autumnal holidays

So far, Bonfire Night has only come up in the comments on another post on this blog. But thinking about it (for it is tonight) has me thinking about all sorts of differences in my experience of autumn (or, more often in AmE, fall) in the US and UK. Forgive me, but this post will be lighter on linguistic gore than most, and heavier on nostalgia and maybe even a touch of homesickness (not something I think of myself as suffering from!).

Autumn/fall was always my favo(u)rite season in the US, but in the UK, I tend to face it with a certain "Oh god, it's going to get dark early" kind of dread. It doesn't help that the UK goes off British Summer Time a week earlier than the US goes off Daylight Savings Time, but the greater problem is that this time of year there is less light up here at +50° latitude than there was at +43°, where I grew up, or +31° or -26°, the last two places I lived. By the time we get to mid-December, when it's invariably overcast in Brighton, it seems to me like the day never gets all the way to proper daytime light levels. Today there are 37 fewer minutes of light in Brighton than in my hometown, and by winter solstice, that difference will be more than an hour--or two hours if I compare it to my last abode.

But it's not just the dark that does me in, it's the relative lack of distractions from the dark. American autumns/falls, especially in the northeast where I'm from, are chock-full of them. Of course, there are the back-to-school rituals (found in the UK too), and Lynneukah, the joyous festival of Lynne (at the start of October--it's not too early to start planning for next year). But after those, we get into the serious autumn rituals.

Watching the changing colo(u)rs of leaves is a big one--so much so that in New England there's a word for tourists/leisurely drivers who arrive in hordes to look at the trees: leaf-peepers. Here's a nice photo of what they go looking for. Where I come from, foliage observation is tied up with other rituals, like going to apple orchards for fresh cider (which in AmE is a rusty-colo(u)red, pressed apple juice, not a fermented drink), hayrides (AmE: 'a pleasure ride in a hay-wagon', OED), bonfires--and, my favo(u)rite, apple cider doughnuts. Bonfires and hayrides are often part of other autumn/fall rituals, such as Homecoming (for which, see Janna's comment describing Homecoming in the previous post on proms).

Then there's Halloween, which has roots going back to Scotland and Ireland (particularly the Scottish tradition of guising), but whose modern form is a recent import from the US to the UK--and a poorly understood import, I'd say. Boy, do people complain about it here. There's a common perception of trick-or-treating as "as a nuisance or even a menacing form of begging" (Wikipedia). After reading this anti-Halloween diatribe on the BBC website, I was relieved to read one British expat in Canada's take on it in the comments:
I moved to Canada from Britain in the mid 90s, and at first, treated trick-or-treating with a healthy suspicion. However, I soon realized, that in my neck of the woods at least, Halloween is more about fun than menace; it's about the treat rather than the trick. In our neighbourhood, it's mainly young kids who come trick-or-treating with their parents. We also get a few older teens who come by, almost self-deprecatingly, and we always compliment them on their costumes, or berate them gently for their lack of effort, but fill their bags nonetheless. No menaces, no threats. I was back in England last Hallowe'en and was surprised to see and hear the healthy antagonism there was against trick or treaters. Friends and family all had signs in their windows, weren't planning to answer the door, couldn't understand why my seven year-old wanted to dress up and go out after dark with a bag looking for treats. I think in England, what has happened is that the message has been lost in translation, and over the years the idea of treat has [been?] supplanted [by?] that of trick. Maybe you should all come over here and go trick-or-treating with my little ones tonight - then you'd have a better understanding of how it *should* work!
Anne, Vancouver, Canada
In other words, in North America, Halloween tends to be a child-cent(e)red event that brings people in a neighbo(u)rhood together in celebration of their children. A couple of differences I've noticed in trick-or-treating here (besides the fact that there's just a lot less of it) are (a) a lot of people give coins instead of (AmE) candy/(BrE) sweets, and (b) adults seem more 'purist' about costumes. I've heard a couple of people complain that a child was dressed as a fairy or a superhero, implying that that is not a Halloween costume. But by the time that the traditions were being (re)imported from the US, few people in the US saw anything wrong with dressing as whatever you liked. Thinking back on my Halloween costumes, I'd been a fortuneteller, a magnet, and a bride--never anything particularly scary. So, (a) contributes to people seeing the holiday as extortionate and (b) contributes to a more sinister (it's all about evil!) view of it than is typically held in the US.

