No Halloween please, we’re Australian!

Thinking on the wider issue of new culture and celebrations and my colleagues at History SA and their connection to communities and the cultural celebrations of those communities, led me to reflecting on Halloween once again. Are festivals such as Halloween part of our business in museums? Are they simply something to hang a promotional opportunity off of? A way to make our institutions more relevant to our visitors? Are we passive absorbers, or observers, of these events in the broader community, or do we help to shape them?

As the National Motor Museum Director, there’s not much Halloweenish about motoring, apart from the haunted car trope (think Stephen King’s novel Christine and the subsequent movie ). For the actual Museum, there are rumours of ghosts in the library, but really, what library doesn’t have a ghost or two?

Anyway, I do get on a hobby-horse when it comes Halloween time, and I thought I’d share a piece that I wrote back in 2013, which was posted on my own Blogger account and subsequently picked up by The Advertiser and published on All Hallow’s Eve of 2013…Image: cut out orange and black paper spiders

‘We don’t do Halloween in Australia.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because we are not American.’

This is an often heard conversation this time of year. So, we don’t celebrate a centuries old pagan festival that has its roots in Celtic culture and is widespread throughout the world because it is vigorously celebrated in the United States and we are not Americans.

Well, I hope you don’t mind me pointing out that this is dumb, a bit numbingly boring and just a little glum. [Irony alert!] All Hallows’ Eve is a Northern Hemisphere cultural celebration and being Australians we should stand by our strong tradition of rejecting such cultural imports, just like we reject those other celebrations from the dreaded north, such as Christmas, Easter, St Patrick’s Day, Valentines Day, Greek Easter, Oktoberfest and Schutzenfest, etc. Hmm?

I grew up celebrating Halloween in Cymru (Wales), or as it is known there – Nos Calan Gaef – the name for the night before the first day of winter when spirits are about and you do the best to avoid them by dressing up and playing games. In general, it is best to avoid churchyards, stiles, and crossroads, since spirits are thought to gather there. Since arriving in Australia in the early 1980s, I have gone about celebrating Nos Calan Gaeaf in my own way, which means generally messing about, going topsy-turvy-like and causing mayhem inside my home and in my community. What has pleased me is the undoubted growth in popularity in Australia over the last decade of the trick or treating component of Halloween. I agree, this has been popularised and commercialised in the United States, but Guising, the Scottish and Irish tradition from the 16th century of dressing up and walking around the village scaring the bejesus out of each other, should not be ignored as a major influence on the great pranking and Lords of Misrule tradition either. So for those that in a xenophobic fit point to the US and scream “J’accuse!” at this time of year, I fart in your general direction.

The problem I have lies with such Halloween deniers who regard the neighbourhood children that come to their door, after making variously graded efforts to dress-up, as nothing other than Americanized zombies of mass consumer culture (although I rather think that the thinking or shouting from behind closed doors is a little less sophisticated than that).

Such people are also likely to bemoan the loss of community and human connection and interaction in our modern age, especially pointing another loosely connected finger at those pesky youngsters with their gadgets, their computers and their screens and their Twitters, etc. Come Halloween, these people seem incapable of recognising the community that they so long for even when it actually comes knocking on their door.

The idea of children parading in their streets, owning the space around them and yes, entering into normally verboten private property and asking for a treat for their efforts is, if nothing else, community building. What is there to fear from getting to know your neighbours and their children a little bit better once a year?

I have yet to bump into the neighbours that two years ago told my children to ‘F***  off, we are not American.’ They only live five houses down from me, but they remain complete strangers.Image: orange paper bat

Every year I see Halloween participation grow in popularity through the trick (usually an idle threat) or treaters – guisers – who are gaining in force. Last year we had more visitors than any other – and my apologies to the little boy that found my mask to be too much to bear when I opened the door – but they do come back, and we are now starting to see the same kids each year and see them change and grow up and we now nod to parents that chaperone them when we bump into each other in the shop down the road. This stuff is the glue that holds a community together. Halloween on its own is not it, but it can be a part of it.

