Sunday, 1 November 2015

The trouble with Halloween...

For a long time, I found Halloween attractive in a slightly perverse way. 

It provided me with an annual opportunity to be terribly British and tediously older generation.

“What?” I would say, “when I was a kid, the thing we celebrated at this time of year was Guy Fawkes Day. What is this Yank custom we’ve imported? Do we have to do everything they do in the States?”

Then I’d go all misty-eyed and nostalgic as my audience wondered how to vanish, or shut me up, without actually being openly rude.

It’s true that Guy Fawkes celebrations of my youth were special. We’d make Guys, of course. Well, those of us who could bother would. Misshapen effigies of a human being made of straw, old clothes and a balloon as a head, with a hat glued on top. Get it done on time, and you could wheel it out on the street for a few days beforehand and ask for a “penny for the Guy” from all the passersby. That wasn’t begging because it was tradition.

I never could be bothered to make my own Guy, so instead I went to other people’s Guy Fawkes parties. They were wonderful. Huge bonfires with someone else’s Guy perched on top. This was an uplifting allusion to the burning to death of the original Guy Fawkes, who’d had the shocking idea of wanting to blow up Parliament, with all the politicians in it. That’s an idea which no one today could contemplate with anything but horror.

The nice thing about the bonfire is that, if it burned fiercely enough, it would make the rain drops evaporate around it. So if you could stand getting close enough, you kept reasonably dry, only getting soaked when you stepped away to eat one of the burned sausages which people carbonised for you in the flames.

Ah, the joy of the Guy Fawkes bonfire!
Great for getting one side of you burned while the other froze
The other great benefit of the fire was that it meant only one side of you was cold (the festivities take place on 5 November, after all). The other side could get itself toasted. When you couldn’t bear the first degree burning of your face any more, you could turn around and get your back seared while your nose froze off.

Oh, wonderful times, wonderful times.

These days, instead of this time-honoured and cherished tradition, we get Halloween. I’m given to understand that in the States this is managed in quite a civilised way: it happens in daylight, with kids up to about 8 or 10, and they only call on houses of people who have set up a pumpkin in their windows. This indicates that they’re happy to be “trick or treated”, a curious notion, since treating to avoid the threat of a trick sounds pretty much like the text book definition of extortion.

Britain has a long tradition of enjoying extortion. As in “nice little country you have here. How about giving us monopoly access to your markets? You wouldn’t want my Royal Navy here to do anything nasty to it, and I have trouble controlling its commanders, in the face of uncooperative behaviour.” 

So when we introduced Halloween, it took rather a nastier edge to it than the kids’ party in the States. Why, this year there was a regular riot leaving four policemen injured, over a Halloween “scum party” in London, which sounds altogether less gentle than the US model.

Of course, it doesn’t help that that the celebrations start when it’s dark over here. The clocks go back a week or two before, so it’s pitch black by 5:30. That makes it a little harder to conjure up a family atmosphere.

Still, I have to admit that round here, it’s become nicer over the last few years. Little kids go out in witches’ costumes or dressed as cartoon zombies, and they knock politely on the door to ask us to chuck some terribly sugar-rich, nutrition-low sweetmeat into their baskets. The whole thing takes place under the watchful eyes of their mothers, so the threat level stays agreeably low.

As a result, Danielle and I have been adapting to the occasion. Getting into the spirit. We buy lots of tooth-rotting produce in the run-up to the 31 October. I’ve become less curmudgeonly and actually welcome the arrival of the kids. I hand out largesse with gusto and enjoy the pleasure of the children in response.

Why, I even apologise for the behaviour of our assault poodle Luci, who likes to go flying out making a terrible racket and looking as awe-inspiring as a dog six inches tall can. It doesn’t seem to matter, as the mothers like to stroke her anyway, describing her as cute, while I concentrate on the kids’ baskets.

Indeed, such was our enjoyment of this event, that we were disappointed last year when we ran out of goodies by about 8:00. To make sure that it didn’t happen again, we got extra stocks in this year.

And then – the unimaginable happened. We only had three parties of kids coming to our door. We were left with a large quantity of unclaimed merchandise. I’ve had to give it away to the grandmother next door, who assured me “it won’t go to waste.”

I can’t believe it. What’s happened? Aren’t people taking Halloween seriously any more? Where’s their sense of tradition? Don’t they see the importance of maintaining links with the culture their ancestors formed for them?

I’m sure it wasn’t like that in my young day.

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