Just now, the streets are full of excited children dressed as witches and ghosts, and, though Halloween will be a distant memory by the time you read this, it is interesting to reflect on the inexorable rise in popularity of this relatively new custom at the expense of Guy Fawkes Night. For an archaeologist or cultural historian, witnessing the replacement of one autumn festival by another is fascinating to watch: here is cultural change in action, rituals literally evolving before our very eyes.
The place of Guy Fawkes Night as a national celebration has steadily declined since 1859, when the 1606 Thanksgiving Act, making it compulsory to celebrate the uncovering of the 1605 Gunpowder Plot, was finally repealed. More recently, health and safety concerns have led to the demise of private parties remembering the Fifth of November in favour of ‘Bonfire Nights’ run by local charities on the nearest Saturday. Gunpowder, treason and plot have been written out of the story – how do you explain the political and religious issues behind the burning of a group of Catholic conspirators in this secular, multi-cultural, anti-historical age?
Dressing up as a ghost or ghoul seems a relatively harmless activity by contrast with the inflammatory implications of burning a religious fanatic, especially to children brought up on a diet of Harry Potter and TV vampires. Unlike Guy Fawkes, Halloween seems to have escaped from its religious origins to become a wholly secular occasion, no longer associated with the Christian feasts of All Saints and All Souls (though these are still widely observed in Catholic Europe and Latin America with cemetery visits and the placing of flowers on graves). Big retail chains have played their part in the usurpation of Guy Fawkes: while restrictions on firework sales mean that supermarkets can profit little from Bonfire Night, Halloween tills ring merrily as children pester parents into buying themed sweets, cloaks, masks, and witches hats. Pumpkins – once a semi-mythical fruit known only to English schoolchildren through the stories of Mark Twain – are now as ubiquitous as Christmas trees. Folklorists like to trace Halloween back to the festival of Samhain (meaning ‘summer’s end’), still celebrated in Gaelic-speaking parts of northern Europe until well into the 20th century with bonfires and rituals to ward off evil spirits. Exported to America by Irish migrants, it evolved into today’s Halloween.
Call it Samhain, All Saints, Guy Fawkes, or Halloween, what does not seem to have changed is the basic human desire to do something communal and festive at the beginning of the darker weeks of the year.