After Halloween, American attention turns to Thanksgiving (the fourth Thursday in November). While there is the position that this holiday is politically/racially insensitive (since it celebrates the saving of European immigrants' asses/arses by Native Americans, many of whom were subsequently subject to genocide), it has a lot going for it too. Bill Bryson writes about it as 'The Best American Holiday' in I'm a Stranger Here Myself:
Thanksgiving is wonderful for all kinds of reasons. To begin with, it has the commendable effect of staving off Christmas. Whereas in in Britain the Christmas shopping season seems nowadays to kick off around about the August bank holiday, Christmas mania doesn't traditionally begin in America until the last weekend in November.
Indeed, the Christmas decorations have been up (not lit, but still...) in Brighton for several weeks now. There have been Christmas cards, Christmas decorations, and most weirdly Christmas food in the shops since September. You get a little of that in the US, but the onslaught is staved off by the retailers' need to keep part of their shelf space free for Halloween and Thanksgiving (BrE) tat (=junk). The reputed busiest shopping day of the American year (at least in terms of traffic, if not sales) is the day after Thanksgiving, known in the retailing world as Black Friday. Thanksgiving gives us a clear sense of when the (commercial) Christmas season begins--at a time that isn't too far away from when Advent begins.

Bryson continues:
Moreover, Thanksgiving remains a pure holiday, largely unsullied by commercialization. It involves no greeting cards, no trees to trim, no perplexed hunt through drawers and cupboards for decorations. I love the fact that at Thanksgiving all you do is sit at a table and try to get your stomach into the approximate shape of a beach ball and then go and watch a game of football on TV. This is my kind of holiday.

But perhaps the nicest, certainly the noblest, aspect of Thanksgiving is that it gives you a formal, official occasion to give thanks for all those things for which you should be grateful. I think this is a wonderful idea, and I can't believe that it hasn't been picked up by more countries.
(Though we should note that many churches have a Thanksgiving Sunday--but that's not typically an occasion when families travel to be together and do all of the other things that go along with American Thanksgiving.)

So those, plus a few things here and there like Veteran's Day (= UK Remembrance Day), the World Series in baseball and the (American) football season (and its many accout{er/re}ments, like tailgating) are some of the rituals that mark autumn/fall in (particularly north-eastern) America and distract us from the fact that the sun is going bye-bye and it's getting cold. We can still think of the weather as being crisp while we're enjoying ourselves with apple cider doughnuts and jumping in piles of leaves.

What do we have in the UK? One childhood autumn tradition is the playing of conkers. This is a game involving horse chestnuts on strings, where you try to knock each other's chestnuts, or conkers. (For a better explanation, click on the link.) More boys seem to play this than girls, and it can involve a lot of forethought, with dedicated players searching long and hard for the best conkers and then making them harder by, for instance soaking them in vinegar and baking them. This tradition may be dying out, with rumo(u)rs of schools banning the game for health and safety reasons. (I had to make that bold, since Health and Safety is such a BrE phrase/obsession. I suppose the AmE equivalent would be liability.)

Besides the half-hearted observance of Halloween, the main autumn ritual in the UK is Guy Fawkes Night or Bonfire Night. (Remember, remember the fifth of November.) This marks the failure of the Gunpowder Plot, an attempt by a group of Catholics to blow up Parliament in 1605. Depending on where/who you are in the UK, this may be a bigger or smaller event. In nearby Lewes, it's huge--due to Lewes' history as a site of Protestant martyrdom. Here's a photo of a Lewes Bonfire Night from that is bound to be a bit disturbing to Americans, since it looks like a Ku Klux Klan rally. In fact, Bonfire Night is not known for its political, religious or racial sensitivity. I have practi{c/s}ing Catholic friends who have been offended that I've gone and enjoyed the Lewes festivities since they involve the burning of effigies (Guy Fawkes, traditionally, but they'll burn anyone in Lewes) and throwing bangers (little fireworks) at someone dressed as the/a Pope--albeit nowadays a pope in fireproof clothing and safety goggles. (It's never clear to me whether it's supposed to be the current Pope or the one from 1605.) It also involves a parade that I've described before as something like "Mardi Gras with fire". Lewes has a number of bonfire societies, which can be likened to the krewes of New Orleans Mardi Gras, and each parades around town in themed costumes (not that the themes have to have anything to do with the Gunpowder Plot--some perennial favo(u)rites are stereotyped Native American dress, African 'tribespeople' and smugglers). After parading around town a few times, they lead crowds to their bonfire site, where there is a huge bonfire and the burning of their effigy. The effigy is usually filled with fireworks, and the fireworks shows that follow are always incredible. (So are the crowds.)

