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Halloween American trick-or-treaters with their UNICEF collecting boxes. Photo courtesy UNICEF

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Halloween and other 'American' things

Many supposedly 'American' customs which annoy Brits actually date back to British traditions, discovers Carol Gould
Published on October 31, 2019

In my experience Britons like to blame Americans for pretty much everything, but their often-justified misery over "American Halloween nonsense" and all-year-round "horrible foods" is historically questionable.

Every year as October dawns, British stores begin to stock up on masks and costumes and Halloween-themed candy and cakes. This in turn triggers griping in the media about "this ghastly American holiday being foisted upon us." Okay, it is within reason that parents might feel pressure to buy their children goodies and costumes, but what astounds me is the accusation from some critics that this is an 'American' observance. It isn't. Halloween originated centuries ago in Britain and Ireland.

Halloween dates back to pagan times and can be traced to the ancient Celtic festival of Samhain; the Celts started life over 2,000 years ago across much of Europe and are now mainly found in Ireland, the United Kingdom and Northern France. By 43 AD the Romans had overtaken Celtic lands and combined a late October pair of festivals: Feralia to remember the dead and Pomona in honor of the Roman goddess of fruit and greenery; 'bobbing for apples' in a barrel of water was a practice that carries on to this day. When I was growing up in the USA we always ate 'candy apples' on a stick, covered in a red sweet glaze or caramel and nuts. I just saw some at my London greengrocer!

In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as All Saints Day, taking some of the practices of Celtic Samhain. The night before was known as All Hallows Eve, later Halloween. In 1,000 AD the church designated November 2nd as All Saints Day and various customs developed, including bonfires, parades, dressing up as angels, saints and devils and telling ghost stories, that later spread worldwide.

By the 15th century in England, Flanders, Germany and Austria 'souling', or sharing cakes door-to-door baked to remember the souls of the dead, mentioned in Shakespeare's Two Gentlemen of Verona. It is regarded as a predecessor of 'trick or treating'. What gets me is the accusation from some Britons that trick-or-treating (accompanied by an adult, children dressed in costumes go door-to-door expecting candy, coins or small gifts) is "yet another ghastly American trend" when in fact in Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man it was customary by the 16th century to go house-to-house singing or reciting poetry in exchange for treats. The USA began to expand celebrations of Halloween with the Irish immigration of the mid-19th century.

When Britons gripe to me about trick or treat, I remind them that In my youth every American trick-or-treater carried a UNICEF box into which households donated coins or dollar bills. Initiated by Mary Emma Allison in 1950 in Philadelphia, the tradition spread to Canada, Mexico, Ireland and Hong Kong over the years and the boxes have raised to date $188 million. UNICEF won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1965 and President Lyndon Johnson said "Your UNICEF Trick or Treat Day has helped turn a holiday… into a program of basic training in world citizenship."

Why is Halloween in October? In Rome summer was considered too warm for pilgrims to congregate to remember the dead, as 'Roman Fever' illness was prevalent until autumn. In countries as diverse as Bangladesh the small Christian population lights candles on headstones, and in the Philippines everyone returns to his or her hometown to light candles. In Spain, 'bones of the holy' cakes are placed on gravestones – a tradition dating back centuries and Mexico has Dia de los Muertes – Day of the Dead.

In Judaism, Leviticus 18:3 forbids Jews from participating in other faiths' customs. Nowadays that is taken to include Christmas, Lent, Easter and St Valentine's Day. In the twentieth century, however, some Reform rabbis have acknowledged that there is no harm in allowing the enjoyment of Halloween customs. It's notable, too, that so many Jewish observances involve lighting "Yahrzeit" candles that burn for over 24 hours to remember the dead. Muslim commentator Javed Memon has been quoted as saying that his daughter "dressing up like a British telephone booth [after Boris Johnson's sardonic observation about Islamic women] will not destroy her faith..."

Halloween isn't the only ancient Christian observance that seems to irritate many Britons. In December 2018 I was astonished to see a social media post by a broadcaster with a picture of Christmas trees piled up at a garden center with his caption "F you, B&Q." Britain is a secular country; except for the Catholic population church attendance has declined over the decades since World War 2, and I am aware that many Britons find Christmas as annoying as Halloween. But you can be sure stores and malls are teeming with shoppers on Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter weekend not particularly moved by the story of the crucifixion and resurrection.

Here is another irony: many Britons love to criticize Americans for "commercializing holidays" but my goodness have they ever bizarrely embraced 'Black Friday' and 'Cyber Monday,' the days after Thanksgiving, which is NOT celebrated in Britain. TV and radio ads and billboards across the UK advertise massive sales and people line up all night to be first into the stores.

Other faiths' observances can cause irritation too. I was once on a bus with a Londoner who became enraged when he saw Jewish children in orthodox attire throwing candies at passing cars on 'Purim,' the celebration of the life of Queen Esther and the defeat of evil emperor Haman. He was apoplectic with rage but I reminded him that candy isn't going to kill anybody. Probably pure coincidence but Purim 'Hamantaschen' cakes depicting the hat of Haman are triangular, as are Halloween scones in Scotland, where children jump up and try to catch the cakes hung on string from ceiling beams.

I always laugh when Britons also growl at me about "Mother's Day fuss" – blaming Americans for created the day. Actually, Mothering Sunday dates back to the 16th century when it became customary in Britain for the church to urge households to allow their servants to have a day off to honor their "mother church" and their mother on the fourth Sunday in Lent. And yes, it became a tradition in the USA in the twentieth century held in May, but its origins are definitely British, Irish and European.

When I have engaged with Britons in discussion of American holidays that involve much happy eating – Memorial Day, July 4th, Halloween, Thanksgiving – I often get a tirade about "horrible American food." I have never understood this, because over my long lifetime the pleasure I have had in Italian, Chinese, Jewish, Hungarian, Polish, traditional American – even diners – and more recently Japanese eateries in the USA has been unmatched anywhere. If Britons can drown in Beaujolais on August 12th, "the Glorious Twelfth" celebrating the start of the Grouse Shoot, I can enjoy candy corn and toffee apples.

Disgusting? No. Worldwide customs enthrall me, and I hope they will continue for years to come.

Philadelphia-born Carol Gould is a UK-based drama producer, political commentator and broadcaster. She is the author of Spitfire Girls and Don't Tread on Me: Anti-Americanism Abroad.

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