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Saints and spirits

31 October 2014

THE clocks have gone back, and, notwithstanding lingering warm weather, it begins to feel as if tomorrow really should be All Saints' Day. Hence comes the Eve of All Hallows, which the world around us remembers as an occasion for dressing up and parties, while forgetting the Christian festival. Many churches will transfer their liturgy for All Saints' Day to Sunday, because of low expectations of church attendance twice in a weekend.

While it seems to be the case that some Hallowe'en customs, the carved lanterns, pranks, and the like, originated in these islands (Ireland, in particular), and have merely returned across the Atlantic in the form that they took after being transplanted in foreign soil, other traditional English customs have died out. We do not hear much about Nutcrack Night now, for example. And the reason for this is that authentic folklore is utterly beside the point. The shops and the online entrepreneurs have been working towards a brisk trade in pumpkins, novelties, fancy-dress costumes, and greasepaint - catering for a market that barely existed here 30 or 40 years ago. The Hallowe'en customs that have surged in popularity in England in the past decade or so appear to have spread largely through an international film and television culture.

Beyond excusing heavy drinking and indulgence in the macabre among the twenty-somethings, today's Hallowe'en frolics mostly have little spiritual or religious impact here, because the context of a society in which a deep-rooted belief in spirits and demons in general no longer exists. Occasionally, people go out of their way to frighten themselves, when they watch supernatural thrillers or ghost-hunting TV shows. But Hallowe'en superstition has, in most circles, been divested of power by the same forces of attrition as have taken their toll on religious conviction. Yet it is a great pity that the two should be bracketed together. The saints - with exceptions, of course, and despite some far-fetched legends - were real in the past and are real today. Real people went about on earth, achieving levels of self-forgetfulness and self-giving that reached beyond the explanation of a purely material view of life. Today, many, often unsung, do the same; and a society that has little time for church has different ways of acknowledging and admiring examples of heroic virtue, but would still benefit from a little help when it comes to seeking and acknowledging its source.

And are the ghosts, ghouls, and evil spirits of Hallowe'en real? While Christ drives out demons in the Gospels, and there has been plenty of debate about demythologising these accounts, it does often seem to be true that pious people who dwell very much on such matters end up doing more harm than good; and there is no lack of evil that has more to do with groups that have become possessed by a bad or mistaken idea than with the conventionally "possessed" individual. The notions circulating at Hallowe'en do little harm if they are subordinated to belief in the love of God, witnessed to by the loving lives of saints who, thankfully, are without number; and the way to shame the devil, as Hotspur said, is to tell the truth.

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