Of course, not everywhere is near Lewes or other big Bonfire Night towns, and so most people will celebrate Bonfire night on a smaller scale (if at all), either by going to municipal fireworks or by buying/lighting one's own in the back (BrE) garden/(AmE) yard. (Our window wells were full of spent fireworks Saturday night. Coming from a place where mere citizens are not allowed to have fireworks, I never cease to be surprised by how willing people are to light them close to buildings/people. My friend the Postman's bonfire party this year ended with broken windows and a trip to the hospital.) While I love the fireworks, to me Bonfire Night is a night out to look at fire more than a holiday, since it doesn't involve the kind of planning and preparation (at least not by me) that Halloween (costume-wise) and Thanksgiving (food/hosting-wise) do. But I'm sure for some people, like the Lewes Bonfire Societies, it feels like much more.

So--what British autumn rituals am I missing here? Help me out--I've got a lot of darkness to get through!


  1. I was also wondering about another American fall "holiday"- Mischief Night. I was talking to some Latino friends from NY the other day, and they don't go out on Halloween because it's a gang initiation night there.

    But we in the Mid-Atlantic area know not to leave the house dark on the 30th because it's Mischief Night- the night that neighborhood kids fork lawns, TP trees and egg front doors.

    So maybe in some places in the US, that is part of Halloween, which is why it has a bad rap in foreign parts? Do other people celebrate Mischief Night? Wikipedia says that it's celebrated in Scotland and N. Ireland, so maybe that's part of it as well?

  2. Thanksgiving is definitely the best holiday. The only thing you have to do is sit down and have a nice long meal with family and friends.

    As for Halloween, my grandfather told me that when & where he grew up (Hastings, Neb. around 1920), Halloween had a definite mean streak. The kids would smash flower pots and so on if they didn't get candy.

    Where I grew up in California, there wasn't any mischief night. My family then moved to central New Jersey, where there was, on the 30th.

  3. Hey Lynne,

    I am definitely missing the fall rituals in this my first autumn in Manchester. It doesn't help that the Sox won the Series and the Pats are 9-0 and beat the Colts with just 4 minutes to go on Sunday - albeit in the middle of the night while I was sleeping.

    Halloween here in Manchester seemed rather half-hearted. I live in the city centre, so didn't see a lot of young kids in costume/fancy-dress. Our cup runneth over with drunk Uni students who used it as yet another excuse to drink (do they ever go to class?).

    Interestingly enough, as we're planning a Thanksgiving dinner sometime around Thanksgiving (might be that weekend as it's easier to co-ordinate), the person on my grad programme pushing most for us to have it is a Brit who's lived in the US before.

    One of the reasons why I am most fond of Thanksgiving is that it's the one truly American holiday. While it has Christian underpinnings, I know Muslims, Jews, and secularists who also find great meaning in Thanksgiving. It is also a window into days of old where a holiday was a day to take off from work and spend time with family, something no one does enough of anymore.


  4. Additional aspects of Guy Fawkes Night not touched upon by Lynnequist:

    "Penny for the guy" - kids make their own - often rather pathetic - guys in the days running up to 5th Nov and attempt to blag money out of passers by (kinda fills in for trick or treating doncha think?). On the catering front there are toffee apples, jacket potatoes, and (perhaps this was just my mum, who actually came from NZ) homemade crisps/chips to eat around the bonfire.

  5. Wonderful post...and I echo your sentiments completely.

    I'm sure I'll feel very blue around Thanksgiving. It's the one "American" thing I miss the most...but what I miss can't really be recreated anyway, with so many of the important participants of the past no longer with us.

    Thanks so much for writing this piece, Lynne.


  6. Janna, Mischief Night was not a big thing where I came from (or subsequently lived), although a lot of the mischief that did occur happened on the 30th as well as the 31st. Basically, watch out if you're an unpopular high school teacher.

    But I don't think that Mischief Night as such is the reason for the bad reputation that Halloween has here--I think it's more about the fact that the people who are most enthusiastic about importing it are teenagers and university students, rather than parents of young children. And as Mike's seen, that age group doesn't celebrate it in the most wholesome of ways.

