When I lived in Sheffield some years ago, Halloween was a night to be feared and dreaded. As night fell, packs of feral children roamed the streets extracting foodstuffs with menaces, while terrified householders shuddered behind their makeshift barricades, anxiously clutching sticks and cudgels. It comes as little consolation to discover from this month’s issue that Halloween is not a ghastly American import, as we generally believe, but a much-loved Yorkshire tradition, taking its place alongside the pudding, the shell-suit and the merry wit of Geoff Boycott. In the event of a Sandbrook dictatorship, it would be one of the first things proscribed by law.
Before the letters flood in, I am well aware that Halloween has deep historical roots. In medieval times, English families marked All Souls Eve, when the spirits of the dead were supposed to walk the earth, by lighting candles at midnight to guide the ghosts home.
Mercifully, however, there seems to have been little mention of pumpkins, witches or trick-or-treating, and in any case, most All Souls superstitions died out during the Reformation. In fact, I suspect the trappings of modern Halloween owe rather more to the Irish festival of Samhain, when families would light fires, bake fruit bread and send their children off in ‘guises’ to extort fruit and nuts from their neighbours. In Scotland, too, children would go ‘galoshing’ for treats, and Robert Burns even wrote a poem about the “merry sangs an’ friendly cracks” of Halloween. He never lived in Sheffield, of course.
In truth, my resistance to Halloween is based less on general Scroogery than on my deep enthusiasm for that splendid old English tradition, Bonfire Night, which of course marks the foiling of the Gunpowder Plot in 1605.
I have seen it argued that this was originally an ‘elite-driven’ enterprise, mandated by parliament and funded by wealthy bigwigs, but I have never found this convincing. The great lesson of human history, after all, is that most people require little excuse to have a bonfire, a party and a punch-up. And despite its patriotic and anti-Catholic elements, Bonfire Night always had a pleasingly boisterous element to it.
By the Victorian era it had got so far out of hand that in Guildford, a clergyman complained that local youths turned out “with bludgeons, with their faces blackened and many I believe in women’s attire”, reducing the town to “a state of complete riot”. A quiet night out by modern standards, then. In recent years, though, Bonfire Night seems to have suffered a sad fall from grace. Children no longer loiter at corners demanding a ‘penny for the guy’, largely for fear they might be thought to be beggars. The practice of burning effigies of the Bishop of Rome is no longer as popular as it was, and health and safety regulations mean that private firework parties are in danger of dying out. Worryingly, there are plenty of examples of Bonfire Night simply disappearing: in Australia, for example, it was celebrated until the mid-1970s but then effectively stamped out when most states banned the sale and public use of fireworks. If we are not careful, in 20 years it will be a memory.
The tragedy of this, of course, is that Bonfire Night is one of our last remaining genuine national traditions. It is odd and slightly sad to reflect that whereas the French have Bastille Day, the Irish mark St Patrick’s Day and the Americans have the Fourth of July, our own national days generally pass in a fog of indifference. We wax lyrical about the folk traditions of other nations, yet too often dismiss our own with snobbish contempt.
On top of that, one of the great things about Bonfire Night at its peak was that it was a genuinely collective celebration, bringing together entire towns and villages around their gigantic bonfires. By contrast, children go trick or treating in small groups, their hands greedily outstretched for bounty. Perhaps that makes it the ideal celebration for an individualistic, materialistic age; but I would rather have a bonfire, a baked potato and a great big firework display any day.