Friday, 29 October 2004

Treason and plot

In a few days it will be time once again to burn someone in effigy, and we each have our own idea about who it should be, now that we have generally forgotten that 5th November was originally an anti-Catholic festival and we can let Guy Fawkes rest in pieces (he was cut into several after the usual torture).

We have been letting off fireworks on this night ever since 1605 to celebrate the failure of his plot to blow up Parliament, but nowadays some Englishmen wonder whether we are celebrating Fawkes' failure or honouring his attempt to do away with the government.

Anyway, at this time of year we nowadays, sadly, involve ourselves in Halloween, the commercialised version of which (£100m a year) we imported from the USA around ten years ago (they will spend $3.12bn this year). The worst element is Trick or Treat which can be very nasty extortion; in contrast, Penny for the Guy was irritating but harmless.

It seems that the huge demand for the paraphernalia is not so much from children but from 20-something singles who believe that fangs are sexy. In the States powerful groups of witches have complained that the whole Halloween business traduces their creed, and are threatening to take legal action. No such problem here, where there exists only one smallish coven, led by a man called Michael Howard, and its curses are entirely without effect.

P.S. Trick-or-treating is certainly an American import, but Halloween originated in England when the poor would beg for food on All Souls' Day and beggars would receive special treats in exchange for prayers for the dead. In time, children began "begging" for treats on Mischief Night.

One has to be very careful about condemning anything as a reprehensible American custom. If one criticises, for example, one of their grammatical usages or peculiar words, it is bound to turn out that it was very common in England five hundred years ago, that Milton used it all the time, and that we had merely forgotten it.

(Germans associate witches and devils with Walpurgisnacht, April 30th, but Walpurgis was an ENGLISH nun, so there .