When I was a child Bonfire Night dominated in England, not Halloween. Traditionally people hold bonfires and let off fireworks on November 5th, to commemorate Guy Fawkes’ failed attempt to blow up parliament and assassinate King James, in 1605. Halloween was in contrast quite a scary occasion, it wasn’t for small children, but was instead typified by teenagers in masks making good on the promise of trick or treat. Our porch got covered in eggs and flour on a couple of occasions when we did not provide any treats. Gradually Halloween has eclipsed Bonfire Night at home. I wish this were not the case as Bonfire Night was one of our few distinctly British celebrations. Without the equivalent of July 4th and pitiful little celebration of St Georges Day, Bonfire Night was our only annual historical celebration. Having spent a considerable portion of my academic career exploring war and postwar Anglo-American relations, I think I am more sensitive to the spread of Halloween. I am reminded of wartime complaints about the G.I.s being “overpaid, over sexed, and over here.” Like those earlier Britons troubled by the spread of nylons, chocolate, and chewing gum, I am similarly moved by the encroaching American imperialism of Halloween. I very much doubt our grandparents would have stood for it.
It will therefore likely come as a shock to learn that I like Halloween over here. In the proper setting and ambiance it is quite magical, and nowhere does it better than Beacon Hill. I took my older sister here for Halloween a couple of year ago, and she reminisces about it frequently. This year my Mum, my boyfriend, and my younger sister came with me. Beacon Hill is one of Boston’s most pricey and most beautiful locations. Its brick houses, tree-lined avenues, and cobbled streets exude a sense of peace and majesty, and look much more like Europe than America. One of my best friends used to live on the Hill, and through her I got to go to various Beacon Hill Civic Association events with pearl-wearing women called Bunny, Mitsy, and other suitably upper-class designations. It is the Bunnys of the world that make Beacon Hill what it is today, and so I fully support their efforts.
For Halloween the whole area is car-free from 4-9 so that children can “Trick or Treat” safely. In place of cars the streets fill with young families, strollers, smoke machines, pumpkins, and small costumed-children struggling to carry their pumpkin-shaped treat baskets. The decorations in Beacon Hill make it a must-see if you are in Boston over the Halloween period. Rather than table-scape, the residents of Beacon Hill street-scape, draping whole houses with faux spider webs, and giant spiders, adding green filters to porch light-bulbs, covering windows with elaborate crepe paper shadows, hanging ghosts and lanterns from tree branches, and constructing grave yards in their gardens. The cobbled alleyways and low hanging trees provide the perfect canvas for decorating, and the whole effect is quite breathtaking. I doubt even Martha could do any better.
At each doorway the residents gather, often perched on stoop steps, with gigantic barrels of chocolate and sweets. They welcome their costumed guests with kindness and excitement, “Captain America!,” one woman exclaimed to a costumed-clad visitor, “We’ve been waiting for you to save the day, all night!” Up and down the streets little Minnie Mice, Buzzes and Woodys, Elsas and Annas, elephants and tigers, ghosts and ghouls, superheroes and spacemen, even lobsters and pots, the Titanic, and a Boston Duck Bus wandered, selecting a piece of candy at each house. Walking along you could hear a chorus of “You’re Welcomes” following the children. There was no eggs or flour on Beacon Hill, just thank yous.
Through the open doors and lit windows you get to see right into the mansions of Beacon Hill. Glimpsing the ornate paintings, the occasional library, or a state of the art kitchen is almost as fun as looking at the decorations. Two years ago, we saw John Kerry standing outside his Beacon Hill home handing out candy to children and shaking hands with their parents. This year, there was no Secretary of State to be seen, but his wife sat on her doorstep giving out chocolate. In the garden opposite, a giant inflatable black cat billowed in the cool night air. Halloween is a great leveler and the children, not the multi-million dollar houses or their occupants, are the stars.
My mum and I walked around mesmerized by this slice of American Pie: when not usurping British heritage it is quite divine. If Currier and Ives ever tired of Christmas, they would have found ample subjects in this small corner of Boston on October 31st. Rather than a celebration of death, in Beacon Hill, Halloween celebrates childhood, families, good manners, and community. Maybe nylons and gum aren’t so bad after all.