Trick or Treat?

Tonight is Halloween.  The name means the Eve (= Evening = E’en) of All Hallows, otherwise All Saints’ Day, November 1, a day set aside to commemorate ‘all the saints’ that dates, probably, from the 8th century.  This festival (Toussaint in French) is immediately followed in the Christian calendar by All Souls’ Day, November 2, a day to commemorate all the dead – saints or sinners alike.

Halloween has a mixed history in Australia.  Every year, people will bemoan the Americanization of Australian popular culture, and it’s true, Halloween doesn’t seem very deeply embedded in our social life.

But nature abhors a vacuum.  We used to hold the party on Guy Fawkes Night, November 5.  In my youth, this was a great night for children, with fireworks, a bonfire, lots of kid-friendly food, terrified pets, and the exciting possibility of burns and explosions.

Fires are not a good idea in early November in most of Australia after a dry winter, and eventually state governments intervened to ban open fires.  The fireworks first moved to ‘Cracker Night’ in May, but the alternative festival never quite took off, perhaps because they chose 25 May, Empire Day, which was by then barely alive, let alone kicking, as a day of community celebration.  There was scarcely a murmur when the private use of fireworks was banned a few years later.

But I think there were also social reasons for the demise of Guy Fawkes Night and the rather reluctant reinstatement of Halloween.

Halloween is a much older festival, closely linked to All Saints and All Souls Days, and widely celebrated throughout Catholic Europe and South America, where these are the Days of the Dead.  In its original form, these were days set aside for Christians to pray for the release of their dead relatives from purgatory.  Protestants rejected the idea of purgatory, and of masses for the dead – and Halloween came under close scrutiny as a result.

Guy Fawkes Night, on the other hand, was the quintessential Protestant festival – and in its unreconstructed form, a very nasty sectarian affair it was.  It celebrated the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, when Guy Fawkes and a group of Catholic conspirators attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in Westminster in 1605.  In England, Guy Fawkes Night was a state-sanctioned anti-Catholic revel.  In many places, such as Lewes in Sussex, the Pope is still burned in effigy, rather than the ‘Guy’.

Guy Fawkes Night, Lewes, Sussex

Guy Fawkes Night, Lewes. Photograph © Andrew Dunn, 5 November 2005

Guy Fawkes Night was an English custom, not followed in Scotland, where Halloween remained important.

Guy Fawkes Night didn’t translate very well to Australia.  In the 19th century, Australia’s population was about 2/3 Protestant, 1/3 Catholic.  Such a solid minority of Catholics meant that sectarian squabbles were much more troublesome, and authorities were keen to keep a lid on them.  Many of the Protestants, too, were Scots, Irish or German, for whom the concept was new.  Guy Fawkes Night – ‘Cracker Night’ in Catholic households – was a night for the kids, but it lacked the ferocity of the older English tradition.

There’s a further point.  In the Northern Hemisphere, both Halloween and Guy Fawkes Night mark the beginning of winter.  Opinion is divided as to whether Halloween is a Christian version of the Celtic Samhain, but these festivals all share an emphasis on bonfires to keep the dark and cold at bay, whether literally or metaphorically.

At the beginning of winter, in pre-industrial societies, people expected to be cold and hungry during the winter months.  With harvest in, paid farm work dried up, so a traditional feature of these festivals is that they were ‘doling days’, days on which it was customary for the poor to beg for a ‘dole’ in food or money from their betters.  There are faint echoes of this tradition in the idea of a ‘trick or treat’. But once it was the young men who went around the big houses asking for ‘a penny for the guy’ – and men with burning torches in their hands can be very persuasive.

In Australia, October 31/November 5 marks the start of summer.  There’s no need to rage against the dying of the light.  In Catholic parts of the Southern Hemisphere, such as Argentina and Brazil, the Days of the Dead have kept their religious significance, despite the reversal of the seasons.  But here in Australia, neither Halloween nor Guy Fawkes Night ever had much purchase.  It’s just a bit of a game.  My local supermarket is selling pumpkins complete with carving instructions, which suggests the tradition isn’t very deep.

3 responses to “Trick or Treat?

  1. In East Yorkshire, when I was a child, we had an evening called ‘mischief night’ which was the night before ‘bonfire night’. We would indulge in what would be considered anti-social behaviour nowadays, such as removing gates, moving dustbins down the street, etc. Halloween was never as important as it is now, certainly no ‘trick or treating’ and given sweets to avoid a trick.
    I’ve read a suggestion that some of the confusion around ceremonies at this time (Halloween, mischief night, bonfire night, etc.) in Britain comes from the time when the calendar was changed from the Julian to the Gregorian one and some communities still clung to the old timing for their ceremonies.

    • Hello Jay Ell. Thanks for the information about mischief night.
      I’m sure there’s an element of confusion between the Julian and Gregorian calendars, although by the time England finally changed over, there was an 11 day difference, more than the 5 days between Halloween and GFD. For instance in Scotland, they went on celebrating ‘Auld Yule’ on the day of the Julian Christmas day.

  2. Pingback: Talking to Asia in the 19th and 21st Centuries | Historians are Past Caring

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