According to UNESCO, the term “cultural heritage” is not limited to monuments and collections of objects. It also includes living expressions of culture—traditions—passed down from generation to generation. Hallowe’en is a perfect example of this.
There is something magical and mysterious about Hallowe’en. The dressing up, the decorations, the bonfires, the fireworks, the peculiar traditions, the lack of formality. It is our most anarchic and pagan time of year. It is one of the few times that a person can knock on the front door of a stranger’s home and be welcomed in a ritualistic way.
All Hallows Eve, 31 October, is the time in the Christian calendar when the dead are remembered, including saints (hallows) and martyrs. Hallowe’en goes back to the time of the Druids and the ancient Celtic harvest festival Samhain (pronounced sow-in) which was the beginning of the Celtic new year on 1 November. Oíche Shamhna, Night of Samhain, is the Gaelic word for the Christian festival of Hallowe’en. It celebrates the harvest, paticularly fruits and orchards.
Most years we buy sweets and fruit for the local witches, vampires and odd monsters that knock on our door. “Trick or treat” or “Help the Hallowe’en Party” are the usual excited cries.
This year Hallowe’en felt darker than normal. No tiny monsters would be knocking on our door. As a response to the invisible menace of Covid-19 we created a tableau in front of our house. A macabre vision from the days of the Black Death, the Plague Doctor stands with his burning herbs to ward away malignant spirits. The Druid Monk with his burning eyes evokes Hallowe’en’s religious and pagan past. Behind him the Bloody Hand of Death scuttles about.