Halloween spells Trick or Treats! Money or Eats!

October sees some of us relishing going out and about in the coming winter months, but like other exciting autumnal festivals to look forward to, Halloween on 31st October is full of soulful awe too. It has been celebrated in various cultures for centuries, and so I am hoping to briefly discuss the historical and cultural value. For businesses this time of year, the celebration signals high consumer experience and retail expenditure. You Gov describes Halloween as “an old tradition with contemporary impetus” with the modern take “focused on trick or treating and dressing up in costumes stems largely from cultural influences. However, parts of the United Kingdom, notably Scotland and North Ireland have strong roots in the tradition of ‘Guising’ dress up on the night before All Hallows Day to avoid the unwelcome attention of the dead”. There is an element of mystery, intrigue and adventure at Halloween, characterised by our secretiveness and masking of our personal identity. You certainly can’t avoid the seasonal decorations too.

Halloween Picture from the Medieval Manuscripts Blog. Source: http://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2013/10/dress-up-for-halloween-medieval-style.html

When I first arrived in the late 1980’s to London, I noticed that the festival was not celebrated as much as in the USA.  As I walked around the streets and shops in the city, even in Trinidad we were more ‘into it’ celebrating Halloween. However, there is evidence that it is a cultural British festival (part religious) going back to the 2nd century B.C. when the Celtic Order of Druids ended on the 31st of October.  In ‘Halloween as a Consumption Experience’, the authors write “The Celts believed that on October 31st, the Lord of the Dead assembled the soul of all those persons who had died the previous year, the spirit of the departed were allowed a brief visit to their relatives. The departed souls would play tricks, so the Druids attempted to appease them with sanctices.” This is rather interesting, as it sounds very similar to the Indian traditions and beliefs of Pitra Paksha for deceased ancestors. The latter normally falls in September, and some of the beliefs seem to match those held in old Halloween traditions. They both seem to be idiosyncrasies relating to mortality and deceased ancestors, as in common with other cultures.

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It is also a time for prayers and partying. There is an explanation of the historical aspects “…in many countries of Western Europe, such as France, Spain, and Italy, Halloween is observed as a austere religious occasion with extra masses and prayers at the graves of deceased relatives and friends, but in the British Isles and especially in the United States, Halloween is primarily regarded as a night of merry making, superstitious spells, fortune telling games, and pranks (Hatch). Thus, Halloween is a curious mixture of the religious and the secular”.

Some parts of the population still prefer not to celebrate Halloween and there are negative as well as positive attitudes towards the festivities. In another reference ‘The Celtic Origins of Halloween Transcends Fear, the author Geo Athena Trevarthen writes ‘Celtic traditions doesn’t experience darkness as automatically evil or frightening. It can be the fertile dark as well as the chaotic dark – these aren’t so far apart. Many traditions such as the Sumerian, Egyptians and Cherokee see the pre-creation state as a watery chaotic, unformed darkness from which all opposites, including life and death, emerge”. The article logically elaborates “most humans deaths happens during the winter months because cold and food shortages made the very old, young and sickly vulnerable. Any livestock that couldn’t be fed over the winter had to be slaughtered. Yet this also meant it was a time of feasting…Samshian/Halloween is the ‘ultimate best of times/worst of times’ festival”.

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Globally, we are not so dissimilar to each other…and we have many common cultural values. Halloween also falls two days before the Mexican’s Day of the Dead (Dia de los Muertos), and gradually this festival and tradition is more visible in London. The make-up styles and fashion are emulated – restaurants and shops are themed like in Wahaca, Accessorize, The Vault. Trevarthen continues, “Of course Halloween precedes the Catholic festivals of All Saints Day on November 1st and All Souls Day on Nov 2nd, when people honour departed saints and relatives respectively. The Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations featuring vibrant ‘death in life’ images of skeletons in daily activities culminates on November 2nd. All things ghoulish remain popular as costumes decorations and settings for Halloween as well”. These traditions all seem connected to the living and our relationship with the deceased souls of our ancestors and loved ones.

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With this background and history of Halloween, there are still positive and negative consumer perceptions about Halloween. So, what are some of the figures? You Gov states that in the United Kingdom, 45% are in agreement with negative associations of Halloween being an “unwelcome American cultural import”. Despite this, it is one of the most high profile party events in the social calendar and continues to be an important date for revellers and for UK retailers.

