A Celebration of Life, Pumpkins and Getting Scared to Death: A Southern Californian Halloween
Updated: Nov 16, 2021
I never previously cared too much for Halloween. But after recently experiencing my third(!) American spooky season, I can confirm I am now a convert. Growing up, I always considered the UK’s collective October 31st celebrations a bit Halloween-lite. I knew that this ethereal day was all about trick or treating, dressing up, and pumpkin-based activities, but that was mainly from my TV watching…there wasn’t a whole lot of spookiness in our day-to-day lives around or on All Hallows’ Eve.
Take trick or treating. I don’t ever remember trick or treating as a child, and recall just a couple of times a young huddle might have convened at our door to ask the rhetorical question of sorts.
Yet, in 2020, the UK news outlets all started dissecting whether or not kids should be roaming around the community, begging for various sweet gifts, given the risks. So I assume it’s popular somewhere in the country.
Even with this ambiguity, child-me wasn’t fazed by the prospect of trick or treating. While I certainly didn’t feel like I was missing out, the practice didn’t sound bizarre. US culture was ingrained into us as children. Sometimes it was hard to decipher whether traditions or pursuits were purely carried out across the pond, or also followed in the UK but just not by my family and friends.
Apologies, I’m making out an American wouldn’t even be able to tell it was Halloween in the UK, but that’s far from true. There’s definitely been a partial US-ifcation of Halloween; that influence being especially clear when you look at how the date was initially celebrated.
It’s generally thought that Halloween originates from the Gaelic festival Samhain. Beginning on the evening of October 31st, Samhain celebrated the end of the Harvest and the beginning of winter.
Activities included bonfires, rituals and the precursor to trick or treating—guising—where people would go from house to house to perform in exchange for food. Guising is still the used term in some areas of Ireland and Scotland.
Then in the 9th Century, when the Christian Church decided that November 1st was as good a day as any for a mass celebration of every saint (All Hallows’ Day or All Saints’ Day), All Hallows’ Eve became the official warm up party.
It is thought that the two observances (Samhain and All Hallows’ Eve) essentially joined forces over time to create the basis of today’s Halloween festivities.
These days, most Brits half-heartedly adopt the traditions that returned to us via the media after a way was found to commercialize them. As discovered, apparently some kids trick or treat. There’s a bit of pumpkin carving, sure, but pumpkin patches are scarce. I was going to say non-existent but then BBC Good Food blew me away with their best pumpkin patches in the UK 2021 article. Wow, I never knew.
Dressing up is somewhat encouraged, in some situations. I think only one of my several past places of work observed Halloween as a dress-up occasion. The optimum costume opportunity—as it is in the US too, alongside Halloween parties—is the night on the town, where streets and bars are filled with ghouls, pop culture icons and the occasional nurse. If you’re lucky you’ll see a great Alan Partridge zombie costume.
Frankly though, I think the population as a whole is okay with not embracing Full American Halloween. Some things are better left to the Yanks.
And really, the Yanks or, to be more accurate, Southern Californians—with an eclectic cultural mix of end-of-October traditions—make a spectacle of the spooky season, and it wraps everyone up nearly as much as Christmas does.
Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) is celebrated heartily round these parts. The Mexican holiday is a more sacred affair, unlike modern Halloween, but it demands joy and celebration. From a purely aesthetic viewpoint, the themes and colors sit harmoniously among the kitschy fun of the newer American traditions.
Speaking of these traditions, it’s pretty much expected that you’ll embrace them in one way or another. Whether it’s decorating your house (✓), dressing up at work (✓) or attending spooky events (✓), I’d say a good 75% of SoCal’s population get involved somehow.
Folks go all out when spooking up their residences. In my neighborhood you’ll find a large percentage of dwellings decked out in pumpkins, creepy crawlies, spider webs and various effigies of infamous monsters.
Walking around the area, I admire the lengths at which locals compete for the most unique decorations. There’s the suave, glinting auburn and black autumnal door wreath adorning one door; the single, solitary Death, with scythe, morbidly swinging from a front yard arch; a set of jaunty, drunk-looking blow-up ghosts with multicolored hats; and this alarming blood splattered "Help Me!" window that momentarily scared the shit out of me.
You’ll also see some colorful calaveras (Spanish for skulls), vivid bunting, and marigolds adorning front yards, balconies and storefronts as families and businesses celebrate the lives of the once living for Día de los Muertos.
Back in Britain, there’s a mild yet growing love brewing for pumpkins. A few years before I moved, pumpkin spiced lattes became a thing, and pumpkin carving got a bit more popular. Pumpkin patches can be found, and are gaining in popularity, according to this article. It explains that, traditionally, us Brits get our pumpkins from a supermarket, if we’re going to get one at all.
Pumpkin love in the US is incomparable. It is the icon of Halloween. The object that all other décor must fit around. Throughout October every food item must be pumpkin based and the White House turns orange out of respect for the nutritious winter fruit.
It had always been synonymous with the harvest season, but the association between pumpkins and Halloween began in the 1800s.
The Irish long had a tradition of carving demonic faces into turnips. They did this to ward off Stingy Jack, a mythical fellow who was barred from both heaven and hell and left to roam the land.
These safeguarding vegetables were called jack-o-lanterns, and Irish migrants brought the tradition over, swapping turnips for pumpkins, which grew aplenty in the areas they settled—and were much easier to carve into.
There’s a slightly more liberal attitude towards what constitutes a Halloween costume out here, i.e. it doesn’t have to be scary. As long as it’s recognizable, by someone, after a lengthy explanation, it's acceptable.
But the frightening side of Halloween is still just as crucial as ever for US Halloween lovers. In Southern California, haunted houses and amusement parks are some of the most popular seasonal attractions, probably only just behind pumpkin patches.
While haunted houses didn’t originate in SoCal (1915, Liphook, England, if you're interested), it was here they became a cultural phenomenon, when The Haunted Mansion opened at Disneyland in 1969. A few years later, one of the other main theme parks in the area, Knott’s Berry Farm, conceived Knott’s Scary Farm: a whole-park horror takeover with mazes, actors roaming as monsters, and other high-end scares.
These days, there are pop-up haunted houses all over the place, and smaller amusement parks reimagine their space for the scare-seekers. A personal shout out to Castle Dark (aka Castle Park) for providing me with more jump-out-of-my-skin moments than I expected when we visited this October.
In line for one of Castle Dark's haunted mazes. Not a pop up nightclub, despite appearances
Just like Christmas, Americans took the part-Gaelic, part-Christian observance and went all out, commercializing the shit out of it and turning it into a secular holiday. But unlike Christmas, it hasn’t quite caught on with the same enthusiasm in the UK.
Maybe that’s because of Halloween’s closeness on the calendar to Guy Fawkes Night. This is the UK’s annual knees-up celebrating the House of Lords not getting blown up in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. We light fireworks and go mad for bonfires and sparklers.
And it lands on November 5th, six days after Halloween. That’s a lot of celebrating and themed events to attend in a short space of time.
While most of my time in the US so far may historically be defined as the “pandemic era”, I feel like I’ve been able to get a decent first-hand view of how Americans celebrate this wildly popular holiday. And I discovered it’s exactly like I expected it to be.
It’s loud, fun, tacky, all-encompassing—and the blend of cultures and universal pleasure make it feel like one of the only times where all Americans are enjoying the same thing. It was nice while it lasted!