October 31, 2006

“All they want is sweets... They’re not scaring you, or singing to you, or charming you — they’re just grabbing it and going to the next house..."

Halloween's not making sense to the British.
“Trick or treat? I don’t know about you, but my answer to this question, if I’m honest, would be unprintable in a family newspaper,” the critic A. N. Wilson wrote recently in The Daily Mail. “Let’s say it’s stronger than ‘push off.’ Yet the little beggars will soon be round, banging and ringing at our doors with this irritating refrain.”

Mr. Wilson blamed “the kitsch hotchpotch known as American Gothic.”

Hugh O’Donnell, a professor of language and popular culture at Glasgow Caledonian University, said in an interview that “the main complaint is that it’s just fun without any meaning behind it.”

“It’s no longer got any relationship to anything — not the old Celtic idea of the living and the dead, or the Christian tradition of Allhallows Eve,” said Mr. O’Donnell....

Mr. O’Donnell said that when he was a boy in Scotland, he and his friends regularly went door to door, playing out an old Celtic tradition.

“It was called guising,” he explained. “You put an old sheet over your head and went to all the houses in the village, and you always had to do something, like sing a song or tell a joke.” The children did not receive candy then — just apples and, maybe, peanuts, he said....
I was going to laugh at them for being cranky and dense, but O'Donnell changed my mind. In a place where there was once a more mysterious and entrancing tradition, it's got to feel empty and sad to be subjected to a thin tradition from another place.

34 comments:

dave said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
knoxgirl said...

In my day we used to walk door-to-door through five feet of snow...

Edward said...

I have to agree that I find this topic a bit inane.

But I LOVE the term "guising."

We should devise a meaningful new holiday of our own and call it "guising."

Ann Althouse said...

It's inane not to see what is interesting and important about folk traditions. And it's inane to call things inane and give no reasons. Try to explain yourself, Edward. I'm betting you can't. And you will stand accused as inane. No candy for you.

Slocum said...

I was going to laugh at them for being cranky and dense, but O'Donnell changed my mind. In a place where there was once a more mysterious and entrancing tradition, it's got to feel empty and sad to be subjected to a thin tradition from another place.

But there's nothing stopping O'Donnell from being a friendly eccentric and telling kids at his door that when he was young, you had to tell a joke to get a treat, and now he required a joke in exchange for his candy. I think most kids would think that's funny -- little kids love to tell stupid little kid jokes to any adult who'll tolerate 'em.

And, of course, people in the U.S. used to give out apples, too.

Goesh said...

I think the very young children truly enjoy their costumes. My granddaughters always took great pride in their costumes. Candy seems to be the issue as they age but who hasn't dipped into the dish themselves while waiting for the rascals to come calling? Good fun, good commerce - only in America....

Hollywood Freaks said...

They don't sing or anything like that, but they do dress up. And they look so adorable... awww.. That has got to be worth some candy.

George said...

The new trend is 'retail trick or treating.'

It's done indoors at the mall, and scary costumes are forbidden.

Paul Zrimsek said...

Hugh O’Donnell, a professor of language and popular culture at Glasgow Caledonian University, said in an interview that “the main complaint is that it’s just fun without any meaning behind it.”


Sometimes academics teeter on the brink of self-parody. Other times they jump in with both feet.

Pogo said...

Just fun? No meanign behind it??

I'm going out tonight dressed as Scottish academic. Scaaary.

Goesh said...

- a Hassidic Jew at the local mosque? Now that would be a cool costume and Halloween agenda....

Fenrisulven said...

I stole my scary costume from a cartoon:

I'm going as an Electronic Voting Machine. [yes my wife hates me right now]

Anonymous said...

...that it’s just fun without any meaning behind it.

That's what fun is, you stupid git!

And the american tradition, pre-poledancing costumes, is the most closely allied to the original sort of ritual it was. The Irish --the real celts, if you ask me, called it pooking.

This old crank just longs for the good old days when he could mumble Damn Papists under his breath and skip being pleasant to children at the door.

Come across with some candy, you old fart, or you're going to get more eggs and toilet paper than an outhouse on a chicken farm.

Shanna said...

“the main complaint is that it’s just fun without any meaning behind it.”

Heh. That’s why it’s the best holiday ever! No cooking, no figuring out how to see the whole family, no feeling guilty for not being somber on Memorial Day. Just fun and candy and costumes.
Plus, I don’t think this lady gets that bit about give a treat or get a trick. Maybe she’ll figure it out once she’s been egged.

Anthony said...

who hasn't dipped into the dish themselves while waiting for the rascals to come calling?