    Another aspect that may make it unpopular are different English and American cultural attitudes to privacy and the home--and possibly about showing off how cute your children are. (Discussed, as many things are, in Kate Fox's book, Watching the English.)

  7. Bonfire Night is also celebrated in Newfoundland (though not in the rest of Canada).

  8. It is really true. Autumn/Fall is [i]the[/i] time for Americans.
    Everything happens during the fall. And I agree, especially for the Northeasterners.
    Wearing slightly heavier clothes, the nip in the air where you have to wear something warm but aren't bundled up like a snowman. (Though there is a certain fun to that too.)
    And Thanksgiving is simply great.

    The differnece in Halloween is interesting though. My area of the world didn't have Mischief night and the most "tricking" that ever came about was a smashed pumpkin or someone's house getting Toilet Papered. The worst thing was egging, but that happend so rarely. Halloween is so many things to so many people over here. For College students it is an excuse for the shy to dress up in a sexy outfit and go drinking. For Adults it is a chance to dress up and recapture their youth (as fancy dress/costume parties are extremely rare outside of October) And for Kids, it is a time to pig out on candy and be silly. It is rarely malicious. There are teh tales of the "razor blade in the candy" but that is a complete fabrication...there has only ever been one reported account of a child being harmed by Halloween candy...and that was done by his father.
    And I don't know how popular they are in the UK, but in the US, Haunted Houses are a cherished they set up for small children with fairly benign vampires walking about, or if they are made for adults where you have to sign a waiver before hand and people with heart conditions are advised not to enter. (Markoff's Haunted Forest and The Eastern State Penitentiary are two that my friends went to this year...and I am 31.)

    and Lynne...what would you give for a Macintosh Apple right now? I live in Maryland now and they are hard to come by, I hate to think what it is like across the pond!

  9. I think it's a specifically English thing, the failure to celebrate often enough in the dark months. In Scotland when I was wee, we had guisin' at Halloween and then squibs and bonfire on Guy Fawkes Night. Later some liked to make a fuss of St Andrew's Night. Everyone made a fuss of Hogmanay, and Christmas had just been taken up "for the bairns". Then it was Burns' Supper, a major jollification. Then in no time at all you were decorating and rolling your Easter eggs in cheerfully pagan style. Dour calvinists, the English.

  10. You need to hunt around and go out for a good wassail!

    However, I suspect, you will need to search for a decent wassailling opportunity now-a-days!

  11. I saw a bit of a History Channel piece on Halloween when we were out that night, and it seemed to show Halloween here [in the Midwest? I'm not sure; we were in a bar, watching it with the closed captioning on] as more full of the breaking-things-and-being-mean kind of mischief in the past than it is now.

    I grew up and still live in California, and I've never heard of Mischief Night. One thing that is often celebrated here, though, is the Mexican holiday Dia de Los Muertos, on 1 and 2 November. It overlaps with Halloween nicely.

  12. I must say that I enjoy all the seasons in England. I am lucky to live about half a mile from Epping Forest, which I have to drive through to reach the M25 and, of course walk through when possible. Whilst I am sure that it cannot match New England, the trees still look wonderful in all their various autumnal shades. Mind you, I do hope we have some snow in the winter as then the forest is like wonderland.

    I always feel that 15th September marks the end of summer: we have the commemoration of the Battle of Britain; it is around the Last Night of The Proms and the Cricket County Championship is drawing to a close.

    Remembrance Day is important to me, as for the past few years, I have joined a few former comrades in the Service and March past at the Cenotaph: we served in the RAF in Cyprus during the EOKA troubles, so we especially remember the 300 or so servicemen who died as a result of the conflict. Afterwards our wives, who have watched from the crowds, join us for lunch. Incidentally, this Sunday on BBCI Jeremy Paxman (BBC’s ferocious interrogator of politicians) presents a programme about the war poet Wilfred Owen and later in the evening on ITV1 there is a two hour drama/documentary about John Kipling (played by Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame) who was killed at the Battle of Loos: he was the son of Rudyard Kipling.

    Surely sitting round a log fire in a country pub, with a pint in your hand on a dank autumn day takes a lot of beating!

  13. On the fifth of November I was in another Lewes (Delaware, USA) to attend Punkin Chunkin, a local fall tradition of sorts.

