Halloween this year falls on Sunday, 31 October. The festival is a curious hybrid of paganism and a Christian feast of the dead, but mainly the former. As Ronald Hutton has shown in chapter 37 of his The Stations of the Sun (Oxford University Press, 1996), its celebration was relatively muted in Great Britain until the latter half of the twentieth century when successively Irish and American influences brought it more to the fore.

Halloween has now been effectively hijacked by the retail industry, which is striving hard to develop a Halloween seasonal market and thus indirectly to boost observance of Halloween by Britons. Asda led the way, learning from Walmart (its American parent company), but all the other British supermarkets have followed suit.

Back in 2001, the market was only worth £12 million in this country, according to Planet Retail. It increased tenfold to £120 million by 2006 and then grew to £195 million in 2008 and £235 million in 2009, with a forecast of £280 million in 2010. Nielsen puts its value even higher, at nearer £300 million. Halloween has now become the third biggest retail event in the seasonal calendar after Christmas and Easter.

Leading the quest for even bigger revenues this year is Tesco. It has announced that it alone is expecting to sell £55 million of Halloween-related goods, including 1.4 million pumpkins, 2 million toffee apples, 1.5 million fancy dress costumes and 1 million copies of an exclusive film with Dreamworks, Monsters vs Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space. Tesco’s Halloween sales have almost trebled since 2005.

Tesco’s expected Halloween turnover of £55 million contrasts with its £20 million for Father’s Day, £28 million for Valentine’s Day, £37 million for Mother’s Day, £110 million for Easter and £320 million for Christmas.

Food manufacturers are all jumping on the bandwagon, too. For instance, Tango is giving its soft drink bottles and cans a zombie make-over, Cadbury is launching Screme Eggs and Cauldron’s Mix sweets, while Premier Foods is introducing Mr Kipling Fiendish Fancies and Mr Kipling Devil Slices.

Manufacturers and retailers would doubtless claim merely to be responding to customer demand for a new fun-filled festival for family and friends. But is this true? Unfortunately, the only British national survey which appears to exist on the subject of Halloween was conducted by Angus Reid Public Opinion on 28-30 October 2009, among an online sample of 2,004 adults.

On that occasion just 14% of Britons claimed always to celebrate Halloween (compared with 41% of Americans and Canadians). 41% said that they never celebrated it and 45% sometimes did. 55% intended to carry out no Halloween-related activities during the 2009 weekend (against 26% in Canada and 14% in the USA), handing out sweets to trick-or-treaters being the commonest activity.

While 45% of Britons in 2009 associated Halloween with fun, 35% regarded it as overrated. 30% saw it as harmless, but for 31% it had connotations with paganism and for 40% with witchcraft.

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