Halloween greetings

Until fairly recently, Halloween did not use to be so big a thing in England. Indeed, it was barely a thing at all. It is something that has come over here from across the Atlantic, enthusiastically spurred on by various companies who saw profits to be made with an extra celebration a few months before Christmas. While some welcome this excuse for merry-making, there are also others who resent what they see as the intrusion of an essentially alien event.

But perhaps it is not quite so alien to these isles: celebrating Halloween may be a relatively recent thing in England, but it has long been a Scottish tradition. We certainly had it in Scotland when I was growing up there in the 60s and 70s. I remember going to Halloween parties, and ducking for apples. We didn’t go trick-or-treating: that was, at the time, an unheard-of phrase. But many did go “guising”. This involved dressing up – not with elaborate costumes, but, more often, with something borrowed from the parents, and often with some facial hair painted on; or, if all else failed, with a bedsheet over one’s head, pretending to be a ghost. And, in this disguise, the children would knock on neighbours’ doors, tell jokes, sing songs, or whatever, in exchange for sweets. I got as far as the dressing up, but, my parents being what they were, knocking on neighbours’ doors in expectation of sweets was a few steps too far for them. I bear the psychological scars of this still.

But this has turned, as all celebrations sadly do, into a commercial orgy, and, descending as I am into grumpy and misanthropic old age, I can understand those who dislike, and are indeed resentful of, the whole business. However, there is another part of me that loves ghost stories, and old horror films, and this part wishes to indulge itself. So, since Halloween is now here to stay whether we like it or not, I propose that we invent our own age-old traditions. I suggest we discard all this hollowed-out pumpkin business; I suggest further that we bin trick-or-treating, and, if we must, return to good old-fashioned Scottish “guising”. And, most importantly, I suggest that for this one evening in the year, we switch off all our electric lights, light candles instead, and, in this ominous gloom and murk, with the candle-light casting eerie, eldritch shadows about the room, and with the wind moaning outside like the despairing voices of damned souls (we will clearly need wind machines should the night not be windy), we scare ourselves silly by reading creepy ghost stories to each other.

Have a very happy Halloween, and see you all on All Soul’s Day.

12 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Philip Bucknell on October 31, 2017 at 6:11 pm

    We should discuss Ghost stories at some point. I have quite a collection of anthologies. Like you I have a certain addiction to the topic! In the meantime Happy Halloween from the land of commercialisation !!


  2. Posted by Marita on October 31, 2017 at 6:20 pm

    Discard the hollowed-out pumpkins, and return to the hollowed-out turnips which was the traditional vegetable to hollow out. You see, even those pumpkins aren’t an original idea.


    • Posted by Chris Lyon on October 31, 2017 at 7:02 pm

      I didn’t know about the turnips! That makes me feel a whole lot better about a childhood memory. My father had a cousin who had ‘done good’. He was a diplomat, who had married well, and had daughters a little older than me who attended Cheltenham Ladies’ College. In fact, when I started at my local girls’ grammar school, I wore their cast off uniform, as, I have since realised, my school had modelled itself on that august institution, to the point of adopting a similar uniform.

      One October day, when I was about 10 years old, these cousins arrived at the family farm, hoping to obtain pumpkins for Halloween. At that point, around 1956 or 1957, pumpkins were totally unknown in Lincolnshire, although today it produces large numbers. Instead, we offered them ‘mangolds’, which are a form of turnip, and they were more than happy to compromise . Note that I speak of ‘mangolds’, rather than ‘mangold wurzels’. We had never heard the latter term, so when, at about the same time, an enthusiastic young teacher read the Wurzel Gummidge stories to our class, she had to explain to 30 farm children what a wurzel was. She was as puzzled by our ignorance as we were by her insistence on calling a basic crop by a silly name.

      I am intrigued that Himadri talks of ‘guising’. We engaged in the custom of ‘guying’, but for 5th November rather than Halloween. We dressed up and went from door to door, hoping for pennies rather than sweets. Halloween seems to have supplanted Guy Fawkes as the festival celebrated at this time of year. I loved Bonfire night as a child, but the anti-catholic overtones now make me somewhat uncomfortable, so I am quite happy to go along with the current vogue. We have just doled out sweets to the first ‘trick or treaters’ of the evening. Last year, we had none, so that was pretty exciting!


      • Interesting – I had always thought the word “guising” was derived from “disguise” but it may well have been derived from “Guy Fawkes”. Hadn’t thought of that.

        And yes- the “Penny for the Guy” tradition does seem to have disappeared! It’s interesting how various events from different cultures seem to converge. Round my neck of the woods, there is now effectively a “firework season” rather than a “firework night” – with fireworks going off just about every night between Diwali and 5th November.