  14. Short winter nights in Brighton? Ha! Luxury! Try Orkney!

    Diwali is in late Oct-early Nov, so areas with large Hindu populations have a Triple Whammy (BrE?) alongside Bonfire Night and Halloween.

    In Ireland as a child in the 70s, Halloween had no mischief, no witches, just a plastic mask, bobbing apples and a modicum of sweets. At each door we said "have you anything for Halloween?" though some favoured the mysterious US incantation "trigger trees!" (sic). Average haul per door: 2 jellies, one chocolate finger, 8 flocons of popcorn.

    Now Halloween in the main night for Bonfires (and associated injuries) in Ireland (burning popes is not big, outside parts of Norn Iron). Though in Cork as a lad, Bonfire Night was St John's Eve (24 June). Much more sensible: the long hot summer nights meant the bonfire didn't kick in till 10 and lasted till whenever.

  15. Yeah, but according to Dearieme, the Scots know how to make the darkness more bearable with a proper holiday season!

  16. St John's Eve is still bonfire night in Dundalk, I'm told. And it certainly used to be in the West, but it looks like it's fighting a losing battle against Halloween.

    We always ended up getting lots of liquorice sweets, which nobody liked (except probably the various nice old neighbours who gave them to us). But we always had, or went to, bonfires, as long back as I can remember (that would be back to about 1980).

  17. Right then, you're going have to put on your dancing pumps, Lynneguist, and go off to Strip the Willow on St Andrew's Night. Your fellow should be bekilted. We expect photos.

  18. As a Lewesian, I can confirm that the effigies of the pope burnt on Bonfire Night (or rather, exploded) represent Paul V, Camillo Borghese, who was Pope at the time of the Gunpowder Plot. They do not represent the current Pope. Many catholic friends of mine have no objection to taking part in the festivities; some indeed are members of Bonfire Societies!

    The person dressed as an archbishop at whom squibs are thrown does not in fact represent any pope.

    The custom of carrying fiery crosses in commemoration of the Lewes Martyrs pre-dates the formation of the KKK by many years.

    The fancy dress costumes worn by the societies are possibly descended from general dressing-up traditions of autumnal 'Misrule' festivities - c.f. Guising and Halloween. The cheerful anarchy of Lewes on November 5th certainly exhibits Misrule at its best!

  19. Here's a weird one about trick-or-treating. We we recently (mid-September) in Liverpool, and there were a couple of urchins running around in terrible "ghoul" costumes trick-or-treating people in the city center -- for money, not candy, with plastic jack o'lanterns. They were extremely aggressive about it, going into pubs, pushing past people, and trying to hit as many people as they possibly could. We saw them -- the same ones -- several different days. More than a month before Halloween. Very strange.

  20. I grew up in New Jersey and we had mischief night there, but I've lived in CA for 10 years and there is no such thing. I kind of miss the spooky decorations of a TP'd tree, though it's probably not very good for the environment....Throwing eggs at houses is not missed.

  21. I’ve been mulling over Halloween for a couple of days now. Soemthing didn’t feel right about the various comments to me, but I think part of Lynne’s original comment sums it up.

    “Then there's Halloween, which has roots going back to Scotland and Ireland (particularly the Scottish tradition of guising), but whose modern form is a recent import from the US to the UK”

    That implies, to me, that Britain didn’t really have Halloween before we started to adopt American customs But that’s not true - we have had a very developed Halloween tradition in Britain. It is a time of ghosts and waking dead and scary things. And it has stayed that way. It’s a time to tell ghost stories and (for youngsters) to try to scare your mates (and anyone else whop gets involved). Traditionally, it isn’t a time for really young children.

    Halloween dressing up (in Britain) is expected to stick to the ghosties and goulies line - because Halloween is all about scary stuff. We had a halloween fancy dress contest in the pub where I run quizzes. Every one who dressed up chose a scary theme. The same is true of the other dress-up events I have seen in pubs and bars recently.

    It’s the same as trick or treating – the American’s on here all share a common understanding of ‘trick or treat’ – you all understand that it’s a gentle activity divorced from the scary stuff. In Britain we don’t. We hear the words - ‘trick OR treat’ with out any cultural background. We here give us a treat or we will play a trick on you. Give us something good or we will do something bad to you. Basically – extortion.

    And many of out teenagers will see it like that. When my son was in his early teens he wanted to go trick or treating – he wanted really scary masks, and he was going to conceal his ID etc I hooded clothes - he WANTED to scare people. All his mates wanted to go with him as well.

