New to the UK?
You need to know about these local customs!
If you are new to the UK, as many tenants in Marcia Road are, you should carefully read the Moving In information. However, this page describes some historic English customs that you need to know about because they involve strangers – children or young people – knocking on your door.
First, there is Halloween on the evening of 31st October. The name comes from All Hallows’ Evening, and it was the night before the Christian festival of All Saints, on 1st November. All Saints is the day that some Christians remember the people who are dead, and there are no strong English traditions associated with it. It is not a public holiday as it is in some European countries.
Halloween was a time when it was traditionally believed that the power of ‘evil forces’ were particularly strong. In England, up until about the 1970s hardly anyone paid any attention to Halloween but, under the influence of American movies and culture Halloween has grown into a ‘monstrous’ occasion, known for parties where people (of all ages) dress as witches, ghosts, etc. and young children go around the streets knocking on doors demanding “Trick or treat!”
The correct response is to open the door, pretend to be frightened, say how scary they look, and say that you will give them a treat.
A handful of sweets for each child is appropriate and they may have bags for you to put them in! Give a few small-value coins if you have forgotten to buy a large bag of sweets in advance. It is not appropriate to invite the children in!
If you do not give them a treat (or they think you are at home but refusing to open the door) they feel entitled to ‘trick’ you. This may take the form of throwing eggs at your windows or door, leaving a nasty mess to clear off!
Shortly after Halloween there is Bonfire Night (also known as Fireworks Night), on 5th November. This commemorates the death of Guy Fawkes, who tried to blow up the Houses of Parliament in 1605. Read about his story on Wikipedia. This is the night that English people traditionally light (‘let off’ or ‘set off’) fireworks and stand around a bonfire, burning a stuffed effigy representing Guy Fawkes. Because of the number of firework injuries that used to happen in people’s back gardens, the ‘celebrations’ have become more and more focused these days on events organised by councils, charities, clubs, etc. There is usually an entrance fee that pays for the fireworks and helps support the organisation that runs it.
In the week before Fireworks Night, you may see children sitting by a stuffed figure (a ‘guy’), shouting “Penny for the Guy”, or having a sign with those words. This is a fairly unusual sight in London these days as parents are reluctant to let their children follow this tradition and other adults have been less inclined to give, so the practice is dying out. In earlier times, when household fireworks nights were common (see above) children would compete to see who could make the most impressive guy in the hope that the better it was the more money people would give. They would spend the money they collected on fireworks for the big night, but much of it was probably spent on sweets. If you do see a child doing this and decide to give some money, a penny is not appropriate. The traditional request goes back to when a penny was worth pounds.
A note on fireworks. On occasions in London, there are large, free firework displays along the Thames, particularly on New Year’s Eve. Most ordinary people do not let off fireworks at the turn of the year – unless they come from countries where that is the usual practice. In London, you may also see fireworks for festivals such as Diwali (Hindu) and Eid (Muslim) and on people’s birthdays.
Finally, there is no fixed date for carol singing, which is when people – particularly children – may knock on the front door expecting you to give them money. They can turn up any evening in the weeks leading up to Christmas, on 25th December. They knock on the door or ring the bell and start singing a traditional Christmas carol. (Wikipedia)
Most carols are religious but some are not.
Sometimes, carol singing is a way adults collect for charity, in which case you are expected to put a few coins into the container (‘collection box’ or ‘collecting tin’) that one of the lead singers will be carrying. Sometimes it will be a small group of children collecting for themselves and it is customary to wait until they look like they have finished singing – they may not know many of the words! Give each 20 to 50 pence and wish them “Merry Christmas!”. They will then move on to the next house.
If you have no coins, smile and say something like “That was lovely, but I’m sorry I haven’t any money to give you.” If you do not give them anything there is no ‘tricking’ like at Halloween, but you will feel mean or, more appropriately for Christmas, like a Scrooge. Sweets will be acceptable to children instead of money.