People assume that Halloween originated in the United States. The mounds of achingly sweet candy. The consumerism. The peremptory hustle of ‘trick-or-treating.’ All these things seem uniquely American.
And they are. But Halloween itself traces back 2000 years ago to the Celts, tribal people who lived mainly in present day Ireland, the United Kingdom, and northern France. They celebrated Samhain, a pagan festival that marked the end of the summer harvest and the beginning of winter on November 1. It was considered an ambivalent, transitory time when the boundaries between the living and dead turned porous and spirits came out to play.
Dressing up. Communing with the departed. The same things that underpin our modern obsession with Halloween have always appealed to human nature. Scientists believe that this may have an evolutionary basis. We hold fear at bay by embracing it in a controlled manner. It’s a way to practice—to conduct dress rehearsals for real danger. Indeed, reports suggest that horror film aficionados had an easier time dealing with Covid-19’s mental health impacts.
Over the centuries, Halloween’s popularity has declined in England. Guy Fawkes Night is celebrated instead, with effigies, bonfires, and fireworks. But 2023 UK Halloween spending is projected to have broken records and surpassed £1 billion for the first time. Why? What does this say about the country today?
Somehow more so than other festivals, Halloween and its embrace or rejection serves as a bellwether for a nation’s economic, social, and political climate. Perhaps because of that evolutionary and intrinsic appeal. Perhaps because it’s irreligiousness gives it a global aspect. Whatever the reason, while Shanghai’s ebullient celebrations reflect an emergence from years of protracted lockdowns, Japan’s ‘ban’ on festivities may indicate financial trouble.
And England? Despite the bumper spending, ambivalence persists about the holiday. For every spider-festooned front door that I spied, there was a ‘no trick-or-treating’ sign nearby. On Halloween itself, I attended a suitably festive outdoor film screening of a 90s slasher classic. As the sun set over iconic London buildings like the Shard, I guzzled popcorn, clutched my hot water bottle, and screamed whenever another teenager met a grisly end. In contrast, I also attended a Halloween party where attendees had to be reminded to dress up.
This ambivalence may reflect something deeper about England as it attempts to find a global footing post Brexit, moving away from Europe and leaning more heavily on its ‘special relationship’ with the US. But the UK wants more than this. It wants trade deals with Australia and India and the Gulf nations.
As the nation continues to find its feet and future, perhaps it could reclaim the festival as its own. These narratives and celebrations could attract tourists from all over. Maybe even from Halloween-crazed America.
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