    Part of the reaso0n they don’t share the American view of ‘trick or treat’ is that they haven’t grown up with it. So they make their own assumptions.

    Halloween here has traditionally been a low key event, but it has been celebrated for many a long year. Personally, I would be more than happy with Halloween staying a low status festival, if it would spare us all the black and orange tat that’s been in the shops recently.

  22. Didn't mean to imply that there was no such thing as Halloween in England before recent years (though I can see that I was not careful enough in expressing that), but that the modern American festival is more based on some Scottish/Irish traditions involving giving people treats of various sorts, and that what people are complaining about in Halloween these days is their perception of the "Americani{s/z}ation" of it. The problem, as the discussion so far would have it, is that something is lost in the translation--that American-style Halloween has not been imported, but that trick-or-treating of a kind has been stuck onto existing English notions of Halloween. And then people blame the 'badness' on 'the American ways'--much as some people like to (try to) do (but they won't usually get away with it around here!) with grammar...

  23. Well, when I was a kid, you could certainly dress up as anything you liked. Superman costumes were always popular and I remember dressing up as a lion one year (complete with home-made lion mask).

    Nowadays it seems almost obligatory to be dressed up as something scary, but I had put that down to movie-industry-led Americanization of Halloween myself!

  24. Do other people celebrate Mischief Night?

    In Detroit MI the night before Halloween is "Devil's Night." It often veers over into more serious vandalism.

    It's been several years since I lived around there and caught the newscasts--which of course made a bigger deal about it than it probably deserved.

    I was quickly annoyed hearing so many breaking news stories start with "Police report that nothing happened on Devil's Night."

    Yep. And Buckwheat is still dead.

  25. Lynneguist - I know you didn't mean to imply there was no Halloween in Britain before hand :) I wasn't trying to 'pick on' you, everyone writes from the perspective of what they understand and are used to. Cultural immersion and background is just as important in understandings of festivals and celebrations as it is in language use.

    My wife is just starting to understand some of my reluctance to embrace and American style Halloween - after living here with me for the last five years :) Our kids don't have the cultural baggage that makes Halloween a 'nice' time. :)

    As for people complaining about 'Americanization' of things - well that's more than reasonable. My wife moans like hell when I try to Anglify Thanks Giving :) Why would anyone value another cultures way of doing it over their own.

    You also need to remember that for many of us in Britain - Americanisation normally goes hand-in-hand with increased commercialisation.

  26. boys, (never girls) played conkers in Irish catholic neighborhoods in the bronx when i was kid.. (circa mid 1950/mid 1960's)

    and they took huge sticks of chalk, (1 inch by 6 inches) pack 2 or 3 into the toe of sock, and beat the chalk to dust..
    these chalks sacks were used to knock on doors (when trick or treating) and if you didn't answer, you would get your door covered with chalk.. (pounded and pounded (driving you crazy with the noise if you were home!) som times boys would pound each other too, (and get wicked bruises!)

  27. johnb--I didn't think you were trying to pick on me. Just wanted to clarify my meaning, since I hadn't stated it as well as I would have liked to.

    My complaint about people complaining about Americani{s/z}ation is not that people shouldn't complain about things being Americani{s/z}ed (one has the right to like one's own culture the way it is!) but the fact that they often claim that things that they don't like are American, based on incomplete evidence. Some of the things that people don't like about Halloween are not things that I'd identify as 'American' things. So, the thing I don't like is the assumption that 'if it's something bad/crass/commerical that's come into our culture, then it must be American influence.'

    And, to be clear, I wasn't saying that you were doing that, johnb! Just clarifying what I meant by my last comment.

  28. vdybnagoCulture and cultural transfer is something I think about occasionally (Yes - I know I am weird and sad).

    The UK often imports ideas from abroad (and America is one of the largest contributors for many reasons)

    However, we only normally import one part of the custom/idea, and leave the rest behind. Then we get surprised that it doesn't work well. One example was when college tuition fees were introduced - we introduced the fees but forgot to import the concept of part-time HE courses available at every local college and good systems of transferability of academic credit.

    Of course, many ideas are imported by retailers, who think they can make money out of the introduction. Halloween is a good case in point. The drive for house decorating and Halloween decorations etc are driven by the retailers - particularly (as far as I can see) the supermarkets. Because of that, the introduction does have a commercial aspect to it.

