AMERICANS living abroad don't expect such particularly American holidays such as Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July to be observed in other countries, but there are other celebrations which we had assumed to be cross-cultural, and their absence on the calendars of European schoolchildren surprised us. Last year when we were living in England, for example, we missed Halloween. Our two children had a week off from school, and we traveled across the Irish Sea to spend a few days in the Irish city of Cork. The night of Oct. 31, we were at a bed-and-breakfast in a small town south of Dublin.
Before dinner the landlord prepared afternoon tea for us, and we discussed the fact that Halloween isn't much of a holiday on that side of the Atlantic.
``It's beginning to be more popular,'' he told us, but he himself would still be surprised to see costumed trick-or-treaters on the street. He understood, though, that our children might like something special, and directed us to a neighborhood bonfire being held that night two blocks away.
After dinner we walked over to the vacant lot where a spectacularly high pyramid of sticks was crackling and shooting flames into the chill night air. It was pleasant being warmed by the fire, but we had an early ferry to catch the next morning, so we didn't stay long.
We returned to England to find that there, too, Halloween had passed unremarked. One girl at our children's school told me she'd meant to go out trick-or-treating, but her family went swimming that evening, and she ``forgot.'' The nearest, in fact, our children got to celebrating Halloween last year was the school's ``Halloween disco'' - a fund-raiser held before the October vacation. A handful of children had come dressed as cowboys and princesses, but otherwise there had been nothing to distinguish the evening from an ordinary school party.
This lack of attention puzzled me, because many of the customs we associate with Halloween originated in the British Isles, with the Celts. It seemed to me that the English, who have given us Jack in the Beanstalk, fairies, and Gothic novels, might have had an even more elaborate Halloween than Americans.
We returned from Ireland, though, to discover that our town was not without its own holiday preparations. Around the market in the town center, we encountered small boys and girls with scarecrows that they had obviously constructed themselves, asking us to give ``a penny for the Guy.''
Letters appeared in the newspaper urging people to search under their bonfires before lighting them for hedgehogs that might take refuge there. And at the school, the younger children made special art projects which consisted of brightly colored bits of paper arranged on black construction paper - fireworks spattering a night sky.
Eventually we learned that the scarecrows, fireworks, and bonfires marked the same event - Guy Fawkes Day on Nov. 5. On this day the English celebrate the discovery of an elaborate scheme to blow up the Houses of Parliament in London in 1606. Guy Fawkes, although not the leader of the plot, was the man selected to light the gunpowder buried in a cellar beneath the Houses of Parliament. He was caught and hanged (as were most of the other rebels), and every Nov. 5 thereafter his effigy has been burned in bonfires all over England. A child begging for ``a penny for the Guy'' is theoretically collecting enough money to construct a Guy Fawkes for the neighborhood festivities.
English families celebrate Guy Fawkes Day much as we Americans do the Fourth of July - with fireworks and neighborhood gatherings. In our neighborhood, the families whose backyards open out onto a dirt lane traditionally congregate the night of Nov. 5 for a party.
The teenagers make an effigy of Guy Fawkes out of straw and old clothes and construct the bonfire, one of the fathers buys fireworks (in England it is still legal to set off fireworks privately) and everyone brings food. Our family had baked ordinary chocolate-chip cookies, which, to our surprise, were lavishly praised as a rare gourmet treat.
Nov. 5 marked a turning point in our relations with our neighbors. We'd been living in the house we were renting for two months, but the English often like to maintain a distance and observe newcomers before they make overtures of friendship. That evening, standing out in the grass talking and watching the straw image burn and the Catherine wheels flame through the damp night air, we felt part of the neighborhood. And afterward we were invited to ``come round'' quite frequently. We felt free to go across the lane to borrow a bicycle pump or an egg; at Christmas, several families invited us in for mince pies.
For me, then, Guy Fawkes Day became a reminder that you often have to give up one experience to gain another. After that evening, I understood why the British don't need Halloween. They already have a holiday which marks a change in the autumn, an evening of excitement and camaraderie before the dreary weather of November settles in.
While we Americans face the approach of winter with wildly grinning pumpkins and costumes, the British set off fireworks and light bonfires under the guise of commemorating a historical event. Knocking at a door and asking for a treat, keeping warm in front of a huge bonfire ... both rituals help us remember that we have neighbors to count on in the long, cold days ahead.