Ten things about… Halloween in the UK
25 October 2010

Here in the UK we have two traditional festivals during just one week in late autumn. Both are celebrated after dark, so if you're studying here in October or November, put your coat on and enjoy the fun!

Halloween comes first, on October 31. A few days later, on November 5, we celebrate Bonfire Night. You'll find information about Bonfire Night in this section of the website soon.

So, how and why do we celebrate Halloween in the UK?

  • As soon as it gets dark on October 31, groups of children in costumes go around their neighbourhoods knocking on doors for sweets. Ghost, witch and vampire costumes are popular. Children often say "trick or treat", which means that they might play a trick (like throwing an egg at the door) if they don't get sweets. Some people find this scary and do not answer the door. Others cut pumpkins to make lanterns with scary faces to show that they have sweets to give away.

  • For weeks before Halloween, shops sell pumpkins, costumes and special bags of sweets. The festival has become very commercial and has changed a lot in the last 20 years, mostly because American customs such as "Trick or Treating" have become more popular here because of films and cartoons such as The Simpsons.

  • Halloween is an ancient festival. Thousands of years ago the people living in the UK believed that at this time of year, the spirits of dead people could come alive and walk among the living. They thought it was important to wear costumes and masks to avoid being hurt by the ghosts. This festival was called Samhain.

  • The name Halloween came much later. The Catholic Church celebrated All Hallows Day on November 1. So October 31 was All Hallows Evening, shortened to Halloween.

  • By the early 19th century, people in Ireland and Scotland went "guising" at Halloween. This was dressing up and going to people's doors asking for food or money. In Scotland, children are expected to perform a song on the doorstep.

  • Scottish and Irish immigrants took this tradition to the US. Later, during the 20th century, it developed to become modern "trick or treating".

  • Other Scottish traditions included carving lanterns out of turnips (a large round root vegetable) in the shape of a face to ward off evil spirits. These are called Neepy Lanterns. When this tradition arrived in the US, pumpkins were used instead as they were available and easier to make into lanterns. Now pumpkin lanterns are common here, and turnip ones are rare.

  • Other British Halloween traditions include the game of apple bobbing. Apples are placed in a large bowl of water and people have to pick them up with their hands behind their back, getting very wet faces.

  • Halloween was a time when unmarried girls thought they might find out about their future husbands. It was believed if girls peeled an apple and threw the peel over their shoulder, it would land in the shape of the initial of the man they were to marry. Unmarried women also believed that if they looked in a mirror in a dark room, they would see the face of their future husband. If they saw a skull, it meant they would die unmarried.

  • Traditional Halloween treats include cinder toffee, toffee apples (apples covered in toffee, on a wooden stick) and barm brack, an Irish fruit bread.


by Susan Young (susan@englishuk.com)


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