Halloween in the UK and USA

Some Halloween costumes from London 2011

This past Monday I awoke to learn that 55 of my Facebook friends on both sides of the Atlantic had changed their profile pictures – to pictures of themselves dressed in their 2011 Halloween costumes. Granted, I have a high volume of friends prone to dressing up on other days of the calendar year, but it was still a remarkable occurrence, and one that inspired me to spend way more time on Facebook than usual. Spooky.

More costumes that appeared at my Halloween celebration

I moved to London from NYC six years ago, and annually muster friends here from all over the globe to celebrate Halloween. This is because it is my favourite holiday -no surprise for a costume historian – but not particularly because I am an American as is perennially presumed by my British friends. A recent news clip addressed the growing popularity of Halloween in the American idiom in the UK, and offers some statistics on the financial impact – more is spent on Halloween in Britain than on Mother’s Day! Watch the clip here.

Vintage American Halloween postcard circa 1920s

Indeed, the marketing and popularisation of the accoutrements of Halloween, and the commercial viability of seasonal costumes have been American-driven, but I have been long reverent to the notion that Halloween came from the British Isles. Long before wikipedia could tell this story, I remember learning in elementary school that Halloween was a Celtic tradition, and that it was celebrated in Britain long before the arrival of Columbus.

Scary and macabre costumes are part of ancient traditions that still carry on to the present epoch.

In his book, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, Nicholas Rogers traces Halloweens origins and traditions, and it link to the Celtic celebration of samhain, (pronounced sow-an or sow-in)”, derived from the Old Irish Samuin meaning “summer’s end.” His research also attributes the custom of dressing up in costumes and begging door to door for treats on holidays  back to the custom of Christmas wassailing in Britain. Trick-or-treating also resembles the late medieval practice of souling when poor folk would go door to door in Britain and Ireland on November 1, receiving food in return for prayers for the dead on All Soul’s Day, November 2. In Scotland and Ireland, Guising – children disguised in costume going from door to door for food or coins  – is a traditional Halloween custom. According to Rogers, the practice of Guising at Halloween in North America is not first recorded until 1911 – which would make this year the 100th anniversary of American trick or treating!

Some of my past Halloween costumes... photo by John E. Rossi, 1979

I hope you had a happy Halloween, and that if you haven’t put posted any photos of your costumed self online that you do so in honour of this great tradition as well as to create an archive of the costumes of today for Halloween nights to come – and of course for dress historians of the present and future.

Following celebrity trends of 1983!

For further reading on Halloween, dressing up and other traditions:

Death Makes a Holiday: A Cultural History of Halloween
by David J. Skal

Masked Culture: Greenwich Village Halloween Parade
by Jack Kugelmass

Treat or Trick: Halloween in a Globalising World
by Hugh O’Donnell and Malcolm Foley

Halloween: An American Holiday, An American History
by Leslie Pratt Bannatyne

Dressed for Thrills: 100 Years of Halloween Costumes and Masquerade
by Valerie Steele, Mark Alice Durant and Phyllis Galembo

The middle 1980s personified!

I also took this opportunity to share some of my past Halloween costumes with you, and if you want to see more (I have nearly every year so far) please follow this link to an old post on my personal dress and textile blog.

I was on the phone with Jack Skellington.

Remember, only 362 days until next Halloween!

Halloween night on the London Underground

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