Miles Kington: A pagan night when spirits walk the earth

I can handle spirits any day, but gangs of greedy children scare the hell out of me

"Everything predates Christianity by hundreds of years," said the resident Welshman. "Poor old Christianity. It's only been going for two thousand years. Religion has been around for much longer than that. Christianity is a Johnny-come- lately religion. No wonder it had to take over all the pre- existing pagan festivals and rebrand them."

"So what religious event did Hallowe'en celebrate before the Church got its hands on it?" said the Major.

"As far as I could make out when I looked it up," said the man with the dog, "it was a time of year when the ancient Celts believed that spirits would wander the earth looking for bodies to inhabit."

"How very primitive," said the lady with the red hairdo. "Or, if you live and work in Hollywood, how very modern and up to date."

"It seems," said the man with the dog," that the homesteaders would dress up scarily to frighten the spirits away."

"Much as we do with children trying to trick or treat," said the red lady.

"And put their fires out, to make believe they were not at home."

"Much as we also do with children trying to trick or treat," said the red lady.

"Well," said the Welshman, "if I had to choose between being attacked by a few children demanding to be given Smarties, or dispossessed spirits demanding occupation of my body, I know which one I'd go for."

"Me, too," said the man with the dog. "I can handle spirits any day, but gangs of greedy children scare the hell out of me."

"I seem to have a vague memory when I was young," said the Major, "of going round to people's houses at Hallowe'en and doing little party pieces - reciting a poem, singing a song, something like that - before you got given anything. Am I imagining it?"

"Sounds awful," said the Welshman. "I'd far rather give children a bag of sweets and tell them to bugger off than have them standing on the doorstep for five minutes stumbling through a bit of Wordsworth."

"Wordsworth?" said the red lady. "Where have you been? Children don't learn Wordsworth any more! Ask a child to recite a bit of verse and you'd be lucky to get anything but a song lyric."

"That's disgraceful," said the Major.

"Oh, yes?" said the Welshman. "Tell me, Major, if I asked you to recite something, could you do it?"

"Of course."

"Go on, then. Do it. I challenge you."

The Major blinked and swallowed.

"Look ..."

"Go on!" everyone shouted.

"At moments like this," said the Major, "I can only remember a silly verse which my father taught me. It goes like this."

And he recited as follows:

The boy stood on the burning deck,
His pockets full of bombs;
When one went off, the lot went off,
And left him in his coms.

There was a silence.

"What's coms?" said the red lady.

"It's short for combinations," said the Major.

"What's combinations?" said the red lady.

"It's a kind of pre-Christian underwear," said the Welshman, coming to his rescue. "Before the Christians came to these islands, people used to wear a combination of vest and long john which buttoned together in the middle, creating a barrier against the outside world."

"Sounds remarkably in line with Christian thought to me," said the red lady.

At that point three children entered the pub saying "Trick or treat", and were quite surprised to be greeted by the drinkers with a hail of invective, which drove them out, followed by a chorus of laughter.

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