    That's why many 'American' things get labeled with a commercial tag :)

    But I'll stop now :P Actually though - I suspect the spread and homogenisation of events/holidays etc - is linked to the same vectors that spreads words from one version of English to another.

  29. This seems a good point at which to ask about "fall". I seem to recall being told , some years ago , that it is a good old English word that the Pilgrims took with them and retained , whilst we Brits let the French "automne" take over for us . Is that right ??

  30. Good question, Anon.

    This is what the OED says:

    "2. (In early use also more fully fall of the leaf.) That part of the year when leaves fall from the trees; autumn. In N. Amer. the ordinary name for autumn; in England now rare in literary use, though found in some dialects; spring and fall, the fall of the year, are, however, in fairly common use."

    The examples they have include not particularly poetic uses of fall well into the 19th century in Britain:

    "1851 CARLYLE Sterling I. xi. (1872) 67 His first child..was born the fall of that year 1831. 1862 MERIVALE Rom. Emp. (1865) VI. xlvii. 38 It was in the fall of the year..that Agrippa sailed for the East."

    So, yes, it does look like a case in which AmE has carried on using an English term that the English have pretty much abandoned.

  31. I love the autumn holidays! Halloween is the candy holiday, Thanksgiving is the pie holiday, and Christmas is the cookie holiday. What's not to love?

    Halloween has changed from the trick-or-treating evenning (there was never any ticks) of my youth, to a week or weekend (depending on what day the holiday falls) of costume parties. Costumes are no longer that scary, and if you're a teen they are usually skimpy and provocative. Since parties require props and supplies, it's no wonder that the Halloween Superstores start openning in August and that Halloween has become the second highest grossing retail holiday, second only to Christmas.

    In New Jersey, "michief night" is the 30th and involves a few minor pranks, if you even get that much. Our town has a Halloween parade and a "haunted house" run by a local charity group, minimizing any mischief the night might otherwise engender.

    The Wednesday before Thaksgiving is becoming more and more an evenning to gather with friends, particulalry for university students and others travelling "home" for the holiday. In fact, the Wednesday before is one of the highest grossing bar/pub nights of the year!

    No wonder January is such a let down.

  32. Where i was in south england we pretty much ahd to make our own halloween. There are traditions followed in england like apple bobbing, and we carve pumpkins as well. But anything more than that was pretty much DIY. So what we did for Halloween was what my sister, cousins and i did. if we wanted a haunted house we had to make it ourselves, and then force our parents to go round it because there was no one else who would.

    Also I spent most Halloweens of my childhood disappointed because after being bought up with American tv shows I didn't understand why we didn't trick or treat here.

    Although I do know people who do trick or treat properly, but the parents have gone and asked which houses would be willing to participate first.

    I think the problem is Halloween in England is very much that it is a private holiday and not something public. If you do, do somethings for Halloween you do it yourself not as a community.

  33. As an American, my favorite holiday is Halloween. As I explain to my friends, it's an excuse to dress up in costumes, you can eat a lot of candy, and, best of all, no one ever expects you to come home for Halloween!

  34. An interesting perspective on Halloween; I've not seen it explained that way before - as a celebration of children where you can dress as anything you like. Having grown up in Australia I would have summed up Halloween as basically a celebration of the opportunities that darkness affords to the imagination. Fairies and fortune tellers sound like reasonably traditional constumes to me (after all, they allude to the supernatural), but superheroes, magnets and clowns are a tad liberal for my tastes. I know some people who once came wearing a model bottle of whisky on a necklace, and claimed to be "evil spirits"; that works.

  35. I found a survey about what people call the night before Halloween. Mischief Night is definitely a northeastern thing and Devil's Night seems to be in Michigan and the Northeast.

    Dialect Survey Results

  36. What an interesting post.

    I'd be interested to hear more about "a place where mere citizens are not allowed to have fireworks". It does seem slightly paradoxical, in Britain's good-idea-gone-mad "health and safety" culture, and with our super-tough gun laws, and despite a certain number of people being mained every year, that the laws on buying fireworks in the UK are as far as I know the same as they were 30 years ago, ie pretty liberal.

  37. I'd have to take respectful issue with dearieme's claim that Scotland has more or better winter celebrations than England. As far as I can see, Burns Night is a distinctly middle-class affair celebrated in private mainly under the auspices of institutions like regiments, universities, Burns clubs and so on. At risk of straying off-topic, I can't help noting that it's typically surrounded by the tartan trappings of the English-government-controlled, commercially-driven contruction of Scottish identity. Did Burns ever wear a kilt? It was literally illegal for most of his lifetime.

