A Surprisingly Halloween-y Weekend in London

Halloween as a dress-up, trick-or-treat party is a tradition based in the United States. There are many other traditions around this time of year focusing on spirits, the end of one year and the start of another, the change of the seasons, etc. (Day of the Dead comes to mind), but putting on a costume and eating sugar til you pass out is an American thing. So I was pleasantly surprised to find that England is succumbing to the pervasive influence of American culture in this respect. My friend Liz, a North American living in London for the past six years, says she’s seen more Halloween celebrating going on this year than any other. (Sorry for the blurry quality of some of the photos, but that’s nighttime iPhone photography for ya.)

Pumpkins on display at King's Cross

Pumpkins on display at King’s Cross

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Na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na na…

One massive display of holiday spirit manifested in the 3,000 pumpkins appearing for one night only at King’s Cross Canalside Steps. This little pedestrian-friendly corner of the north central King’s Cross neighborhood abuts Regents Canal, and a couple houseboats bob nearby. Nonprofit organization Global Generation and city groups partnered up to host the event. Anyone could come carve a pumpkin on October 30 and 31, they were displayed on the evening of the 31st, and the next day, anyone could stop by to pick up a pumpkin and a recipe card. Leftover pumpkins were distributed to food pantries, and Global Generation will oversee composting of the remains. Gotta love a fun event that’s also a well-thought-out sustainability model.

Just about shows the scope of the pumpkin display

Just about shows the scope of the pumpkin display

Spooky spider

Spooky spider

The pumpkins were gorgeous. Not all of them were carved, but just seeing that massive amount of gourds was impressive, and they’d cleverly put enough lights in and around the pumpkins that they were well-lit for photos when I stopped by at 9pm. A couple security guards lounged on chairs at the top of the steps, but no one was there to wreak havoc. We were too busy spotting our favorites in the crowd–oh there’s Jack Skellington from Nightmare Before Christmas, there’s the symbol for woman, ooh look at that scary spider, are those penguins in love? This was Halloween made (pumpkin) flesh.

Movie spooks

Movie spooks

Getting gutsy

Getting gutsy

halloween london halloween london

Figures that London was getting fully in the swing of Halloween in a year I was too stressed to make myself a costume! (The past couple weeks have been tough because I’ve needed to find a new home but had no luck until a room unexpectedly opened up at Liz’s, so I’ll be subletting there for a few months, thank goodness.) But housing stability aside, the main point is that October 31 arrived and I had nothing to wear. Still, the advantage of being in a country that’s only just discovering the joys of Halloween is that they aren’t as quick to judge you if you show up in your civvies as they are at home.

Witchy bus

Witchy bus

I joined my friend Duane at his local (I love that that’s what they call the closest pub to your home here, the one you frequent because it’s nearby–not “the local pub,” just “the local”). I had a few beers with Duane and friends, while a group of guys played traditional Irish music in the next room and the football played on the telly. Basically, it was everything I want in an English pub and even though it’s far from my home in Brixton, I’m tempted to make it my local, too.

Day of the Dead inspired (incidentally, at least half the women I saw on public transport on October 31 had Dia de los Muertos makeup on--definitely the most popular costume choice)

Day of the Dead inspired (incidentally, at least half the women I saw on public transport on October 31 had Dia de los Muertos makeup on–definitely the most popular costume choice)

On Saturday night, Liz and I met up with a little group of friends for delicious Indian food on Brick Lane, and then we walked up the road to Rich Mix, an arts space/movie theater/performance spot. Tim Ralphs (who you may remember I mentioned in my post on the Fringe Fest in Edinburgh) was performing with the Crick Crack Club, a group devoted to exploring storytelling traditions around the world. Tim shared the stage with TUUP and Clare Muireann Murphy, and they were all fantastic. Among the three of them, they shared stories from Viking, Irish, African, and early Christian traditions. The stories all featured death as a main player, but while they went to some dark places, they mostly ended back in a place of joy, because this night was about appreciating the role death plays in life, and how people the world over have recognized that.

Dia de los Muertos with the Crick Crack Club

Dia de los Muertos with the Crick Crack Club

This was a Dia de los Muertos event, so the stage was decorated in the skeletons, colorful flowers, and altarpieces of Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations. Several times, the storytellers reminded us that the dead are only really gone if they’re forgotten, so it is up to us, the living, to remember them. Audience members were invited to write the names of dear departed ones on slips of paper and leave them in a bowl in front of the altar. At the end of the night, the bowl of names was carried out along a path of marigold petals, to the music of a guitar and drum, as the storytellers showed the spirits the way to walk if they wanted to rejoin us on this night of a thin veil between dead and living.

Storytellers played to a sold-out crowd

Storytellers played to a sold-out crowd

For a place that doesn’t really celebrate Halloween, London sure gave me a good impression of the ghoulish holiday this weekend.

halloween london

Fall Favorites

For the last couple of years, I’ve thrown a Fall Fest at my apartment. Friends would meet up to carve pumpkins, eat donuts, and drink cider. It was a low-key event, centered around a love of the changing seasons and all the tasty, tasty food that goes with it. This year, now that I’m in my new, smaller apartment, I won’t be able to host Fall Fest, but that doesn’t mean I’ll be giving up my celebratory traditions. There is a pumpkin-shaped candy dish, the rum and cider recipe is as good as ever, and caramel is waiting to be melted onto freshly picked apples. (The centrality of food is no mistake here — autumn is harvest time, after all.)

pumpkin carving

pumpking carving at Fall Fest '08

Then there’s the whole non-food element to the season, that melancholy air that swirls in with those first few crisp days. Fall can bring you down if you’re not careful, as everything around you literally dies and turns away for six months. But if you’re in the right mood, that melancholy is poignant and comforting, a reminder to breathe in the air more deeply and fold your loved ones into you more closely as the cold cuts closer. I know so many people who name autumn as their favorite season, and aside from the relief from sweltering summer, the main reason seems to be that sense of change in the air, the knowledge that everything around us is burrowing under while we start a school year, or start a new project, or rekindle a friendship. Autumn is the perfect encapsulation of the cyclical nature of, well, nature, and also of we humans — everything is changing, decomposing, layering, rebuilding, renewing. The days grow darker and the skies cloud over, but that’s a (deliciously burnt leaves) smokescreen — fall smells crisper and tastes sharper because we are most aware of who we are in these shortening days, and we are alive.

yellow and red leaves on an autumn day

one of my fall favorites

With all that in mind, what are your favorite parts of the season? What longstanding traditions do you cherish? What do you dislike about it? See you in the comments!

UPDATE: I didn’t even realize it as I wrote this, but I wrote like this exact post last November. Oh well, it’s still true.