Trick or treat’ is now the youthful I litany for All Souls-tide. Once it was ‘Penny for the Guy.’
Supplanting folk customs, whether Bonfire Night or old-style Halloween, by modern American re-vampiring or Harry Pottering has caused comment. The danger of trivializing the occult or door knocking trick ‘n’ treaters disturbing the cultured calm of traditional Big Brother and X Factor viewing has been the usual approach.
I want to come at it another way. In using this phrase, I am giving my own precautionary Halloween style treat to American usage.
Firstly a lament for the de-skilling of the art of begging. Traditionally beggars gave in anticipation of getting. Whether it was showing wounds and wounding other ears by singing, or by displaying a November Fifth effigy, there was a mutual exchange – as witness ‘Penny for the Guy.’
The Kentish fishing town of Whitstable had its own begging custom. On St James’ Day not Bonfire Day, youngsters built grottos of shells (from Whitstable oysters), the badge of pilgrimage to Compostela. Their cry ‘Remember the grotter’; their hope – landing a penny. Grotto or Guy, children made something themselves.
Yet dressing in a supermarket purchased plastic black cloak is the equivalent of Tracey Emin undressing her bed, a victory of conceptual over creative art.
Creative decline began when plastic Guy Fawkes masks replaced stocking-filled heads, a decline equalled by modern carollers who cannot get beyond the first line of Jingle Bells
The Guy Fawkes story was rooted in a real event. ‘Remember, remember the 5th of November.’ Either remembrance of an evil 17th cent attack on democracy foiled, or the evil persecution of a religious minority. In either case it was a real evil. Evil in the modern commercialized Halloween is fantasized and transferred from real life murders, terrorism, economic exploitation and ethnic cleansing to imaginery witches and zombies.
So if your door is knocked next Halloween give the callers a Google print-out on Guy Fawkes. Unless, of course, the callers are the local Churches Together choir singing one line of Jingle Bells.