Saints and Turnip Ghosts: The reality of heaven and hell

Poirot is listening to the radio, which is playing a macabre tale of a grisly murder for Halloween. George [ Poirot’s Butler and man servant] : Not enjoying it, sir? Hercule Poirot : It is the subject matter, George. It is distasteful. Poirot, he has seen much evil in this world. It should not be the subject of such mockery.

Halloween Party, Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie

The vigil of All Saints (All Hallows) Day comes upon us again, along a late but beautiful autumn, among more of those who do not understand its meaning than those who do. Hercule Poirot, Agatha Christie’s famous Catholic detective, certainly understood that All Hallows Eve was not about celebrating the macabre.

All saints – Fra Angelico

Instead of ghosts, goblins, demons and darkness, the faithful begin a vigil to remember all the “saints who have gone before us” and their faith in order to consider how to imitate it as we contemplate their conduct in order to join them in Heaven. (Hebrews 13:7)

And therefore we also having so great a cloud of witnesses over our head, laying aside every weight and sin which surrounds us, let us run by patience to the fight proposed to us: Looking on Jesus, the author and finisher of faith, who having joy set before him, endured the cross, despising the shame, and now sitteth on the right hand of the throne of God. For think diligently upon him that endured such opposition from sinners against himself; that you be not wearied, fainting in your minds.” ( Hebrews 12:1-3)

Between our contemplation and loving vigil and remembrance of the saints, we are also reminded of our fallen state.

The term ‘turnip ghosts’ is a reference to an English version of the Jack O- lanterns of Halloween. Chesterton is saying that if you are going to see such action as taking a holy day of remembrance of the dead saints who have gone before us and memorializing such by cutting up turnips and sticking lights in them as ‘vulgar’ , then perhaps eating turnips for Christmas dinner might be considered of the same vulgarity. Because both actions remind us of our fallen nature at the same time they remind us of the higher nature we possess through Christ, that dual nature that Christ Himself is – both fully man and fully God. Its that combination that allows us to be religious at all, he concludes. And religion is the practice of our faith in God.

So it is a balance whereupon it is easy to tip the scales all in one direction – the goulish and macabre, as our society does now – and forget what the aim of it all is – remembering the resurrected saints of whom we wish one day to be among! This is what Hercule concludes at the end of Christie’s Halloween Party:

Or a tale of terror. Poirot, he was right, no? Halloween is not a time for the stories macabre but a time to light the candles for the dead. Come, mes amis! Let us do so.” ― Agatha Christie, Hallowe’en Party

And so Chesterton, the Prince of Paradox, concludes for us that it is precisely our penchant for vulgarity – a reminder of our fallen state and hell which we hope to escape – that if taken rightly, leads us to the lighting of candles, even if at first placed inside turnips or pumpkins, they are a path to one day lighting them again upon the altars of the Church and our focus back to heaven.

“Let no man deceive himself; if by vulgarity we mean coarseness of speech, rowdiness of behaviour, gossip, horseplay, and some heavy drinking, vulgarity there always was wherever there was joy, wherever there was faith in the gods. Wherever you have belief you will have hilarity, wherever you have hilarity you will have some dangers. And as creed and mythology produce this gross and vigorous life, so in its turn this gross and vigorous life will always produce creed and mythology. If we ever get the English back on to the English land they will become again a religious people, if all goes well, a superstitious people. The absence from modern life of both the higher and lower forms of faith is largely due to a divorce from nature and the trees and clouds. If we have no more turnip ghosts it is chiefly from the lack of turnips.” – G.K. Chesterton, Christmas and the Aesthetes, Heretics, 1905

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