Does Halloween Have a Real Place in the British Culture?

10/25/2012 07:18 am ET | Updated Jan 27, 2014

In the US, Halloween is a hugely significant annual event and dressing up in Halloween fancy dress is almost universal. In the UK by contrast, celebrations tend to be much more subdued, with the holiday typically being acknowledged by displays in shop windows and the odd party. For some Brits, the 31st October has become inextricably tied up with American commercialism - however, in reality, the origins of Halloween lie in European paganism.

Before Christianity arrived on British shores, the changing of the seasons was a time for celebration, and many pagan festivals revolved around the calendar. Neo-pagan festivals still do today, as you can see in images of druids dancing at Stonehenge on the Summer Solstice of 21st June this year. In 601 AD, Pope Gregory I issued a decree that missionaries should attempt to blend Christian teachings with pagan practices rather than obliterate them entirely, so we were left with the origins of the cultural melange that is modern day Halloween.

It's thought that Halloween was first brought to the United States in the 1840s by Irish Catholics fleeing from the Potato Famine. The popularity of the carved pumpkin is said to be an adaptation of the Irish practice of carving out root vegetables like turnips and placing candles inside. So, the pumpkin is an American addition to the festival, but it's also one of the most instantly recognisable images of contemporary Halloween for us in the UK.

Outside of the US, the place that celebrates Halloween in its purest form is arguably Mexico: the 'Day of the Dead' celebrations centre around All Souls Day on 1st November, but they in fact comprise a week of festivities devoted to celebrating death - a notion that's particularly unique to Mexico. The Mexicans' light-hearted, comfortable relationship with death may well originate from the Aztecs' belief in life and death being cyclical - a belief that's shared by many other pagan cultures, but has persisted particularly strongly in the Latin American country.

Compared to these lavish, colourful celebrations, Halloween in the UK looks slightly feeble - and for some Brits, it seems that the celebration of Halloween is simply too commercial, to the extent that it is frequently considered to be an irksome American import, in spite of its actual historical roots on British shores. This has been the subject of an online petition to the government, put forward by one concerned UK citizen disappointed by the fact that supermarkets continue to make money out of Halloween-related products.

The petition creator also dislikes the message that he believes trick-or-treating sends to youngsters, which is that they should get "something for nothing". Does this indicate that Halloween is unlikely to ever be truly embraced by the British? Well, the fact is that Halloween is primarily a pagan tradition first conceived on the British Isles, and therefore its place in our culture is already very much established. And, as the petition has only received one signature to date, it seems that the naysayers are severely outnumbered.