When I was little back in the 1980s my mum lovingly handcrafted me a witch’s skirt out of odd pieces of black velvet strung on elastic. I wish I still had it, it was amazing. We had been reading the Dorrie books, by Patricia Coombs, about a witch’s daughter, I so wanted to be Dorrie. In that skirt I felt like Dorrie. I’ve since read them to my daughter, the pictures and story are so magical.
Mum took me trick or treating, even when no one seemed to quite know what it was, or when we moved and the neighbours were baffled, she patiently and kindly explained it to them. We never tricked anyone, or demanded treats, it was just a way to say hello to the neighbours and show off your costumes. It meant a lot to my Mum to take me and I could see she was having to work hard, especially to educate our new neighbours after we moved, I felt a lot like that Dorrie in the picture, looking up to her.
For me Halloween is one of those important rituals, which we seem to be losing, the ones that turn society upside down. And I think that is why Mum clung onto it. These transgressive rituals have always been part of popular culture, bonfire night, festivals, morris dancing, because humans need rituals that transgress our normal boundaries, allowing us to let our hair down and be free before returning to normal rules and regulations again.
I loved studying popular entertainments and rituals as part of my Drama degree, and soon learnt that throughout history humans have always had festivals that turn society’s norms upside down. Bizarrely, a day or two where the rules are relaxed actually serves to keep society together and people following society’s rules. The norms change for a day or a night and then, we return to the status quo. Of course there will always be a few people who take it too far and spoil it for others, but arguably those folks would do that regardless.
I think trick or treating is a fantastically fun ritual with some ground rules. It gives kids a rare taste of power, before the rules return next morning. We knock on doors if they have pumpkins, the house looks welcoming, or we know the people who live there. An adult always goes with the kids to make sure thank yous are said, no one vulnerable is disturbed and no one gets offended. It’s good for kids to experience being out at night every now and again, and I don’t believe taking sweets from strangers in this playful context is going to undo 364 days a year where that isn’t allowed. I think adults have a responsibility to give kids a chance to explore boundaries safely. Use it as a talking point.
Yes it’s a sugar overload, but it’s one night, and don’t dentists say it is better to have all your treats in one go?
Ultimately, at it’s heart, Halloween is about coming to terms with death in a playful fashion and I think that’s vitally important to children. From when they were tiny mine have used it as a chance to explore good and bad, life and death, all concepts which are a really important part of storytelling in childhood.
People complain Halloween has become Americanised. Halloween’s roots go back much further than America. During the Celtic festival of Samuin, young men impersonating evil spirits by dressing up in white costumes with blackened faces or masks to ward off evil spirits. Trick or Treating gives us a modern ritual to replace lost British traditions. Thanks also to Alison who told me all about guising in her Scottish childhood, a 19th century tradition of going house to house sharing a party trick, song or poem.
Society confuses itself further over the melting pot that is Pagan and Christian festivals, Halloween seems, according to Wikipedia, to be both, perhaps down to Catholics trying to stamp out Celtic Samuin by introducing “All Soul’s Day” and “All Saints’ Day” in the 800s. It seems sad to lose such old traditions, I believe we should embrace our ancient rituals. Although I have yet to witness Shrovetide in my new adopted home, a football match from one end of Ashbourne to the other which sounds bonkers, and a little dangerous with it.
Perhaps some of the costumes these days are a gruesome cry from my simple Dorrie costume, but again, that’s a talking point, discuss with kids why sexy Halloween costumes aren’t that cool when you’re 11 (or 40), make sure they understand and talk about their choice of costume and what it means to them. (Mine means I have been too busy sorting out the kids and just pulled out the witches hat again, but I could write an essay on what witches mean to me too, on a personal, cultural, historical and a societal level). I don’t get ‘Americanisation’ being a negative when American kids often just do fun fancy dress not ghoulish. Also surely the more widely trick or treating is understood the more the rules become clearer to all.
Thanks also to Polly who reminded me of another argument I buried somewhere along the lines here – that shared experiences bring communities closer, and we need that more than ever these days.
It makes me sad to see so much trashing of Halloween on social media, maybe I’ve just been lucky that all my experiences have been incredibly positive. Kids being supported to have some fun, gently explore the limits of societies boundaries and confront death in a playful way. I didn’t like it too much as a parent for a while, but I think I was actually just full of angst that I wasn’t living up to my mum’s efforts and it was a reminder she wasn’t around any more. But this year my kids have had pumpkins to carve, shrunken apple head punch, costumes they love and a friend’s incredible Halloween party. I’m really going to miss greeting trick or treaters now that we live in the middle of nowhere, but we’re off to make gentle mischief in the villages.
Dedicated to my Mum, whose Halloween spirit lives on. Whatever you believe, may you be safe and happy this 31st October.