My only regret is that the Australian experience of Halloween has not yet encompassed and taken on the Mexican Day of the Dead (Nov 1-2). I can see an opportunity to really get dark and dirty with the dead for a three-day period starting with All Hallows on 31 Oct and ending with the Day of the Dead on 1&2 Nov. Why not?

Okay, we may be on shaky ground when we get involved in northern hemisphere-based cultural celebrations Downunder. For sure, the winter vegetables are not abundant. But take the snow out of Australian Christmas Cards and turn the lights off on the decorated houses and get the Coca Cola influenced Santas to start wearing something more sensible for the weather conditions and then, maybe then, people can have a crack at Halloween.

With the looming Asian century we should see more Asian-based celebrations coming into Australian culture. The Moon Lantern celebration was little known to the general population in SA until the OzAsia Festival started to mark it in Elder Park. We also have Indofest at Rymill Park in April. Around the same time, Adelaide’s Indian community holds its Mela festival. As mentioned before, spring is a special time for Adelaide’s Chinese and Korean communities and the moon lantern festivals take place to celebrate the equinox full moon. We have opportunities to celebrate Aboriginal culture during NAIDOC Week and celebrate the Anniversary of the Apology on National Sorry Day each year. There’s other European culture celebrated through Carnevale, which is described as the last big Italian knees-up before Lent, and Glendi, the Greek word for party, does it well on a weekend in March when the community lays on a feast of food, music, dancing and art.

These festivals and cultural celebrations are great learning opportunities for children and adults alike. They are opportunities to engage with the community around us. We learn history, we see culture alive, we understand boundaries and traditions and we learn about differences.

With Halloween, the celebration is at your front door. We can all learn from it and hey, you never know, we may even get to know each other’s names.

Image: child's hand reaching towards large pumpkins

Image courtesy Will Montegue, CC BY-NC 2.0

As museums what’s going on in the broader community can inform our own thinking, planning and connection with the people that make up our museum community. Institutions such as the Immigration Museum in Melbourne build programs around the Day of the Dead and related cultural activities. While for us the connections are not always as obvious perhaps they do provide an opportunity for a connection with our community, if we’re prepared to put out our pumpkins and join in.


  • Leonie Farquhar says:

    I wholly agree with your comments above. I have been celebrating Halloween with my family and friends for many years, amongst other varying cultural occaisions. It is a simple way of communication and integration for a neighbourhood. I am happy to say that many generations of kids that havd grown up where I live have memories and knowledge of all these things and they are now the parents, teaching them to their own children. Thank you for putting it all so well, Leonie x

  • David Walker says:

    Very nice article, Paul. I’d love Halloween to be bigger in Australia, and considering October is full of events like the Adelaide Zombie Walk and the Horror Movie Campout it seems we’re on our way. Although the sticking point is that year after year I see signs from people that don’t want to participate. It seems much more appropriate for people to put signs up opting in, rather than having to opt out. I think the frustrating barrage of kids turns people from Halloween-neutral to quite anti-Halloween.

    • As far as the participation vs/non issue, the way we do it in America is basically whoever has their porch light on and pretty much any piece of decoration out is considered to be participating. No decorations and porch light off? Don’t go to that house.

      • Paul Rees says:

        Brad, that’s what I thought – re the light on or not and having inviting displays demonstrating that the house is ‘participating’.

    • Paul Rees says:

      Hi David, thanks for the comments. I missed the Horror camp-out due to a competing event, but a friend went and had a ball. I think the recent tradition in the US for TorT is leaving one’s light on which signals consent for TorT to take place. In my neighbourhood people do put signs up saying they are into it and also not. SAPOL has advice, which includes posters people can print. I’ve seen a number of media articles about SAPOL’s advice too. They do provide a ‘no participation’ poster too.

