£966bn for the guy?

I remember 31 October 2001 well enough. I'd just flown in to Minneapolis and was staying at some spooky chain hotel or other. There was
a sign on the reception desk that read: "We regret we're unable to offer candy to our guests as we would normally do, because of the current terrorist threat." The background rumour was that al-Qaeda was widening the ambit of its evil to include poisoning Hallowe'en treats - all across the US already traumatised kids were being urged to stay home, lest they get a gobful of lethal Islamofascism. In truth, there was an aptness to this febrile myth, as Hallowe'en is now so entrenched in the American collective psyche as an antic pagan counterpoint to the society's workaday religiosity. Americans take their Hallowe'en way seriously, and in the larger cities it's an excuse for all sorts of adult devilry as well as the usual juvenile japes.

I remember being in New York one Hallowe'en shortly after my third child was born and, because of the massed celebrants, having to walk 20 blocks or so uptown from the Village to our hotel, carrying the infant in my arms. We were passed by devils and demons and fetishists in gas masks wearing full-length black rubber coats - but far more bizarre was that every third or fourth ghoul peered at him and said, "Gee, is that a real baby?", so in thrall were they to dressing up. When I was a child, we lived in the US for a year and I experienced trick-or-treating for the first time. I was bowled over by the notion that simply by putting on a plastic mask and going from door to door, you could amass large quantities of sweets.

Scottish play

As I recall, there was no such practice in England at that time - although my wife, who grew up in Scotland, says she remembers trick-or-treating well from her own childhood. This would accord with established wisdom regarding the custom, which derives in part from the poor soliciting food on the eve of All Saints' Day in return for praying for the departed. The folk belief was that the souls of the newly dead still wandered the earth and that this was the last opportunity for them to avenge any wrongs; conversely, it was the final chance for the living to appease them. The Reformation put paid to this fluid cosmos with its commingling of those above and below the ground, and henceforth souls were to be neatly boxed off in Purgatory to await the final trump.

Scots and Irish Catholics kept at it, and when they immigrated to the US in the second half of the 19th century, they took the custom - which by then had mutated into an exchange of sweetmeats for a rather more mundane deliverance - with them.

Trick-or-treating established there, popular culture (film, television etc) in due course reseeded it back in England. What a crazy-go-round of simulated mayhem! Like some folkloric correlate of the North Atlantic oscillation, high levels of credulousness rush from one side of the ocean to the other and back again, carrying with them millions of rubber bats, wonky pitchforks and tankers full of spray-on cobweb.

Burnt Sugar

Not, you appreciate, that I'm a killjoy - I like a reinvention of an ancient festival with enhanced commercial opportunities as much as the next sap. Show me an Up Helly Aa and I'll put on a horned helmet (£19.99 rrp, terms & conditions apply); direct me to Glastonbury Tor and I'll pitch not one but 30 disposable dome tents (a snip at £32.99). Those poor Italians, groaning under the deadweight of having to pay the interest on their sovereign debt - they've been driven to consider abolishing a saint's day so that they can boost productivity. But we here in northern Europe, the realm of fiscal rectitude, understand that that way madness lies.

No, instead of getting rid of public holidays we should increase the opportunities for consumption of such ephemerals as sweets, fireworks and glow-in-the-dark antlers. By the time you read this column, the equally factitious festival of 5 November - remember, remember! - will have been and gone. Back in the day, children (get this!) made their own effigies of the papist terrorist wannabe and used them to gain the funds for a few bangers and firecrackers. Now what kind of use would that homespun fun be for that longed-for desideratum, growth? So much better to withdraw 20 quid from the cashpoint and spunk it straight off in a shower of screaming sparks. As for the guy, why on earth hasn't some Sugaresque entrepreneur spotted the gap in the market for prêt-a-brûler? God knows there are enough public figures clamouring to be burnt in effigy nowadays, all the way from Cameron to Clegg to Cable. And that's only the C's! We could even burn Sugar as well, thus joining Hallowe'en seamlessly with Guy Fawkes Night in a week-long saturnalia. What glee!

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 14 November 2011 issue of the New Statesman, The NHS 1948-2011, so what comes next?