It’s Halloween today, and I’m a bit bah-humbug about it all to be honest (if you can be bah-humbug about anything other than Christmas, that is). Maybe I’m just a cranky middle-aged killjoy but I particularly don’t like feeling obliged to hand over sweets to anyone who comes knocking at the door as soon as it gets dark, even if they’re little and cute and their parents are lurking at the bottom of the drive. This harks back to living in England and being frequented by groups of teenagers on the doorstep half-heartedly wearing plastic masks and rubbish costumes, frankly undeserving of any treats.
When I was a kid, we didn’t go trick or treating. This time of year was the build up to Bonfire Night, much much more of an event then, and possibly still, in England. Ooh the thrill of seeing the would-be funeral pyres getting bigger and bigger in the weeks leading up. Bonfires get built everywhere, in public parks, in local sports clubs, in schools (in my day, our school bonfire night was the bees’ knees), in farmers’ fields and, with those lucky enough to have the room, in people’s gardens. We had an annual ‘build a guy’ competition – this being all about burning effigies of that rascally Catholic traitor Guy Fawkes who dared to try and blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. You’d sometimes get accosted by rough kids with guys on street corners asking for ‘a penny for the guy’ which is about the nearest tradition to trick or treating we ever came across. Well, that or knock and run (bang on the front door, leg it to a hiding place with view of said front door and wait for them to come out and, if really brave, do it again a few minutes later) which, as a parent and mature adult now, I absolutely cannot sanction but it was super fun and heart in your mouth scary if you picked the right houses where the cantankerous and fist-shaking and ready-to-chase-after-you-and-try-and-catch-you folk lived. (We never got caught.) Bonfire Night itself is a noisy, raucous night: flames cracking and roaring, whole families out together, babies crying, children yelling, everyone oohing and aahing at the fireworks whizzing and popping and bang-bang-banging. There’s a smell to bonfire night, too, of gunpowder, smoke, sausages and baked beans and hot potatoes, soup, treacle toffee, a powerful autumnal olfactory onslaught that is as much a part of it as hot cheeks from the heat of the fire or the delicious contrast of the crispy cold air or the sparklers swishing white words temporarily against the black sky. This is what I’ve always done at this time of year (5th November or nearest weekend for those of you who’ve never celebrated it).
So, never having gone trick or treating myself, and there not really being much of a tradition of it in England (I know it has its roots in a mishmash of pagan and Christian and Celtic and Irish traditions and ceremonies, and across mainland Europe as well as in Britain, but it did pretty much die out for most of the 20th century in most of England), I never let my children go trick or treating when they were growing up, not once. It felt like I was sending them out begging, and anyway I really didn’t want them shovelling their faces with crap and on a sugar high till way past bedtime. I wasn’t so mean that I turned all the lights off and refused to answer the door (though that’s what Mr N would’ve had us do, really he would), I stocked up on the crap and duly handed it out (even when, predictably, no-one ever had a trick to play when I requested trick instead of treat). Now I love a bit of dressing up and a good old scary party, a spooky ghost story, and even a screamy horror film (sort of), so we’ve done our fair share of these things as well, the kids and Mr N and me, over the years. And we always had some gruesome looking bloodied spaghetti type teatime treats and did pumpkin carvings for the doorstep which was, I insisted, the fun bit… But trick or treating? No. As you might imagine, my kids complain of a deprived upbringing in this regard.
So here we are in America on Halloween, and of course there’s no avoiding it. The shops have been full of pumpkins and all the paraphernalia for weeks and weeks. Gardens are creepily and glowingly and tastefully and tastelessly (think big, blow-up, plastic) bedecked. What we once did, America has embraced and amplified and blasted back out, unashamedly and gleefully, in that way that America does. There’s absolutely no room for my cynicism here, my boys are old enough to be out doing whatever they please tonight and that’s exactly what they’ve done (without having carved any pumpkins for the doorstep before they went), so I guess I’ll have to muster some enthusiasm, get ghouled up and ready to answer the door.
But just for the record, I do really really wish I had Bonfire Night just round the corner instead. Like I said, maybe I’m just a cranky middle-aged killjoy…