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Enough of the Halloween Bashing


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.











  1. 31/10/2017 / 1:34 am

    As a Brit living in America I think it is sad that everyone complains about Halloween becoming American. Here Hallowe’en is huge and a big part of the community. They stage huge scale haunting throughout October run by community volunteers, houses are decorated and all the kids dress up to go to school in mostly non spooky outfits and have school parties to celebrate. Children only visit houses that are decorated or have lanterns in the porch( a sign that you are happy to receive trick or treaters) so if yuh don’t want to be involved you don’t have to. I have to say I love Halloween here as much as I loved ducking apples and trick or treating when I was a kid.

    • Penny Alexander
      31/10/2017 / 6:57 am

      Thank you for sharing, that’s my perception too, so interesting to hear your experience too. Halloween can be a lovely community thing and America seems to have that nailed.

  2. Sarah H
    31/10/2017 / 6:56 am

    A very interesting read Penny. Halloween has become the most anticipated festival in our home in recent years. My son starts planning his costume on 1st November and loves that Halloween gives him the freedom to indulge in dressing up behind a mask as his alter ego I have a love of all things gothic and macabre but was unable to indulge in Halloween rituals as a child due to my religious upbringing. I had to attend ‘Hallalujah’ parties instead. I can now enjoy the festival as intended ‘turing things upside down’. I’ve not picked up on the social media negativity surrounding Halloween but I did notice that it seems a bit more subdued this year. If you respect people that don’t want to participate and knock on doors that are decorated to show they are playing the game it can be a magical evening.

    • Penny Alexander
      31/10/2017 / 9:44 am

      My oldest loves it more than Christmas and birthdays apparently! It must be due to the freedom I think and kids these days need and crave that as they are losing it rapidly. Enjoy your evening 🙂

  3. 31/10/2017 / 7:39 am

    Your mum sounds lovely. I read this and it took me back right to that moment of cosy Mum times. You must miss her so very much xx

    • Penny Alexander
      31/10/2017 / 9:39 am

      She was, I do, I really do. Thank you for acknowledging that. Here’s to your mum too xx

  4. 31/10/2017 / 7:52 am

    We love Halloween and our village goes ALL out! All American out but who cares?! It’s fun, it’s safe as we know everyone (plus they don’t go without us) and everyone is doing it! Our school however (same village) is very anti and won’t accept even a nod to Halloween which is a shame – it’s not supposed to be a religious school but the head (who is very nice) is heavily religious and involved with the village church too and somehow her own views have to take precedence – much as I like her I don’t agree with that… X

    • Penny Alexander
      31/10/2017 / 9:42 am

      I didn’t voice this opinion, but I do struggle to see where the harm is from a religious perspective. halloween doesnt seem to be about any one belief too me these days, just as Christmas and Easter hold many meanings. I don’t believe in spirits or ghosts either, and I always try and get behind festivals religious or not, that bring communities together. Have a blast!

  5. 31/10/2017 / 9:42 am

    Around 20 years ago I went trick or treating in my neighbourhood with my 4 cousins, each of us dressed up as something from our favourite tv show, or film, or book. It was practically unheard of and I remember lots of households wondering why these children were knocking on their doors. Nowadays I do feel it’s become really popular, and some of the magic that I had from my childhood has disappeared a bit, but I don’t agree with the Halloween bashing, in fact it allows us to come together as a community. Tonight my daughter and her cousin will get together, go trick or treating for a little bit with us adults, open our front door for trick or treaters, and then we’ll have hot dogs, sparklers and party games. It’s a great tradition for me and my cousins x

    • Penny Alexander
      31/10/2017 / 9:47 am

      I think we must have paved the way – rekindling our old traditions that Americans never lost! I love the way houses are dressed up much more these days – it makes it easier to know which houses to knock at at least 😉 I love that the tradition has passed down to a new set of cousins in your family 🙂

  6. 31/10/2017 / 10:33 am

    Great post, Penny. I haven’t seen any social media bashing so I guess I’m (not) following the right people. Some do like to get their undies in a knot over stuff that really is just good harmless fun. I love Halloween for its playful spirit, the very vague element of threat that actually allows kids to confront some of their worst fears in a safe way, and the creativity of costumes and treats. In our London neighbourhood, many streets go to town and it’s wonderful to trick or treat through some of the houses where their decorations are so lavish, and their chocolates are divine (yes mama nicks a treat or two on our travels too).