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Mintel predicts that spend in the ‘UK is set to reach £320million with a forecast that sales for such products will rise a further 3.2% year-on-year”. Apparently too, there has been a steady increase in celebrations since 1986 as reported by ONS in ‘Five facts about…Halloween – a monster mash of data’. Global Data Online have also carried our some research in 2016 with 72% of consumers thinking that “Halloween is a much larger celebration than it used to be”.


There is a lot of detailed Halloween spending analysis in market research held in our library at work. It is generally a great time for all round family fun – “53% of all adults agreeing that Halloween is a really fun event for all the kids” according to You Gov. Our Halloween dressing up is a £78million habit and it is the one time of the year that the whole of the UK are simultaneously in fancy dress and costumes. Driving these sales are low price, wider choices and convenience of supermarkets – which is a big win for the retail sector! Party food, decorations, entertainment and stationery are also consumer goods that have high sales volumes. Fun size bags of confectionery are definitely a main commodity as people get into the trick or treating Halloween spirit.

In a nutshell, these are the things we are spending our money on for Halloween:

  • Decorations – pumpkins for Jack-o-Lanterns
  • Make-up – to look the part
  • Costumes and Clothing – ideal for fancy dress
  • Halloween Food – food and drink
  • Entertainment – music and events

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As you may know, I live in Walthamstow and there has been phenomenal regeneration in the high street over the years to bring back our local nightlife with hipsters en tote. There are a few local parties being advertised this week in the run up to the Halloween weekend already. Global Data Online also states that retailers are “posting Halloween-themed social media content through Facebook and Twitter accounts to promote interest among shoppers”. Social Media improves significant retailing opportunities, such as Fanta beverages, who are using Snapchat campaigns on their drink cans and on adverts on digital boards.

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When I was in the Fundraising and Events committee at a local charity, The Lloyd Park Children Charity – one of our most popular events was our annual Halloween Party and Disco. It was a great fundraiser and our family tickets always sold out well in advance! There were always interesting costumes, decorations, food (some of which I prepared), dancing and music. Our DJ would play classics like Thriller, Monster Mash, Ghostbusters, as well as some contemporary tracks where we can all have a boogie. It was definitely a worthwhile fundraiser, and heart-warming to see families dressed up in a friendly and safe environment.

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A few years ago, our neighbourly residents group also tried hosting a street party on Halloween Night. It was really busy as this was held on a street with lots of footfall. It was cold, dark and with general naughtiness that we found challenging to manage. We have decided since that it was best when children went about with ad-hoc trick or treating in the neighbourhood.

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I didn’t play Halloween as a child but my sister played with other children in the Expat community for the school we attended. She told me the tricks they did, and that they chanted the slogan “Trick or Treats. Money or Eats!”

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A few years ago where I worked, there was an advert for a group flashdance to Michael Jackson’s Thriller. ‘Thrill the World’ as it is known, was organised by an American who also worked for PricewaterhouseCoopers. We all met in a room at the Trocadero, where attendees where able to dress up and practice their dance routine. There were participants who came from outside of London, and they really impressed me as they knew all the moves to Thriller! This worldwide dance initiative is still planned every year and is performed in an open venue.

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Halloween is also a great time to get creative whether making cakes, costumes, decorations and great art. The Gothic imagery of skulls, spiders, vampires, and dark characters have been a fascination throughout the ages. It is a time of year, apart from Jab Jab Carnival perhaps, where you can let your darker creative juices and talent flow. There are copyright free photos from the 19th century on this British Library link if you are looking for free inspiration.

Last weekend, I also saw the current exhibition ‘Boom for Real’ by the late artist Jean Michel Basquait, and although not all gory – he had a healthy obsession with the ubiquitous skull. His art of the human body was kindled when his mother had presented him with a copy of the book Gray’s Anatomy whilst recovering from an injury from an accident as a child. Like in Basquiat’s artwork, the image of the skull is still seen everywhere at this time of year!

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Most likely this Halloween, I will see fancy-dressed commuters on their merry way to parties on my way home on the 31st October. I will be hoping to attend some local parties, may be tempted to create my first Jack-o-Lantern, and possibly make a pumpkin inspired pie. Halloween is an old tradition for us to remember the darker and…vulnerable side to the human condition, and quite simply, a time of fun for all the family! We may be at a big party event, a local venue, home or out walking in our neighbourhoods ringing doorbells for some cheerful ‘Trick or Treating’. The least we can do is offer a friendly seasonal hello and welcome.

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