I gave up all pretense (or guilt) about "dipping" into the candy dish. I buy six times more than I'll need -- heck, I was buying three bags of mini candy bars when I lived in a secure apartment building! -- and happily chow down on it weeks before and weeks after the event. The fewer the kids, the better for me.

Fenrisulven said...

Damn, the AltHouse is rockin this AM.

But I still think the naked SCOTUS thread is just Ann's version of a scary story for us on Halloween.

I know I'm gonna have nightmares.

howzerdo said...

I loved Halloween as a kid, and I have a lot of fond memories of my father decorating the yard and helping us to elaborately carve pumpkins. Now I live in a village where kids still go trick-or-treating house to house, and in my hometown, my mother and father make candy apples and hand them out. For a very rural area, they get a lot of kids who come to get those apples! Tonight I cannot be home until the night is half over, so I left an "honor" bowl of candy on my porch, with a sign inviting children to take some. If this year is similar to the past, the first few kids will not dishonorably take the entire bowl!

Hey said...

Talk about a dour Scot! He embodies the High Tory anti-americanism with a Derbyshirean paleo-conservativeness. A truly nasty sort.

The true threat is the nasty PC folks banning kids from scary costumes and placing so many rules on Halloween at school and home. It's a great holiday, and I can't wait until I have a place that actually gets the little ghouls coming to my door. Far too much time in student ghettos and apartment buildings filled with old folk and single professionals.

I'd love to buy some candy, but they only seem to sell it in mosntrous quantities, which I won't be able to consume or burn off before the holiday party season starts.

Anonymous said...

“It’s no longer got any relationship to anything — not the old Celtic idea of the living and the dead, or the Christian tradition of Allhallows Eve,” said Mr. O’Donnell...

Consumerism conquers all, even pagan holidays. Welcome to the club. You will be assimilated

I like Halloween. But I agree we should encourage the kids to tell a bad joke.

And I love the English spelling of "hotchpotch."

Jeff said...

The worst part of current Halloween practice is the lack of "tricks", as in "Trick or Treat". My father grew up in a farm town in the 40's and Halloween was an opportunity for teens to play pranks and for children to level the playing field with adults for one night in a harmless way. This practice seems to have died out with the further wussification of America under the current generation of parents.

Anthony said...

As a vaguely possibly interesting side-note, in 1974 I believe (or thereabouts), a young girl was kidnapped and murdered on Halloween night in my home town of Fond du Lac, WI. Lisa French her name was. They found the guy fairly rapidly and put him away for many years; he was recently released, I think, which caused some amount of controversy 'round those parts.

Anyway, ever since then, the city has sort of controlled the way trick-or-treating was done. I don't know if they really passed some law restricting it, but they allowed trick-or-treating between like 3-5 during daylight hours only, and recently they've decided to do it the Sunday before H-ween during daylight hours.

No more "Okay, mom and dad, we'll be home in a couple of hours."

Still, my dad (RIP) would still sit outside with his bowl of candy and get at least 150 little rascals (yes, he was anal, he would count them). (In fact, he probably remembered every hole of every golf game he'd ever played, or at least made us think he did. "In 1983, I teed off on this hole and put it right near the edge of the water there, and then my second shot went just barely over the green. . .") So it didn't precisely dampen enthusiasm thatmuch.

Edward said...

Ann: You wanted me to think more on this topic, and I have.

But I just can’t get past the gratuitous hostility of all the adult Brits quoted in the NYT article that you reference.

Was anyone else shocked by this quote from the article: “I’ve thought about removing the cover from my doorbell so they electrocute themselves.”

That’s an ADULT talking about little kids. That’s abominable!

No decent American adult – and certainly no adult knowing that they were being interviewed by a major newspaper – would speak that way.

Ann and that professor from Scotland want to turn this into a discussion about disappearing folk traditions. In almost any other circumstance, I’d find that a perfectly interesting and legitimate way to pursue this story.

But the sheer animosity of the Brits leads me to only one conclusion, which is that the real story here has nothing whatsoever to do with folk traditions.

The real story here is all about European bigotry against Americans.

jaed said...

Anti-Americanism and hostility among the British is hardly news, though. The line that got my attention was: "Like many other forces, the Cheshire police in northwestern Britain have been distributing no-trick-or-treating posters for people to affix to their windows."

...what? Did the rate of violent crime in Britain suddenly precipitously drop, that the cops there have time to spare for throwing an official wet blanket on children at Halloween?

The idea of police handing out official anti-holiday posters just strikes me as bizarre in the extreme.

Edward said...

Jaed: I grant you that Anti-Americanism among the British is not really news.