    As for St Andrew's Day, well, it's a bank holiday. Perhaps it's an excuse for a ceilidh in some circles but after 15 years in Scotland I couldn't begin to tell you what if any distinctive customs it involves and I suspect many Scots would struggle to name the day of their patron saint. It could not be more different from folk traditions like Guy Fawkes Day or Hallowe'en -- or St Patrick's Day.

  38. It may be a nice family celebration today but I gather trick or treating was anything but innocent in 19th-century America. Apparently serious vandalism was sometimes the consequence of not complying with the demands of the trick-or-treater: windows broken, sheds set on fire, etc. For all some Brits disapprove of it, I don't think it gets very boisterous today.

    I feel that the problem with these celebrations is that kids naturally have much higher aspirations. A mere handful of sweets or nuts or something is not much of a thrill in these times of plenty when people spend more time trying NOT to eat to much high-calorie, allergenic food, so money is likely to be the loot of choice. Perhaps it might be a thrill at a certain age to be allowed to roam the streets unaccompanied only by one's friends, but I gather it's now normal to be chaperoned by parents.

  39. Thanks, Harry.

    There's not much to say about a place where you can't have fireworks, except that one is not allowed to sell fireworks to people without professional licen{s/c}es there. (Sparklers were an exception.) That kind of law is passed at state level (or perhaps even more local level in some states), so while we couldn't do much with fireworks where I come from, it was a big deal to go visit my cousins in Indiana where they could more easily be bought and fired off. And in Texas, there are fireworks shops all over at the sides of roads. I don't know what other states are as restrictive as New York (at least as it was when I was a kid--for all I know, the laws may have changed).

    Hearing a lot of fireworks in Brighton tonight!

  40. US Northeast...

    One of the fonder memories I have of Halloween was the carving of the pumpkin into a jack-o-lantern and the subsequent roasting of the pumpkin seeds.

    Did this ritual make it over to the UK?

  41. I've never seen Hallow'een treated as you describe, but I live in Scotland Kids used to have to do a trick or sing a wee song to get their money/food in the old days!
    There's usually always a ceilidh to be found somewhere around St. Andrews day as well.

  42. Halloween in LA and San Francisco has been known as something of a gay holiday for quite a while. A lot of people (gay and straight) go dressed up in costume and celebrate in W. Hollywood. Is it viewed that way in other parts of the US or in the U.K? I was also surprised to read in that linked BBC article that kids ask for money and not just candy? Is that an English thing? Its all about the fun size chocolates where I'm from.
    Mischief Night is unknown in California. It's all treat and no trick.
    Dia de Los Muertos is a holiday that is becoming more popular in California.
    Is Black Friday a holiday? If it is, is it the last of the autumnal holidays or the first of the winter holidays?

  43. When I was growing up in England, I coped with autumn/Fall by consuming large quantities of alcohol. Are you trying to tell me that there are some Brits who survive without doing this?

  44. Maybe some of the resentment of Hallowe'en (pedants like me like to insist on that apostrophe) is that it has usurped Bonfire Night, and thus another quintessentially English ritual falls to American hegemony.

    Bonfire nights are a pale shadow of the ones of my childhood. Probably they always were, but I remember them as occasions built up to for weeks, gathering wood for the fire, making a guy (although the idea of an autumn fire festival is much older than the Gunpowder Plot and is clearly, to me anyway, a marker of the end of the harvest, clearing the ground for the nest growing season. Bonfire night meant home-made treacle toffee, toffee apples, brandy-snap and potatoes baked in the embers of the fire. Commerce couldn't get a toehold on it.

    We did hallowe'en too when I was a child, but trick-or-treat didn't figure. Instead we did things like bobbing for apples and I seem to recall it being called bob-apple or duck-apple night. Perhaps this was a regional thing but it also connects with the end-of-the-harvest theme. There were turnip lanterns too; none of us had ever seen a pumpkin. The fact that we called them turnip lanterns suggests to me a Scottish origin, since they were made out of a (ScoE)turnip/(EngE)swede/(AmE)rutabaga.

  45. Nothing eclipses Bonfire Night here in East Sussex...

    Except maybe the Bonfire Night traffic.


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AmE = American English
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