One of the things many Americans find quite surprising about the UK is the fact that Halloween, as a general rule, isn't as big of a deal as it is in the United States. Before we go any further, I should make it very clear that we'll be generalising a lot in this piece. In either country, you'll find exceptions to the rule – Americans who completely ignore Halloween and Brits who adore it – but we'll be focusing on the bigger trends.
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Halloween in the United Kingdom: The History
First off, it's important to note that Halloween actually comes from the British Isles. It's the modern evolution of the Gaelic festival of Samhain, traditionally celebrated in Scotland, Ireland, and the Isle of Man. The festival marked the end of harvest season and the beginning of winter, and it was viewed as a time when the boundary between this world and the Otherworld could be crossed more easily. Offerings were made to the spirits or fairies, and some people wore costumes, either to imitate or hide from the spirits.
Throughout the years, costumes, mumming, and guising have all been parts of the festival. Turnip carving was also popular.
For those not familiar with the concept of guising, it just means wearing fancy dress – or donning a costume, as you might say in the US.
In the US, many Scottish and Irish immigrants brought the tradition over from their homelands. Over the years, it's evolved to become a highly commercial affair, with billions of dollars in annual candy and costume expenditures, to say nothing of all the parties and haunted houses. And of course, Spirit Halloween stores EVERYWHERE.
Halloween in the United Kingdom: Present Day
The Americanised version of Halloween has never been as big in the UK, but as media crosses borders and cultures become increasingly global, that's begun to change (especially with younger generations).
As a general rule, Guy Fawkes Day / Bonfire Night has always been a much bigger deal for British people – and maybe that's part of why Brits don't get as excited about Halloween. The dates are quite close together and they're both a bit subversive in nature. It's hard to get all fired up for mischief-making twice in a week's time.
These days, you'll certainly find some Brits enjoying the Halloween holiday, but it's not as universal as it tends to be in the United States, especially among older generations. You can definitely find Halloween events if you're looking – like on this guide to Halloween activities in London.
Many Brits view the day negatively, as some kind of inferior American import like chlorinated chicken or waxy Hershey's chocolate. They complain that it's too commercialised and un-British, and opt out of the day entirely. Others, especially those who are younger or who have small children, celebrate in typical American style, with pumpkins and costumes and door-to-door candy requests. You can even find Halloween crackers (like Christmas crackers, but with mummies and vampires) in some British stores.
Here's a great example of British grocery chain Waitrose offering up a Halloween recipe video:
British Halloween: It's a Difference of Degrees
The biggest difference is just in the percentage of people and businesses that have embraced the holiday, along with the importance it's given. If Halloween were a volume dial on the radio, the US would have it cranked up to 11, while the UK is somewhere around a 5 or 6.
The UK has seen something of a “Halloween surge” in recent years, and much of that has been driven by businesses keen to cash in. A 2015 article in The Guardian quoted Tesco's Halloween buyer, Bryony Watson, saying, “Halloween has doubled in size over the past 10 years.”
As businesses continue to push the holiday and more and more people are bombarded with it through American TV imports, it's bound to continue growing. Haunted houses and seasonal costume shops aren't really a normal thing in the UK, and ASDA (a British supermarket chain owned by Walmart) is said to be the biggest retailer of Halloween costumes in the UK.
Scary Halloween-Time Attractions in the UK
Though the UK has much less than the US in terms of American-style haunted houses, they do have a few – and a number of year-round scary attractions that offer special activities or programs throughout October.
We've included some examples below:
Halloween at the Edinburgh Dungeon
At the Edinburgh Dungeon (which is admittedly very commercialised and touristy no matter when you go), they offer two options for Halloween – an adults-only late tour, or a standard tour that also includes a “White Lady Ghost Show” exclusively for the Halloween season. Learn more HERE.
Haunted Warwick Castle
In late October, this medieval castle offers a variety of spooky (but still family-friendly) activities that include a spooky Halloween trail, a junior ghost hunt, and a witch show. Learn more HERE.
Yorkshire Scare Grounds Scream Park
This one is very much like attractions you might find in the US – designed to scare the living daylights out of you, and definitely not kid-friendly. In addition to the haunted attraction, you can get street food, sweets, fresh donuts, and a variety of hot and cold beverages. If you find yourself in the UK and you want to try something less touristy and more like what an adventurous local might do in October, check it out HERE.