LONDON (Reuters Life!) - The modern-day ghouls and goblins of Halloween are steadily frightening off a British tradition that stretches back 400 years.
The widely commercial attraction of Halloween trick or treating that is a mainstay of North American life is gaining popularity at the expense of Guy Fawkes celebrations, a night of bonfires and fireworks which commemorate a 1605 Catholic plot to blow up England’s Parliament and bring down King James I.
Traditionally, children made an effigy of “Gunpowder Plot” conspirator Guy Fawkes and paraded him down streets, asking passers-by to “spare a penny for the Guy.” They would then use the money to buy fireworks and burn the effigy on a bonfire.
Although British municipalities still hold large public fireworks displays, few people say they make effigies or light bonfires in their own gardens these days and are more likely to participate in Halloween festivities.
“It’s really shifted to Halloween from Guy Fawkes in the UK,” said Robert Fisher, 56, taking a break near his office in central London. “Halloween has really taken off.”
As a child Fisher said he never went disguised as a pirate or goblin from house to house to beg for candy, as children in his neighborhood do today.
“That was an American thing.”
Critics blame the shift on excessive municipal safety regulations and the commercial exploitation of Halloween.
“It’s much bigger than Guy Fawkes,” Graham Gibbon, a solicitor, said of contemporary Halloween festivities.
As a child he and his friends collected money for their Fawkes effigy, he said. His children, however, do not.
Fisher, from London’s East End who will light some fireworks for his five-year old daughter at the weekend, agreed that Guy Fawkes night had diminished in importance.
“In my day, Guy Fawkes and Bonfire Night was a family affair,” he said. “I still light the fireworks but we haven’t invited anyone. We just have a little display.”
Both Guy Fawkes night and Halloween trace their roots to harvest festivals that took place across the northern hemisphere up until the 17th century, according to Stephen Sayers, a social psychologist from Leeds Metropolitan University.
The term bonfire comes from “bone fire,” when people burned the leftovers of their village feasts — including animal carcasses, he said.
“It just so happens that when Guy Fawkes did his thing, people were already lighting fires,” Sayers said.
Though observed in northern Britain and Scotland, U.S. films and television shows have helped raise the modern-day mass-market version of Halloween in the British consciousness.
“We celebrated Halloween but it was in no way commercial,” such as by bobbing for apples in a bucket of water, Gibbon said. “When I was a boy there was no trick or treating.”
This year, he and his wife had a Halloween party for their nine-year-old child.
Daniel Lucht, a retail analyst with Verdict Research, said Halloween was proving a bonanza for stores.
“In the last two years it has really taken off,” he said. “For some players it’s now the second-biggest occasion after Christmas.”
Sayers agreed Halloween was a boon to retailers with sales of costumes, candies, pumpkins and other paraphernalia.
“Halloween is eminently marketable,” he said. “With Guy Fawkes there’s only so many things you can sell.”
Injuries and deaths in the 1950s and 60s after children put firecrackers in mailboxes and played other pranks, prompted municipal authorities to rein in the Guy Fawkes festivities on safety grounds, Sayers said.
“That had the effect of secularizing and sanitizing it.” Because of the safety restrictions, “there’s been a move away from Guy Fawkes,” he said.
As evidence of the heightened concern, at a rugby club in Devon, 2,000 people will gather around a screen with film footage of a fire, giant heaters and smoke machines because the local regulations made lighting a real bonfire difficult, the Telegraph newspaper reported.
“It’s changed. When I was younger, (Guy Fawkes) was a thing that you’d do with your friends. We would still be able to go and sneak into stores and buy fireworks.
In Britain, fireworks can generally be purchased only by people over the age of 18.
“It’s quite sad, really,” said Gibbon, sitting on a bench just paces from St. Paul’s Cathedral. “We’ve become so protective.”
Additional reporting by Kylie MacLellan; Editing by Paul Casciato