      • David Walker says:

        If that was more widespread/utilised it would be great. A lot of other international festivals and holidays are relatively contained, like Oktoberfest, Glendi, AsiaFest, etc. I.e. in general you have to go to them to participate. I think Halloween gets a lot of flack because it does come knocking on your door instead.

        BTW the Horror Movie Campout was a lot of fun. A lot of people got dressed up and there were scare actors grabbing people during the movies. We’ll definitely go if they do it again next year.

  • Kelli says:

    It’s the barrage of kids after lollies that annoys me.

    • Paul Rees says:

      Hi Kelli, that is the worst aspect of TorT in IMHO. The connection of ‘treat’ to sugar saturated products is a fail for me. It would be good to see the Australian flavour of TorT and the ‘treat’ become focused on something other than sugar, but I’m not sure what?

      • Sandra says:

        There is nothing to stop you giving out something other than lollies.

        • Paul Rees says:

          True that.

        • Being of a much older generation, Halloween is a bit new to me, but we’ve had neighbourhood kids come the last few years. I have a basketful of bright, shiny, red apples beside the front door to hand out, and the kids (and their parents) seem delighted. One 10 yr old wag, exclaimed ‘gosh, fresh apples’. I’m wondering what other sort there are! Did a roaring trade this year!

          • Paul Rees says:

            Gavin, excellent choice re apples, fits with Halloween as I can remember apple-bobbing as a Halloween game played at home. I wonder if mini pumpkin pies might be a good idea…I might bake some for next Halloween and try them out…but would people have a problem with homemade baked goods? I figure if you come knocking for a treat, you get what you’re given, hey?

  • Jo says:

    I’ll start by saying that I have no problem with Halloween.
    That being said, you commented on us celebrating other northern traditions like Christmas and Easter, St Patrick’s Day, etc.
    Our first imports were largely English and Irish, Catholics and other Christians. Of course they brought their traditions with them. As such, All Souls Day is the Christianised and sanitized Halloween.
    Oktoberfest, we’re Aussies and it’s an excuse to get pissed.
    Other traditions will come as our multicultural country grows.
    Americanised cultural traditions are being introduced to our culture through media such as movies and television with no regard to their origin and meaning.
    If we are talking traditional Halloween, based on the agricultural cycle, It should be reversed in the southern hemisphere.
    Halloween falls on the 2nd of May.


    • Paul Rees says:

      Thanks for your comment Jo. Absolutely acknowledging that TorT is a recently introduced growing activity in Australia and that like most new trends is introduced by exposure to modern media. The US being the dominant mainstream cultural import to Australia, apart from the ABC filtering all that’s British of course and SBS trying to fill in the gaps, makes it unpalatable for some. I guess the narrative underneath the debate on TorT activity is that it is coming from the US. It sometimes feels that it is taken up as a chance for people to demonstrate their rejection of US culture. But we’d have to stop listening to rock and roll, and wearing jeans, etc if we went fully down that track. If there is a downside to the TorT, in my opinion it is the taking on of the domination of sugar as a treat in the US tradition.

    • Peter Lupinski says:

      My family are from Europe (Germany and Hungary) to be exact and a few years ago I was fortunate to go and visit family and just happen to be there on the 2nd of November when they celebrate the day of the dead by going to the cemetery and lighting candles in small lanterns and red glass jars to honour their dear departed and some families even take a picnic along to spend more time with their loved ones. Also celebrated in Europe on the 30th of April or the 1st of May is Walpurgisnacht or the night of the witches to welcome in the Spring and chase away the evil spirits usually with bonfires and dance. Here where I live in the Hunter Valley N.S.W. our council puts on the Spring Awakening Festival starting at 6pm celebrated with live music,flaming torches,fire sculptures and braziers to warm yourself by during the cool of the evening with some market stalls and food vendors plus some families came earlier and brought along picnics, blankets and chairs.The park was decorated with lights and hundreds of lanterns made by school children and this year we had our first lantern parade which had one to two hundred children and a few adults to supervise parading with their lanterns to the park,it was hailed a success and we hope next year will be even bigger.The evening was fantastic bringing the community together and giving people a chance to catch up with old friends and perhaps make some new ones.

