Sunday, 31 October 2010

For All The Saints. October 31st 2010.

We heard this: 

I think we’re clear that today is a very special day in the Pagan calendar. 

And we can’t have missed, if we’ve been out in public in the last few weeks, that it’s also a hugely important event in the retail year.  It might just be me, but I genuinely do think that the huge commercialisation of Halloween is a very recent thing.  And if I’m old enough to say that, I’m also old enough to start the next sentence with “in my day . . . “ 

In my day, I only remember occasional apple-bobbing and maybe a toffee apple.  I remember being a bit surprised, even ten years ago, on a trip to the states, at how much you could buy to mark Halloween. 

The Guardian recently said that more money is spent on merchandise for Halloween than for any other non-religious festival.  That’s one of those facts that, at first, made me say “gosh”, and then made me go “but hang on . . .”.  Because, of course, Halloween, or Samhain is a religious festival to very many people. 

But a lot of religious people reject it entirely.  A friend of mine, an evangelical Anglican minister, a very lovely and calm man, became quite vitriolic on the subject, and told me he hated Halloween.  Because Halloween, to many mainstream Christians, is evil.  Not just non-Christian, but actually an embodiment of evil.  The argument seems to run something like this:  if Halloween is Satan’s Christmas, or a celebration of Satan, or Satan’s Birthday, then celebrating it is, obviously, wrong and harmful.

Well yes.  If. 

But that’s an argument which, to me, is up there with “if we had some eggs we could have ham and eggs, if only we had any ham.”

Because except for in a very few, small, instances, nobody, so far as I can tell, actually thinks that’s what Halloween is.  There may be an argument that Satanists celebrate that day in that way, but frankly, and maybe I’m being a little rude here:  firstly I can’t take Satanism that seriously; secondly, it seems to be a ’faith’ followed mainly by teenagers wanting to be ‘radical’ and annoy their parents; and thirdly, frankly, there are so few of them that they don’t pose much danger. 

And that’s apart from the fact that I don’t, in any case, believe in Satan. 

But what happens, I think, is that a lot of mainstream believers – either wilfully or subconsciously – confuse Satanism in their minds with Paganism and other Earth-Spirit faiths.  That’s not only inaccurate, it’s also very offensive to Pagans. 

And I’m sure we haven’t missed out on the fact that today also marks a major festival in the Christian calendar.  Today is the eve of All Saints Day – or All Hallows Day.  All Saints Day was, traditionally, a sort of mopping-up day for all those saints who didn’t have a special festival of their own.  It was much needed:  there were far more than 365 saints, so something had to be done to stop the others feeling left out, I suppose.

The day, then, was for the celebration of Christian Saints:  those rare and holy people beatified by the church and given a special status.  Those considered nearer to God.  Those who were, literally, holier than us. 

Living in Norwich, of course, we have no shortage of Saints’ names to revel in.  Personally, I live opposite the magnificently named St Etheldreda’s, which is one of my favourite saints’ names.  I also pass, on my way to chapel, St Peter Parmentergate, St Simon and St Jude (I always liked churches with a double dedication!), and seven others, either with less grand names, or ones I don’t know. 

And All Saints, of course, is also known as All Hallows:  the celebration of all those who are hallowed – all those who are holy. 

Now, that’s a word we often shy away from in Unitarianism.  It’s nearly up there with “God” in making us get a bit uncomfortable.  However, as you probably know, I’m on the religious end of our glorious Unitarian spectrum, so work with me here, and if you’re not comfortable with the word ‘Holy’, translate it in your head to something you can engage with a bit more easily.

And my theory is that we are all, every one of us, holy.  Every single living being – every living being who ever is or ever was – is especially holy, especially blessed, especially magnificent. 

Every single one of us.  You, me, your every ancestor, everyone you’ve met who’s had an effect on you, everyone you’ve never met who’s had an effect on you.  Everyone, in fact, ever.  Whether you are conscious of their existence or not. 

All holy.  All special.  All hallowed.

As well as giving us the chance to celebrate our own sanctity, tomorrow is, in many traditions – Christian as well as Earth Spirit – held apart for celebrating the lives of our ancestors. 

In many cultures, most famously Mexico, it is held as El Dia de los Muertos – the day of the dead.  It’s a day for remembering and honouring your ancestors.  People visit the graves of relatives and loved ones, often taking gifts with them:  flowers, or the dead person’s favourite foods, alcohol, or, for children, toys.  One of the things I love about this tradition, is that the offerings are not then left on the grave.  You take your late relatives favourite food and drinks to their grave, and you gather, and you party, and you eat their favourite food for them. 

This is not, you’ll have noticed, a Northern European way of dealing with death.  We come from a culture where we sanitise death and the rites surrounding it – I’m probably not the only person who is actually slightly disturbed when the earth with which a grave is to be filled is covered in Astroturf to shield us from the reality of what we are doing. 

What is perhaps most remarkable about the marking of the Dia de los Muertos is its celebratory nature.  It’s not a day for mourning your dead, although grief is always a part of it: it is a day for celebrating their lives, their influence on you, the joy they brought to you, and perhaps, the light that shone through them.  It’s a party, celebrating those who have gone before.  It’s their day. 

I think we have something to learn from this attitude. 

Today then, is an important day.  Even for those of us who are grinchy about trick or treating, and who curl up in embarrassment at the very thought of fancy dress, there are reasons to celebrate today. 

The earth, and the wheel of the year, are turning very noticeably now.  Especially with today coinciding with the clocks going back we can’t deny any longer that despite some stunning weather recently, it’s pretty much now winter.  Celebrate that.

You are holy and special.  Celebrate that.

Sometimes it’s fun to carve faces in pumpkins and bob for apples and tell ghost stories.  Celebrate that.

And you are here today because of those who came before you.  And they were holy and special.  Perhaps that’s what we should celebrate most today. 

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