As the seasons turn, we celebrate annual rituals. Supermarkets are overflowing with pumpkins, ghoulish decorations, themed sweets and children’s costumes. It must be Halloween…
It is thought that Halloween may have its roots in the Celtic feast of Samhain, which took place in the autumn. Once the summer harvest was complete, the long, dark nights of winter beckoned, when it was believed that the veil between the living and the dead was lifted, and ghosts wandered the earth. The day was marked with bonfires, feasting and ‘guising’ – the wearing of costumes, possibly animal heads and skins. Historians speculate that these ancient traditions were assimilated, probably in 9th-century Scotland, into the Christian festivals of All Saints and All Souls. These ‘holy days’, which took place on the 1 and 2 November, paid reverence to saints and martyrs and honoured the dead. Halloween, or ‘All Hallows’ Eve’, was the night before All Saints’ Day (‘hallow’ means ‘saint’), the 31 October. The ancient pagan rituals survived, and the Halloween festival continued to be celebrated in Scotland and Ireland.
In due course, Halloween customs were transported by immigrants to North America. These sombre origins were transformed in the US in the 20th century, when Halloween became an enjoyable chance to dress up in spooky costumes, decorate the house and go trick or treating. This version of Halloween eventually spread to the UK, where it has been enthusiastically embraced – this year, Halloween spending is estimated to reach £687 million.
Children love Halloween. It is a chance to unleash their creativity, to devise crazy costumes and what’s more to parade around the neighbourhood in them, to the general approbation of adults. Collecting a generous booty of sweets and treats from the neighbours is an added bonus.
Halloween dares children to flirt with scary experiences in the context of play, and in a safe space. It’s a good way for them to push their boundaries and explore what frightens them in a light-hearted atmosphere – brushing up against dangling spiders and festooned cobwebs or being confronted by a bowl of squishy eyeballs is all part of the fun and helps build their resilience.
“Trick or treat?” should be an ice-breaking formula, not a real threat. Children who are confronted by unwelcoming householders should be advised to beat a hasty retreat. Very young children will need to be accompanied by adults or older siblings when out trick or treating. In safe, confined neighbourhoods slightly older children may be safe enough paying Halloween visits on their own (or observed at a safe distance by anxious parents).
Undoubtedly, there are many people who have no wish to participate in these Halloween antics, and it is important that their wishes should be respected. So, if you are planning Halloween celebrations, pay careful attention to your own etiquette and take the time to ensure that children also understand how to behave:
• You will of course explain to your children that they must only visit houses where lights are on, and preferably where a jack o’lantern is on prominent display.
• Explain that they should only ring the doorbell once – a repeatedly-ringing bell is the curse of many a Halloween.
• Children should be reminded that they should stick to garden paths – no trampling across flowerbeds and lawns to reach the front door.
• Tell your child to only take one sweet from any proffered bowls when they’re out trick or treating. The probability is that they will be encouraged to take more, but it’s polite to start modestly.
• If children don’t like the look of the sweets on offer, tell them they must not turn up their noses at them – it’s more polite to take a sweet anyway.
• Impress upon your child that it’s rude for them to riffle through the bowl looking for a favourite sweet. Explain that they should just take the first sweet that comes to hand.
• Most importantly of all, remind your children that they should say a clear and audible thank you to every householder who gives them sweets.
• If you are out trick or treating with children in your own neighbourhood, remember that it’s their special night, so don’t spend interminable (to small children) amounts of time chatting to neighbours on doorsteps.
• If you’re willingly on the receiving end of Halloween visitors, make it obvious that you’re happy to see them – turn on lights, open curtains, put out your lit pumpkins. Ensure that your path is free of obstructions and trip hazards. If you’ve got dogs, keep them behind closed doors; small children might be genuinely scared by an over-enthusiastic and noisy pet.
• Equip yourself with a bowl of shop-bought treats. Home-made sweets would undoubtedly be more delicious, but parents will discourage children from taking unwrapped treats because they don’t know what they contain.
• Greet your visitors with enthusiasm and admiration, no matter how peculiar they look. Never ask them what they are – small children will be crushed by your inability to see the (to them) blindingly obvious.
• It’s best not to leave out unsupervised bowls of treats. No child will be able to resist scooping up the lion’s share at the beginning of the night, which will leave lots of disappointed visitors.
• If you don’t want any part of the festivities, turn out your lights, or go out for the evening. If you are driving on Halloween, be extra cautious – there will be gaggles of over-excited ghosts, vampires, witches and zombies threading their way through the neighbourhood and they may not be watching out for cars.
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