      • Paul Rees says:

        Hi Peter, that sounds like a great community event. Thanks for the info on Walpurgisnacht, I hadn’t come across that one.

  • Su Carlisle says:

    Well said. I hail from England and every year face the same argument with Halloween. I am suprised at how many “Australians” of English decent are totally oblivious to this little piece of their own history. Do they think white people were always just ‘here’. Maybe if they spent more time looking at their own history instead of being experts on American history, they would know more.

    • Paul Rees says:

      Thanks for your comment Su. It is odd isn’t it? I have a few English friends (those that hail from big city’s in particular) who never touched Halloween when they were growing up in the UK. I wonder if – and this is a big generalisation – whether it is something to do with big cities being more distant and small cities being closer to rural life in times past?

  • Solange says:

    Great article, I have been saying the same thing for years!

  • Peter Lupinski says:

    Hello Paul,
    My family is from Europe (Germany and Hungary) to be exact and several years ago I went over to visit family and happen to be there during the day of the dead celebrated on the 2nd of November where families would go to the cemetery to light candles on the graves in small lanterns and red glass jars to honour their loved ones sometimes even taking a picnic so as to spend more time with their dear departed. Also celebrated in Europe on April 30th or May 1st is Walpurgisnacht or the night of the witches to welcome the Spring weather and drive away the evil spirits usually with dancing and bonfires. Here where I live in the Hunter Valley the council puts on a Spring awakening festival with some market stalls and food vendors plus live music,flaming torches, fire sculptures and braziers to sit and warm yourself by during the cool of the evening,the park was decorated with lights and hundreds of paper lanterns made by school children also this year we had our first lantern parade with scores of the children and a few adults supervising carrying their lanterns to the park for the evening kick off at 6.30 pm and it was hailed a huge success.Some families came early with picnics blankets and chairs so as to get a good spot near the fire. It was a great opportunity to catch up with old friends and perhaps make some new ones.I am looking forward to next year being bigger and better.

  • Paul Rees says:

    Hi Peter, that sounds like a great community event. Thanks for the info on Walpurgisnacht, I hadn’t come across that one.

  • Sarah Baker says:

    Da iawn chdi Paul! Dwin cofio mynd o gwmpas ar noson Calan Gaef fel plentyn yng nghymru! Dwin byw yn Australia ac yn mwynhau cael plantos wedi neud ymdrech I gwisgo fynnu ac cael hwyl a rhoi siocled/lollies am ei effaith!!harmless bit of fun fel mae nhwn deud! 🙂

    • Paul Rees says:

      Diolch Sarah, neges yn y Gymreig … synnu’n fawr! Hapus eich bod wedi mwynhau yr erthygl. [Thanks Sarah, a welsh message…very surprised! Happy that you enjoyed reading the article.]

  • Anna Hood says:

    Halloween is based on the ancient seasonal festivals and it is relevant here in Australia between Autumn and Winter April 30th/May 1st for it truly to be meaningful and even spooky! At this time of year it is actually Beltane in Australia which concerns fertility and mating – not death and the otherworld as Halloween does. I would be happy for Australians to embrace this pagan tradition at the correct time of year when it is meaningful – rather than simply celebrating it at the same time as the Northern Hemisphere. These traditions are designed to work with the energies of Nature and to harmonise us with the greater cycles. I personally feel they become quite barren and silly when celebrated in the reverse.

    • Catherine Manning says:

      That’s an interesting point Anna, many northern hemisphere holidays make much more sense if celebrated at a different time in Australia.

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