On our first Halloween as Americans living in Britain my wife and I were culture shocked to open our door to find legions of little demons.
The sweet children in our Cambridgeshire village were dressed as devils, witches, corpses, werewolves, zombies, vampires, and various other nightmarish creatures. Even the toddlers were cloaked in creepiness. Throughout the evening dozens of trick-or-treaters graced our house with their ghoulish presence. Not one was dressed non-monstrously.
Every day we see these same children walking to the village school dressed like Harry Potter, but on this night they all looked more like Voldemort.
As parents of young children, we find British Halloween a harrowing experience. We miss the way the evening is celebrated back home across the pond. Halloween in America is tacky and commercialised but at least it's generally frowned upon to dress youngsters in gory, menacing costumes.
In the States you do see some scary outfits, but for the most part young trick-or-treaters form a veritable parade of princesses, animals, and sundry superheroes. It's about being cute, not creepy.
Little Johnny might behave like a monster, but there's no need to dress him like one.
Why this Atlantic divergence on Halloween observance?
Halloween in Britain has a complex history, with much regional variety, but the day has always had a spooky association with the macabre.
The pagan Celtic festival of Samhain (pronounced "sow-en," obviously) on 31 October marked a liminal time between the end of summer and beginning of winter when dark spirits and the souls of the dead could visit the living. In some regions Celts would revel in the festival by disguising themselves as ghostly imps, perhaps to scare away the spirits-or the invading Romans, Saxons, Vikings, and Normans.
All this mixed with the Christian holy day of All Hallows' (Saints) Day and its preparatory vigil on All Hallows' Eve. It was a deadly serious occasion to remember the faithful departed. Over time there arose a folk belief, perhaps the influence of Samhain, that for this one night the spirits of the dead could rise from their graves. In some parts of Europe and the British Isles, children would partake in "souling," going door to door to collect soul cakes in exchange for offering prayers for the souls of those in Purgatory.
This Halloween, tell a trick-or-treater he must pray for the souls of your dead relatives before you will plop a handful of confectionary items in his plastic pumpkin container. He'll give you a blank stare (or worse!)-evidence of how much holiday and holy day traditions can change over time.
When these traditions came to America, especially via large-scale Irish and Scottish immigration in the 19th century, Americans did what we do best: turn folk customs and religious rituals into pop culture kitsch that we can export around the world. You're welcome!
But amidst the billions of dollars of orange and black plastic trinkets, Americans did produce something moderately useful. We effectively re-created Halloween as a family-friendly fall (aka, "autumn") festival, sanitizing much of the underlying spookiness to about a PG rating.
Hollywood's Halloween-themed horror movies might portray a dark and sinister side of the holiday, but the Halloween celebrated by real Americans is basically what Brits would call a "fancy dress" party.
According to Amazon (U.S.), the most popular Halloween costumes for American children in 2014 are the Frozen princess dress, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a cuddly lion outfit, and Minnie Mouse.
By contrast, the online selection of kids' Halloween costumes at Angels, Britain's largest costume retailer, is a house of horrors. Would your little Harry like to dress up as a bloody knife-wielding killer clown or perhaps the hockey mask-wearing murderer from the Friday the 13th films?
Many will argue that it's all rather harmless to dress kids up as scary villains for a few hours once a year. Maybe so. But it strikes me as even more harmless-and more fun-to let kids don costumes, especially of the home-made variety, that allow them to celebrate their favourite animal, athlete, cartoon character, or action hero.
Some of our American friends have tried to preserve a more hallowed Halloween for their children whilst living in Britain. Each year one American couple we know has opted to dress their toddlers as barnyard animals. At every house along their treat-or-treat route British parents incredulously ask them "Why are you dressed like that?"
Because American parents prefer dairy cows to killer clowns.
This couple's oldest child is now in school and she recently told her mother she doesn't want a cheery costume this year. "That's not Halloween," she said. "I need to be a witch."
As an American living in England I almost never find myself saying, "you know, what this country really needs is more American influence." From guns to healthcare to education and countless other issues, it is America that desperately needs British influence!
But on 31 October, when it comes to kids' costumes, I admit I do wish for some more American influence on the land that gave us Halloween.
Perhaps my criticism of another country's traditions makes me the proverbial "Ugly American." Oh no, that sounds like a really scary costume!