Friday, 26 October 2012
Everyone, it seems, loves a good party. It’s October and all the shops are full of party ideas and of course gifts, for Halloween. Maybe I’m just a killjoy, but I don’t really get very excited about it. As a child I was only peripherally aware of Halloween. Bonfire Night was the big party I used to get excited about. If I ever recognised the day at all, it would be spending it with my childhood friends, furtively reading ghost stories by torchlight, whilst listening to Mussorgsky’s “Night on the Bare Mountain”, in the hope that my mother wouldn’t come in and break up the party. All quite innocent and we’d all be safely tucked up in bed before the witching hour struck.
In recent years, though, I’ve become increasingly aware of the proliferation of tacky ghoulish merchandise in the shops at this time of year, and I was astonished to read a few days ago that Halloween is now the second most popular family occasion in the UK behind Christmas, with parents likely to spend more than £100 on parties for their children this year. Apparently the money we spend on Halloween has soared by a massive 2,300% over the last 10 years to be worth £280 million. What on earth has precipitated this change? When did Halloween take over from Bonfire Night, a peculiarly British tradition, which celebrated the day Guy Fawkes failed in his attempt to blow up the Houses of Parliament way back in 1605? When I was young, I loved Bonfire Night. Whilst our fathers went about building a bonfire out of old furniture and dead wood, our mothers would be preparing food for the feast – jacket potatoes, sausages and all manner of warming treats. The men were also responsible for the fireworks display and we, the children created the effigy of Guy Fawkes who would be ceremonially burned on the bonfire. After Christmas, Bonfire Night was the most eagerly anticipated festival of the year, for all that we didn’t get any extra school holiday. It was a big, low cost, community event.
So what happened? When did Halloween take over from Bonfire Night?
I suppose one theory would be that tripping around in a naff witch’s costume is infinitely less dangerous than burning bonfires and setting off fireworks (the Fire Service are no doubt relieved) but I have a sneaking suspicion that it has more to do with money, or rather commercialism, and where there is commercialism, you don’t have to look far to see the influence of the USA.
Halloween is absolutely huge over there, and the bigger the festival becomes, the easier it is to get people to spend vast amounts of money on things they don’t need and will no doubt throw away the following week.
Hang on, isn’t that what happens at Christmas? Indeed it is, and guess what? The modern day Santa Claus is generally believed to be the invention of Washington Irving, a nineteenth century New Yorker, who wished to create a benign figure that might help calm down riotous Christmas celebrations and refocus them on the family. Loosely based on a Dutch gift giving Sinterklaas, Santa Claus was actually a secular figure, and it is the work of various advertisers that has created the image we recognise as Santa Claus today. The English Father Christmas was not a gift giver, but rather a personification of Christmas and a Yule-tide visitor. It is only from the 1870s that he became increasingly associated with the American Santa Claus, and it is the American Santa Claus who now dominates Christmas in all those countries that celebrate it. Now I wouldn’t want to suggest that dear old Washington Irving cynically adopted the idea of a gift giving Santa Claus, in order to bolster the coffers of Macy’s, but I have no doubt Macy’s seized on Santa like manna from heaven, the actual child of heaven (Jesus) being somewhat less interesting.
In case you wondered, I hate Christmas too. What we get in the run up to Christmas is the absolute opposite of the spirit of good will, the kind of good will that permeated London, during the Olympics this year, for instance. What we do get is millions of people trailing round shops, pushing through the crowds, desperately trying to think of presents for relations they won’t see for another year. The adverts start early, exhorting us to spend! spend! spend!, as we worship the god of commercialism; and if, like me, you decide you’d rather just ignore the whole thing and go away to somewhere they don’t celebrate it, you’ll find the price of a plane ticket out of the country has quadrupled!
Where will it end? Other minor festivals are now much bigger than they ever were. Valentine’s Day might once have been considered a bit of fun, but now it is big business. Why? Well it’s big business in the US, so why not here too? How about Easter? As children, we of course loved Easter. What child wouldn’t? All those delicious chocolate eggs, but now it seems children expect Easter gifts too. Mother’s Day was a day on which we children got our mother some flowers and maybe wrote her a card. Nowadays, woe betide the husband who doesn’t buy his wife a big present or take her out for dinner. Where America went before, it seems we follow, and I, for one, am tiring of it, as attempts to part us from our hard earned cash become ever more aggressive. I don’t want anyone to get the idea I’m some miserly old grump, who never enjoys a party and never buys anyone a gift. I enjoy a good time as much as anyone and I love giving presents. I just don’t want some American corporation telling me when I should be doing it.