  3. Posted by Janet on October 31, 2017 at 7:00 pm

    Halloween in the US was mostly a night for pranking, with a bit of guising thrown in–probably not much different than in the UK–up until the post-war period. If you watch Arsenic and Old Lace (1944), you wouldn’t even know it takes place on Halloween except that at one point some neighbor children in masks come to the kitchen door and the aunties pass them jack o’ lanterns. When sugar rations were lifted, the candy companies went nuts and that’s the story of modern Halloween. When I was a kid, you could pick up a costume at the dime store or, as we did, cut eye holes in an old sheet, paint on a hobo beard, or make a mask out of a paper bag and crayons. It was insanely fun to go house-to-house collecting candy from neighbors and strangers, who all seemed to be having just as much fun passing it out. Here’s a link to a Kevin Kling Halloween story that used to run on NPR. It captures the feeling well.

    The costumes were a bit more upscale when my kids were pounding the sidewalks for candy, and because we moved to the boonies, trick or treating became a commuter activity. I only miss the suburbs twice a year–Halloween and Christmas. We won’t get any trick or treaters where we are, but I’ll admit, my mantel is presently sporting a gargoyle and a troupe of jovial skeletons. I’m making pumpkin pie and will probably watch Frankenstein tonight. Or Young Frankenstein.

    After Halloween, I will put little red hats on my skeletons and they will hang around until Christmas. In the US, it strikes people as counter-intuitive that ghost stories used to be a Christmas tradition–who can wait that long?


    • Posted by Janet on October 31, 2017 at 7:07 pm

      Oops, well, that link didn’t show up. You may have links (understandably) turned off. Kling’s Halloween Pickles is easy to find on soundcloud, if you want a chuckle. Else, have a misty, dark, and spooky evening of literary edification.


      • Strange – I wasn’t aware of having my links turned off! I’ll have another look at that, and check to see if I have turned it off by mistake.

        I actually rather enjoy Halloween. Sure, it’s commercialised, but you don’t need to take part in the commercialisation if you don’t want to! And as for ghost stories, all dark, winter nights are good nights for ghost stories, as far as I’m concerned! 🙂

        My mother lives in Ribble Valley, near the foot of Pendle Hill, and Pendle was, of course, the scene of notorious witch trials back in 1612. there’s quite a celebration of Halloween there every year, although how much of this celebration is traditional, and how much is driven by the local tourist board, I don’t know. But as long as a good time is had by all, I suppose it doesn’t matter too much!

  4. Posted by caromalc on October 31, 2017 at 9:18 pm

    Hello Himadri,

    I was talking to my neighbour who comes in every morning to get me up and wash/shower me and she was scathing about Halloween calling it an unwanted American tradition. I was able to tell her that I have my grandmother’s letters written from Scotland to her fiance in NZ, and the one on 1st November 1916 said, “Last night was Hallow’een & I wd scarcely have known it! Things were very quiet for there was such a storm raging outside! I didn’t even get an apple at grandma’s! Far less nuts to burn myself & my boy! So I don’t know how you & I are going to agree! Of course there are no nuts this year anyway for most of the “knuts” are away at the war.”

    Apart from showing that Halloween was important in Scotland at least a century ago, this letter also shows that the modern love of exclamation marks is not so modern. Some of this I don’t really understand – the nuts seem to presage agreement between a couple or something like that. And I don’t know what ‘knuts’ are – I might have thought it was a form of disparagement for Germans, but that is not how she is using it here.


    • Hello Caroline, a bit of Googling reveals that “knut” is a now archaic term for fashionable, upper-class men about town. The sort of person Wodehouse used to write about. Well – you learn something every day!

      On a different note, I do hope you are recovering now from your ordeal. I’ll drop you an e-mail soon – it’s been some time since we’ve been in touch.

      All the best now, Himadri


  5. Posted by alan on November 2, 2017 at 7:39 am

    In my patch of Oxfordshire in the 60’s and 70’s I don’t remember any guising or anything remotely similar. In my mind I dated the English adoption of ‘trick or treat’ to Spielberg’s ‘ET’ and in later life assumed it was a tradition that went from Scotland to the U.S., underwent transformations and then came to England via Hollywood.


    • Indeed, that had been my impression also – i.e. that it was mainly a Scottish thing, but that Halloween in its modern form has come from the other side of the Atlantic – but, as Chris’ post above indicates, I suppose Halloween was celebrated in certain parts of England also. But, like it or not, I guess it’s now here to stay!


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