How Halloween Has Taken Over England

The British have long celebrated Guy Fawkes Day on November 5, but now the October 31 holiday is a lot more appealing.

Halloween party in Bristol. (© Franz-Marc Frei/Corbis)
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In England, Halloween is so hot right now.

And what's making it more unbearable for some is the fact that the Americanized celebration of Halloween that is becoming more and more popular on October 31 may be coming at the expense of the most staunchly English (although equally insubordinate) of holidays: Guy Fawkes Day on November 5.

That holiday, also known as Bonfire Night, is a commemoration of the foiled Gunpowder Plot by disgruntled Catholics to blow up Parliament, with the Protestant King James I inside. Celebrated like the the Fourth of July, fireworks, parades, blazing bonfires, and effigies of Fawkes (and the Pope), were all typical trademarks of the holiday.

But increasingly, revelers in the United Kingdom are combining the holidays and what has long been a distinctly British event has taken on more and more of an American flavor.

"I have a distinct sense that Halloween is overtaking or has overtaken Guy Fawkes Night," says James Sharpe of the University of York in England, who has studied the history of these holidays.

Some data and much anecdotal evidence back this up: In an article last year on Halloween in the U.K., the New York Times reported that sales of Halloween-related products were expected to grow 12 percent in 2013 from the previous year. Halloween dress-up balls and parties are becoming popular with young Brits, just as they have been with their American counterparts. Trick or treat candies are collected along with pennies for the Guy. Houses and shops are decorated with images of witches, pumpkins and Michael Myers—even pets are dressed in silly Halloween costumes.

"It's certainly true that Halloween is now a 'thing' in the U.K., in a way that wasn't true when I was a child," says Dr. Susan Greenberg, senior lecturer in creative writing at London's University of Roehampton, and a dual national who has lived in the U.K. since childhood.

Some Brits are not happy to see Guy Fawkes Day being eclipsed by Halloween. Sharpe, for one, proudly considers himself a "Halloween Scrooge," and says that, in his opinion, the Americanized way the holiday is being marked in England is "rather brainless."

Who’s to blame? "I hate to say this, but what's happening is a result of U.S. cultural imperialism," Sharpe says, citing a national poll in the U.K., conducted by the market research firm YouGov, in which forty five percent of those surveyed  thought Halloween "an unwelcome American cultural import." (Presumably the other fifty-five were busy celebrating it).

Some might consider the idea of dismissing Halloween as an American intrusion into British culture ironic considering that its roots are found in Scotland and Ireland. Then again, nobody was walking around dressed up as a banana in 12th-century Scotland.  

Nicholas Rogers, author of the book Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night sees the Halloween-Guy Fawkes competition differently. "I know some in England want to paint it as cultural imperialism," says Rogers, a native of Bristol, who teaches history at York University in Toronto. But, he points out, it is the British who have changed as changed as much as the holidays they celebrate. "In a more multicultural Britain, Guy Fawkes is a bit of an embarrassment," Rogers says. "What you’re doing is burning a Catholic on a bonfire, and that doesn't go down very well today."

The actual history of the Gunpowder Plot (or the Powder Treason as it was also known) has also undergone some re-evaluation. "The courage of the Powder Plotters is undeniable and even those hottest in condemning their enterprise have paid tribute to it," wrote historian Antonia Fraser in her acclaimed 1996 book on the Plot, Faith and Treason. Guy Fawkes and his co-conspirators may have very well been what we would today call terrorists, but given the oppression of Catholics in England at the time, Fraser argues, they were "perhaps brave, misguided men...whose motives if not their actions, were noble and idealistic."

While the holiday in his name may be declining in popularity, Fawkes himself has enjoyed a career comeback as a symbol for protest in the 21st century:  the 2006 movie "V for Vendetta," in which the eponymous hero, the anarchist V, wears a Guy Fawkes mask in his efforts to overthrow a fascist British government in a dystopian future, Fawkes's visage has become the unofficial face of the Occupy movement and the hacker group Anonymous.

Halloween labors under no such political baggage. While the celebrations in Britain do owe a good deal to the American version of the holiday, Rogers notes that Halloween here in the U.S. continues to evolve, too, reflecting our own changing society; accommodating the rites and traditions of other seasonal festivals, including the Day of the Dead, a Mexican holiday celebrated from October 31-November 2.

"In cities like San Antonio and Los Angeles," Rogers says, "You've now got a fused holiday. You've got sugar skulls, a traditional Day of the Dead Mexican treat, co-existing with people dressed up as witches."

Similarly, he suspects Halloween and Guy Fawkes Day may find a way to coexist in Britain. In some parts of Northern Ireland and Canada, they've already managed to dampen the anti-Catholic undertones while keeping the fires burning on November 5. Celebrants there have simply taken Guy Fawkes, in name and effigy, out of the holiday.  

"They have a Guy-less bonfire," Rogers says dryly.

It's doubtful that in a country with a large Catholic population, Americans would appropriate Guy Fawkes Day as a holiday of their own, even though in pre-Revolutionary War Boston, it was actually celebrated as "Pope's Day" with effigies of the Pope joining Fawkes as objects of desecration. That's just as well. Besides being offensive, one thing colonial Pope's Day shared with American Halloween and the British Guy Fawkes Day is that all are marked by a degree of bad behavior on the part of some.  In her book, Fraser quotes what she calls the "sensible" words of an American almanac on the subject in 1746:

Powder Plot will not be forgot.

Twill be observed by many a sot.

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