How an old Yorkshire tradition came back to haunt us

IT used to pass without much fanfare.

A handful of children wearing white sheets or handmade witch's hats would knock on the door in hope of a few sweets, the disappointed would throw the odd egg and before you knew it Hallowe'en was over for another year.

This year things seem different. In supermarkets every possible product has been rebranded, packaging adorned with pumpkins and ghosts and with fancy dress shops reporting record business it seems Britain is embracing the American way of celebrating the eve of All Souls. No more so than in Sheffield where thousands will flock to the city centre for Fright Night.

The free festival, described as a "mass promenade" for all ages, has grown from its small beginnings 10 years ago when only 7,000 visitors attended. On Sunday crowds are expected to reach 40,000.

"It's a really nice way of the city embracing all the traditions in its own way. Sheffield does community celebration so brilliantly," says Dr Leila Prescott of Museums Sheffield, who studied modern expressions of Hallowe'en for her PhD at the University of Sheffield.

With its emphasis on costume and fire-based sideshows such a fire-walking and juggling with fire, Fright Night taps in to existing traditions of dressing up and celebrating around Hallowe'en and Bonfire Night, and borrows a little from the big US parades like the one which annually brings New York and Los Angeles to a standstill.

While the commercialisation of Hallowe'en may have taken on a life of its own this year, the basic celebrations are far from a modern phenomenon. In the Celtic calendar, November 1 was summer's end, or Samhain, one of two major fire festivals which divided the agricultural year, now celebrated the evening before.

" There is a real excitement about the cover of darkness," says Dr Prescott.

"It goes beyond the sense of the end of summer. It was the time that livestock were killed and all the preparations for winter were made. That's why this time of year has a supernatural element. The veils between the worlds are thin."

North-west of Sheffield, Samhain has traditionally been marked by Cakin' Night, linked to the Catholic tradition of handing out cakes on All Souls' Day.

"I was brought up a Catholic, and Hallowe'en was our festival," says Professor Vanessa Toulmin, director of the National Fairground Archive at the University of Sheffield, who has booked the sideshows and street theatre for Fright Night. "We always did a lot at Halloween – there were fairs in Lancashire where I'm from, and in Yorkshire as well there is a long tradition

of activity.

"Many younger children know Hallowe'en from TV and American Trick or Treat, but Hallowe'en is an English tradition that goes back centuries. Hallowe'en has always been made up of lots of different activities, it's always been manufactured, wherever you are."

New research shows that far from being an American import, the

tradition of trick or treating stems from Yorkshire's own Mischief Night. Experts now believe it would have remained a regional oddity,

but when people began to emigrate to the US during the Industrial Revolution, the custom crossed the Atlantic with them. "A lot of Hallowe'en traditions started in the UK," says Fright Night's organiser Scott Barton of Yellow Bus Events. "Then it became a big American thing, then came back across the Atlantic and morphed in to lots of festival traditions, and comic book culture got mixed in to it."

Fright Night reflects this heady brew, with fancy dress competitions, craft stalls and fun fair rides joined this year by a giant dancing dragon created by structural costumiers for Notting Hill Carnival, a chainsaw sculptor and samba dancing. Use is being made of the newly-refurbished Crucible theatre and Tudor Square with living statues, stilt walkers and sideshows – such as Madame Arcana's fortune telling illusion. The big attraction will be the zombies in Marks and Spencer's window, which had people queuing eight deep last year – played by students in theatrical make-up.

"Sheffield has invested millions of pounds in public spaces and Fright Night is a great promenade, a sort of organised chaos," says Prof Toulmin.

"People come in to Sheffield and see parts of it they wouldn't normally see."