The Guardian view on a Covid Halloween: treats, please

Editorial
·3-min read
<span>Photograph: Alamy</span>
Photograph: Alamy

Saturday is the night when witches and ghouls are said to haunt the streets. In Swindon, so too will council officers advising on social distancing. The rule of six has made parties a no-go. Trick or treating is off limits in tier 3 areas, and police elsewhere have advised against it: lurking on doorsteps may be safer than entering, but plunging sticky hands into bowls of sweets is hardly Covid-secure. In recent years, Halloween has thrived in the UK, with spending on the holiday almost doubling between 2013 and 2018. Now, like so much else, its rituals have been thrown into doubt by the pandemic.

Some experts think Halloween’s appeal is rooted in its subversive elements: children ordering adults around, and trespassers making demands of home owners. The idea of a world turned upside down seems less appealing these days. Infection concerns mean fewer will be heading to cinemas for a scary movie, but most of us feel spooked enough anyway.

Yet as the cold sets in and nights lengthen, the urge to seek comfort and pleasure is an old and profound one. Halloween is thought to have its roots in the old Celtic festival of Samhain, marking the end of the harvest and the arrival of leaner days. Like many winter festivals, it uses lanterns to ward off the darkness. Northern Ireland’s Public Health Agency has warned that apple bobbing is not safe this year, for obvious reasons. But like other Halloween practices it has its origins in divination rituals, and in uncertain times we all long for a glimpse of the future.

Children who have already lost out on many of the year’s joys cannot look forward to big Bonfire Night parties or displays in lieu of this weekend’s usual celebrations. Mischief night, practised in some parts of the north and Midlands, is surely out: doorknobs are supposed to be sanitised, not daubed in treacle. There are graver disappointments, though. In July, restrictions imposed in greater Manchester late on the night before Eid al-Adha prevented people from different households from gathering. Christmas Day also weighs heavily on people’s minds, though for some a Covid Christmas may be a relief from stresses such as choosing between estranged parents.

Halloween might be considered as something of a low-stakes trial run for these more significant holidays: a way of learning to recast cherished rituals for a different world. Some American homeowners have made chutes to send candy to trick or treaters from a distance. Bran Castle in Romania – the inspiration for Dracula’s home – is holding an online party. In Lyme Regis, businesses have arranged a pumpkin trail so that children can follow a jack o’lantern route without risking close encounters. No, it will not be the same. But all festivals evolve, and this year we need extra ingenuity and determination to enjoy them. Seeking small pleasures is not trivial: 2020 has played enough tricks on us, and people yearn for treats.