What is news is that Anti-Americanism among the British has now reached such proportions that it makes them want to electrocute their own children.

Well...it makes them at least think about electrocuting their own children.

jaed said...

Well, to be fair, not their own children. Other people's children. I admit it's a rather horrifying image but I don't think it represents a new tidemark of anti-Americanism.

The quote is supposedly from a BBS discussion - and we don't have context for it, whether it was a joke, and so on. I've heard worse in discussion forums, certainly.

Balfegor said...

Re: Edward:

What is news is that Anti-Americanism among the British has now reached such proportions that it makes them want to electrocute their own children.

Oh come now. This is the country of Prince Philip and Lewis Carroll! The royal consort is famous for saying horrible things to childrens' faces (e.g. telling a small child he is too fat to become an astronaut). And who has not laughed at:

Speak roughly to your little boy
And beat him when he sneezes!
He only does it to annoy
Because he knows it teases!


Or the still more amusing poetry of Hilaire Belloc:

Henry King
Who chewed bits of string and was early cut off in dreadful agonies

The Chief Defect of Henry King
Was chewing little bits of String.
At last he swallowed some which tied
Itself in ugly Knots inside.

Physicians of the Utmost Fame
Were called at once; but when they came
They answered, as they took their Fees,
"There is no Cure for this Disease.

"Henry will very soon be dead."
His Parents stood about his Bed
Lamenting his Untimely Death,
When Henry, with his Latest Breath,

Cried - "Oh, my Friends, be warned by me,
That Breakfast, Dinner, Lunch and Tea
Are all the Human Frame Requires..."
With that the Wretched Child expires.


Or, for that matter, the works of Saki, who is quite happy to have children die in horrible ways in his humorous short stories (e.g. shrieking in agony while being devoured by a wolf). Or Evelyn Waugh -- children die horribly all the time in his work too, though not to such comic effect as in the work of Saki and of Belloc.

Talking about electrocuting small children is just another chapter in Britain's long and glorious history of laughing at the sufferings of small children.

Edward said...

Jaed:

To the extent that the well-being of children is a communal responsibility and the responsibility of all adults, then this is a question of the British electrocuting their own children.

Yes, I know it could have been a joke, but you should have at least some doubt about that, given the unusually hostile tone of the entire article.

Edward said...

Since when did Balfegor become an expert in humorous literary depictions of child abuse? :)

Ann Althouse said...

Edward: You've explained why you dislike the British people in the article, not why this post is "inane." More the opposite, actually.

Edward said...

Ann: I never meant to suggest that you or the post were inane.

Perhaps I was just sloppy in expressing myself in my first comment.

All I meant was that there was something weird at the core of the article that you just happened to use as the basis of your post.

The weird (inane) thing was the attitude of the British interviewed for the article, not your post.

Jeremy said...

The mysterious and entrancing tradition line made me think of Spinal Tap: "In ancient times, hundreds of years before the dawn of history, an ancient race of people... the Druids. No one knows who they were or what they were doing..."

Elizabeth said...

Synchronicity is fun on Halloween. Just now, as I'm driving to the Walgreen's to snag the last of the Halloween candy, Dr. John's "I Walk on Gilded Splinters" came up on the iPod (for those of you following the sage, YES, I have a new one, and nicely channeled through a Harmon/Karden Drive+Play).

Very spooky, wonderfully appropriate to this post. Dr. John knows the deeper side of Halloween. It's a big holiday here in New Orleans, and I think part of the reason adults get into it so much is that they see what they missed in the sweet, innocent practice of their childhood halloween. Mostly, there are just great parties and lots of fine costumes in the French Quarter. But voudou is real here; there are several temples, and a few well-known priestesses. Around town, there are groups gathering in white, chanting and drumming, and waiting to be ridden by Erzulie.

I'm not among them; for me, the Orishas are just another means into the archetypes of human psychology, morality, and behavior. But I get a frisson hearing Dr. John sing about Papa Diablo just the same.

Elizabeth said...

that's "saga," not sage. Sorry.

Slac said...

Halloween is dead here. Ten years ago the entire city of Wauwatosa celebrated trick-or-treat together. Thousands of children dressed as their favorite heroes walking around creatively decorated streets, happy.

Then a bizarre sectarian movement took over, fueled by fear of razor blades inside poison candy. Neighborhoods split from one another doing their own trick-or-treat times. It's all gone. Our house had only one trick-or-treater this year, when just a decade ago there would be hundreds.

Now Halloween isn't for children, but for adults to act like children. Get drunk while cross-dressing as your favorite porn star. :(