Friday, 31 October 2014

Hallowe'en Mish Mash

Hallowe'en, like most cultural markings of time, is a mish-mash of the pagan, the religious and the commercial. 

No culture is without its customs surrounding the dead, and Hallowe'en probably goes back to the Pagan Samhain (pronounced Sawain). Samhain was observed as the end of harvest segued into the beginning of winter. It was a liminal time when it was thought the spirits of fairies and of the dead could more easily come into our world. 

In another commemoration, today the Anglican Church remembers Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, which is fitting, given my yearly confusion about the difference between All Saints - All Hallows - (November 1st) and All Souls (November 2nd). The Roman Catholic demarcation between saints and souls (the latter still in purgatory) seems churlish, which marks me as an Anglican. The Church of England bravely attempts to navigate this theological and linguistic All Saints/All Souls confusion, though I'm not convinced:

'through baptism we become members (...) of a company of saints whose mutual belonging transcends death (...) All Saints Day and the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed on All Souls Day both celebrate this mutual belonging' (Times and Seasons, p. 537).

The doctrine of purgatory and its associated bi products, for example the selling of indulgences, was attacked by the Reformers and precipitated Luther's posting of his 95 Theses which is widely believed to have sparked the Protestant Reformation. 

Eventually All Saints/All Souls and Hallowe'en became fused into our modern day Hallowe'en, variously approached by Christians as a devilish celebration of all that is evil, necessitating throwing an Evangelical 'Light Party' instead; or as harmless dressing up fun, depending on your standpoint.

I remember the first time two of our kids were invited to go Trick or Treating. They were about 7 and 5 years old and nothing of any Hallowe'en nature had ever crossed our Evangelical Christian threshold.  But then we moved to a village. No Light Party. Strong community.  It seemed churlish to say no to what was nothing more than a well organised short walk around the immediate vicinity where all those to be visited had been phoned and previously agreed to open their doors, when appropriate; and had gone to the trouble of decorating their front rooms and buying half a tonne of sweets for the forthcoming Trick and Treaters. 

We duly raided the dressing up box/make up bag and our two innocents sallied forth in a black cloak and a white sheet respectively. I admit to a moment in the hallway when I had second thoughts - a hurried prayer for protection over them revealed a fear at some deep level that Hallowe'en slides a little bit too near the occult for my liking. Needless to say our tinies returned happy and high on sugar, their (and our) connection with our immediate community strengthened.

Samhain, All Hallows, All Saints, All Souls, Hallowe'en - people will always yearn for some connection with those who have gone before. We can imagine certain things, think we're talking to our dead, or that there's not much difference between prayer to God and prayer to dear auntie Jean, deceased; but the Church holds certain things to be true. We worship a Saviour who has fully experienced death, and come back again. We believe in 'the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come'.

So tonight, not having any tinies any more,  I'll cook, watch TV and go to bed, thinking about Martin Luther's desire for what the Prayer Book calls 'true religion and virtue'. The churchyard at the bottom of my garden will stand quietly, near to a place of prayer where weekly the dead ('the Communion of Saints') are remembered with love, not morbidly. And I'll give thanks for the faithful ministry of Bishop John, today retiring as Bishop of Oxford. Because endings are beginnings. 

And because today, 31st October, Martin Luther Day, 'Hallowe'en'/All Hallows, with its Pagan roots, Christian Protestant/Catholic wrangling and embracing of Trick or Treat culture - is rather an end of season, autumn into winter, liminal, incoherent cultural mish mash of a Day.

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