Europe is closing down, and kids will stay inside because of our old friend Covid-19, a much scarier prospect than the usual Hallowe’en horrors.
There’s no going out this Hallowe’en. No tromping around the streets in the crisp October darkness, all dressed up and ringing doorbells in the fervent expectation of gathering buckets of sweets.
There have, of course, been many other, more gradual changes to the ancient festival of Samhain in recent years; we’ve had increasing numbers of youngsters running around kitted out as Donald Trump and Pablo Escobar instead of dressing up as the more traditional Hallowe’en ghouls and monsters. (I must admit, though, while the kids may not actually realise it, they do have a point.)
Alas, though, things have come to the stage where an Irish primary school-child could identify the current U.S president from forty paces but would gape speechlessly at you if you asked them to tell you the name of the Taoiseach, while their parents order plastic pinatas full of sweets from Amazon instead of playing Snap Apple or Murder in the Dark.
I don’t know if many families will shut down the laptops and play Snap Apple this Halloween (a game in which apples are suspended from the ceiling by strings to mouth height so that players can attempt to eat an entire apple without touching it with their hands. Prizes go to those who either get the first bite out of their apple or who eat their whole apple first.)
Millions of children will participate in the modern, watered-down, US-style movie-dominated version of Hallowe’en tonight, but few will be really aware of the festival’s dark, ancient Celtic roots which stretch back to the Samhain festival about 2,000 years ago.
Samhain was basically the annual watershed between the lighter half of the year, which was summer, and the darker half, which was winter. At Samhain, however, the division between our world and the otherworld, that is the world of the spirits, was also at its thinnest, allowing ghosts and other unearthly beings to pass through into our world.
To avoid harm from the more unpleasant of these spirits, people traditionally dressed up in costumes and masks, disguising themselves as spiritual nasties — and thus avoiding any risky interactions with real, and more sinister creatures of darkness.
Bonfires were pivotal to the celebration, which was also marked by the consumption of ritual foods such as the Halloween Barm Brack, into which a variety of charms are baked — a ring (meaning an impending marriage) a pea (signalling that you won’t be getting married for a while yet) a bit of cloth or rag (bad luck and poverty) a matchstick (conflict or an unhappy marriage) and a coin (a predictor of wealth.)
Most of these were pretty grim predictions to have hanging over you for the year to come — the ancients weren’t that much into the power of positive visualisation, if you ask me — and if the truth be told, we’ve really just about had our fill of gloom.
The past 10 months have featured a sheer rash of bad luck, illness, conflict, cancelled weddings, widespread unemployment, rising homelessness, and shocking poverty, not to mention endless gloomy predictions about second pandemic waves and so on.
We don’t need a rag or a matchstick or a pea to signal more of it. Only the coin and the ring will appear in my barm bracks, which, by the way, I have made myself this year, surprise, surprise, using a drop of brandy and, yes, a really nice recipe I found on the internet.
But, look, it’s still Hallowe’en. We can still sense the shadowy veil between our world and the spirit world melt away if we turn off the TV and the laptops for once, and actually go outside into the garden and look at the stars for a while.
We can still enjoy the feeling of Hallowe’en. Mammies can still make the traditional Hallowe’en brack if they’re so minded. Or buy it.
Nor has Covid-19 prevented the annual appearance of bright orange pumpkins, which are everywhere. (Though if you’re going to be really strict about it, pumpkins are not actually an element of the traditional Irish Halloween either. Carving pumpkins was actually part of an American harvest-time tradition.)
In Ireland at Hallowe’en, what we traditionally did was, we carved hollowed-out turnips — much more difficult to do, if you are to be honest about it, and the soup wasn’t nearly as good.
But, look, we’re quite the cosmopolitan little nation now. Multicultural. International in our outlook. We are outward-looking and forward-thinking. Pinatas and pumpkins and Donal Trump costumes are an inevitable part of that, given the way globalisation has shrunk the planet in the last 40 years.
But screens aren’t an inevitable part of Hallowe’en. And, although Covid might have made us a bit wary of ducking for apples in a basin, we can still play Snap-apple or we can peel an apple and allow the peel to fall on the ground in the belief that it will show us the initial letter of a sweetheart’s name.
We can still play Murder in the Dark. We can still light a fire and tell ghost stories around it. So don’t lose heart. We’ll get through this. Everything will come right.