubt that the great festival at this time of year was Bonfire Night. We always had a family bonfire and fireworks in the back garden and, though it lacked the long exciting build up that Christmas enjoyed at school, the evening was a recognised topic for stories and pictures in the classroom. My only contact with Halloween was at Cubs, where we would bring pumpkin lanterns one evening.

Forty years on, everything has changed. Halloween is now a huge event in the supermarkets and in the media. It is easy to put this down to American influence supplanting a traditional English festival, but I am not sure that is the whole story.

In the North of England Halloween was always more of an event than in the South. The spiritual home of Bonfire Night is Sussex where it still a popular and sometimes controversial even (see my Spiked article on 5 November in Lewes - the daddy of all bonfire parties).

And C. V. Wedgwood, in The King's Peace, remarks of England on the verge of the Civil War:
In strongly Protestant districts traditional Hallowe'en jollities were being ingeniously transferred to Gunpowder Treason Day on November 5th.
So why has Halloween supplanted Bonfire Night?

One explanation is the decline of religion. If God is dead then the devil must be too, and there is no reason why we should worry about children dressing up as him or his helpers.

Another is concerns over firework safety. Political pressure has seen the organised public display oust the private party in your own back garden. Now safety concerns and the cost of insurance are putting public displays under pressure too.

People worry about animal welfare too. In my day a gentle lecture from Valerie Singleton about keeping pets indoor and making sure no tortoises had bedded down in your bonfire was enough. No longer, it seems.

And then there is the way that childhood has changed - fast emerging as one of the obsessions of this blog. The chief activity associated with Bonfire Night was Penny for the Guy where children displayed rough figures from old clothes stuffed with straw and begged for coppers from passers-by as a reward.

This good honest begging, involving some creative effort and hours of shivering on street corners, has gone. It has been replaced by a form of demanding money with menaces: Trick or Treat? We are supposed to stock up with sweets to give to children for the simple act of knocking on our doors.

Except that it never really works over here. Many householders, thank goodness, resist the practice, and schools and police are often hostile to it too. And few modern parents are happy to allow their children out alone at night, so the result is that the parents go round with the children. So we see another Liberal England obsession emerging - the infantilisation of adults.

It did used to be different. At the age of 11 I lived in village (though it had largely been absorbed by the neighbouring New Town) in Hertfordshire. Each year a large bonfire was constructed on the Moor - a local open space - by the residents. I expect the Scouts or someone like that got involved too, because it was an impressive stack with lots of wood in it.

I recall that my group of friends got together and decided what time we would light it on the evening. And we did light it. It seemed perfectly natural to us that boys our age should do it, and presumably no adult was concerned enough at the prospect.

Not only that. Because it was 1971 or so, there was a dustmen's strike and a large refuse heap was piled up near the bonfire. Inevitably, at some point in the evening it was set alight or caught a spark. A fire engine arrived to put it out, and as one of the firemen said: "Sorry lads, but it's too dangerous." OK so we were nicely brought up middle-class kids, but I do not think any of this would happen today.

So we can't blame the Americans alone. A wise man once said that every ancient British custom was invented in the final quarter of the 19th century. Bonfire Night is an exception to that, but it does remind us that our folk customs are human artefacts and often of recent invention.

The shift from Bonfire Night to Halloween in the last 40 years tells us something about our society. And I do not think it is something comforting.

5 comments:

James said...

I think you are betraying real Southern biases here. What about Mischief Night?

Jonathan said...

That is why I mentioned the regional difference.

Does Mischief Night still exist, or has it been subsumed into a commericialised Halloween?

jb said...

I was born in the mid-1980s and I never once went trick-or-treating. It is really very recent trend. I feel that it has largely been imported from America as I first heard about trick or treating from US TV shows

James said...

Mischief Night was certainly a reality when I was living in Leeds circa 2000-2002. But then, I also remember at least one guy during that period as well. AND Halloween. Generally, it is a week to spend elsewhere.

Personally I was born in the mid-70s, in Bromley, but Halloween and trick-or-treating was certainly a reality back then. I guess it was popularised by ET though (1981).

Tom said...

I live in Northern Ireland and was born in 1962. Hallowe’en has always been a big thing with us, I only knew about Guy Fawkes from TV. We didn’t have Trick or Treat, but kids used to, and still do, dress up and go round doors begging for money. We sang (sing) the Christmas song about the goose getting fat modified for Hallowe’en.