“Why,” Noah asks, with the tone of one addressing life’s great mysteries, “do people dress up as Disney princesses for Halloween?”
“Yeah,” Joseph adds, “and superheroes. That’s not very scary, is it?”
“I suppose it’s just a festival of dressing up,” I suggest, but I’m not convinced myself. The growing importance of Halloween mystifies me too.
When I was a kid in England, Halloween, though recognized and celebrated, was not such a big deal. It was far secondary in significance to another annual event which falls a few days later. I decide to test my boys’ knowledge of their culture.
“What’s Bonfire Night?” I ask Joseph.
“A night when you go out and have bonfires,” he replies confidently. “And fireworks.”
This stumps him, and he shrugs.
“Have you heard of Guy Fawkes?”
“Oh, Guy Fawkes!” he says. “Of course. Guy Fawkes. That’s right, I remember now, Guy Fawkes.”
“Who was Guy Fawkes?”
“I don’t know.”
I recite a traditional rhyme to him:
Remember, remember, the fifth of November
With gunpowder treason and plot
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot
“What were they going to blow up with gunpowder?” I ask Joseph.
“A bank?” he suggests, then something stirs within his memory. “The Houses of Parliament.”
“That’s right! And who were they trying to kill?”
We’ve been in China for 15 months, which feels like a mere blink to an adult, but to 7-year-old Joseph it represents a substantial portion of his life; perhaps a third of his memories. I worry that he might lose touch with his heritage. Already there’s a transatlantic twang creeping into his voice, and a tendency to “uptalk”, that rising intonation at the end of sentences which is the mark of young international English.
Ten-year-old Noah fares better with the quiz: he knows that Guy Fawkes was a Catholic who plotted to assassinate the Protestant King, James I. The date, though, escapes him.
“Remember, remember… the sixth of September?”
On reflection it’s hard to see a reason why the fifth of November should be remembered, more than any of the other significant days in British history. It’s a strange tradition, and at root an unpleasant one.
However the anniversary has been celebrated for four hundred years, and it represents a deep connection to the country’s past. Traditionally people would make scarecrow-like effigies of the unfortunate Fawkes and burn them on bonfires; “a penny for the guy” was the equivalent of “trick or treat”.
Even in England though, Guy Fawkes Night is under threat from Halloween. It’s part of the much lamented but perhaps unstoppable Americanization of British culture and language. “Trick or treating” was once seen as an alien invader, like the gray squirrel, but is now the norm.
I want my children to grow up citizens of the world, respectful of other people’s cultures, but I don’t want them to lose their own. So I’ll do what I can to make sure my kids retain their Englishness, that they use taps and pavements rather than faucets and sidewalks. Guy Fawkes though might be a hard sell in Beijing.
“All right boys,” I say, “let’s sort out your Halloween costumes. Do you want to be Elsa, or Ariel?”
Cheap, I know. But as a parent, you take your fun where you can get it.
About the Writer
Andrew Killeen is a novelist and creative writing teacher. Originally from Birmingham, England, he studied at Cambridge University and now lives in Beijing with his wife and two crazy boys, Noah (age 10) and Joseph (age 7). In between he was at various times a DJ, festival director, positive parenting practitioner, and homeless support worker. His critically acclaimed historical novels are available from Dedalus Books.