    When I lived in New York, Halloween there was huge and the costume parade through Manhattan was one of the best nights out… like you said people just dress as whatever strikes their imagination, rarely scary but often brilliant. There was also a Halloween baby parade that was just magical! We’re off to a Halloween party with new friends this evening and I can’t wait. I’ve been doing a London Halloween guide since I started my blog and it definitely gets bigger every year! Long live the tradition, whatever its roots 🙂 x

    • Penny Alexander
      02/11/2017 / 9:07 am

      Oh Uju this is lovely to hear about, Molly’s tales of villages and now yours of London and NY! Hope you had an amazing time with your boys x

  7. 31/10/2017 / 11:00 am

    As a kid we never “did” Halloween. It just wasn’t a thing where we lived or for part of our family traditions. However, since becoming a parent and living in a small village (not the big city I grew up in where we didn’t know many of our neighbours) Halloween is a big deal. The children get so excited planning their costumes, planning the games they’ll play after school with their friends, planning their Halloween-themed tea. Trick or treating is a real village affair and, like you, we only knock on houses displaying a pumpkin – there are some streets where everyone goes and many people leave big buckets of sweets and treats outside for the children to help themselves. Lots of the elderly neighbours go all out and dress up themselves, welcoming the children on their doorstep and you can see they love it and get a real joy out of interacting with the children. It’s become a really big part of our family’s seasonal traditions and is a marker to the beginning of this part of the year, when the nights draw in and the seasons change. I don’t really understand people having an issue with other people celebrating it or having fun – not when they’re doing it in a community, fun-loving and responsible fashion!

    • Penny Alexander
      02/11/2017 / 9:06 am

      That sounds so lovely Molly, it really is a community affair in villages and was in our suburb too before we moved. So much excitement! I hope you and yours had a brilliant time!

  8. 31/10/2017 / 4:18 pm

    My dad was here earlier moaning about it. Saying we never did when we were kids. I explained kids do it now. We live in a mixed city street. Old people, young couples, families. Sometimes we only see certain neighbours at this time and it’s lovely to see them make an effort for the kids. As you say just houses with decorations up and the kids love it and so do the neighbours.

    • Penny Alexander
      02/11/2017 / 9:05 am

      Yes, it really does seem to bring neighbours together, ours were all trying to out do each other on the decorations, in a friendly way. And lots of people without kids at home getting involved too.

  9. Annie
    31/10/2017 / 10:14 pm

    We had a lovely time tonight wandering around our neighbourhood, visiting homes that were clearly expecting callers (with pumpkins on the step or in the window) and often finding they were the homes of people who’d knocked at our door earlier. Seeing the after-dark streets alive with children and families made it feel warm and safe, and we had copious chances to practise our manners when given treats. In it’s gentlest form and with children at the heart, Halloween is A Good Thing.

    • Penny Alexander
      02/11/2017 / 9:03 am

      Beautifully put Annie, that was our experience too, glad you had a lovely time! I admit to being a little scared as we were leaving to go home by the older kids costumes – they were awe inspiringly brilliant, but very spooky too!

  10. chloeridgway
    01/11/2017 / 7:40 pm

    This is such an interesting post Penny. As a child I remember dressing up as a black cat and going to a party, and being invited to go trick or treating once with a friend from down the street. I think we answered the door if someone knocked but I’m not 100% sure – we might have just ignored them! Now that I have children of my own I have to admit I’ve never really celebrated Halloween with them – we carve pumpkins but that’s it – we don’t answer the door to trick or treaters, we don’t go ourselves and we don’t dress up. Your post has made me think twice about why I made that decision – thanks for getting my cogs turning! Perhaps I need to relax about it a bit?

    • Penny Alexander
      02/11/2017 / 9:02 am

      I think we should all celebrate things in the way that is right for us, but I promise you, it is a lot of fun! I love the way it has brought communities together in the places I have lived, but it does vary a lot!

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