I’m sorry to be all miserable and Eeyoreish, but I don’t quite grasp the concept of Hallowe’en as a fun occasion. Surely “Happy Hallowe’en” is not only a contradiction in terms but entirely the wrong greeting for what is, quite literally, the day of the dead? I realize that greetings companies have passed the point of satire, but what next? Congratulations on Filing Your Inheritance Tax?
“You got it all wrong,” scold my Pagan friends, directing me to my Yale Religious Every-Day-A-Holiday Calendar, where Oct. 31 is marked as Samhain, the “Wicca celebration of endings and beginnings,” when the “revering of elders is observed.” Feeling pluralistic, I celebrate the beginning and end of a glass of whiskey and revere whichever elder bought it. That’s another deity propitiated, and soon I’ll be worshipping Mercury in my own special way.
All Hallows’ Eve (Hallowe’en) is, as the name should suggest but probably won’t, the night before All Saints’ Day — oh, never mind. The pages of scene are hardly the best place to start a one-man campaign, and I’ll stick to insulting Paganism in private, as I have no wish to wind up in a large wicker frame being ritually immolated on Cross Campus.
But I’m still baffled that there isn’t a better or more obvious occasion for mindless commercial exploitation. Nor do I understand why, when parents spend 11 months of the year exhorting their children neither to accept sweets from strangers nor to vandalize property, Hallowe’en is a valid excuse for both.
Back home in England when I was small, Hallowe’en was a rather desultory, pumpkin-free occasion, but this was largely due to there being a more exciting celebration the following week. Everybody at my primary school knew to chant:
“Remember, remember the fifth of November, / Gunpowder, treason and plot;
I see no reason why gunpowder treason / Should ever be forgot.”
As a proven method of inculcating religious hatred, ungrammatical doggerel is hard to beat. Nov. 5 is Bonfire Night, or Guy Fawkes Night, when the British celebrate the foiling of a Catholic plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605.
In the same decade, the first British settlers landed in Virginia. Our great November celebration is Bonfire Night, yours is Thanksgiving.
You give thanks, we burn Catholics.
This may help to explain the relative shift in the power and influence of our countries over the past 400 years.
We really do burn Catholics — not real ones, of course (or not very often), but effigies of Guy Fawkes, a conspirator who had the misfortune to be caught with the Jacobean equivalent of a smoking pistol. At Lewes, in Sussex, they even burn the Pope. A long tradition of gentle anti-Catholicism persists in Britain, and at soccer matches in Glasgow you can still hear cries of “F*ck the Pope!” (Although this may be because it’s such a hassle to shout “F*ck the Moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland!”)
What with the combination of religious intolerance and the annual spate of injuries caused by fireworks on Bonfire Night, it’s a wonder the European Court of Human Rights, fresh from inventing the inviolable right of felons to vote, hasn’t banned it by now.
Fortunately, the forces of religious toleration are alive and well and living in the West Midlands, where a council decided that a tissue box depicting Piglet should be removed during Ramadan in case it caused offence.
I guess I’ve just forgotten that bit in “The House at Pooh Corner” when Piglet hurls execrations upon the head of the Prophet.
All of this animosity and ill feeling makes me positively warm to the cheerful (and very American) desire to transform the rending of the veil between this world and the next into an occasion for dressing up and eating candy. As my new guru, UConn’s Tim Kenny, observes, the interesting thing about Hallowe’en “is how the idea of it, like so many other things we Americans have run amok with, is being taken up by people who live elsewhere.”
Just like Pepsi, credit cards, democracy, etc., although I can’t quite imagine Condi orating about “A World Safe For Trick-or-Treating” anytime soon.
“Somehow,” professor Kenny concludes, “American culture in all its simplicity and strangeness at times seems to resonate with lots of other people.” And hurrah for that, even if it does mean that you can stand on a London street corner, rotate 360 degrees and identify 27 separate branches of Starbucks.
Even so, I can’t shake the nagging desire to set fire to something. If anyone has a midterm they’d like to burn, let me know.
Nick Baldock has a King-Sized candy bar for your Halloween come-and-gone enjoyment.