By Susanne Gargiulo, Special to CNN
As pumpkins, witches and faux cobwebs have taken over much of North America for Halloween, Clare Slaney-Davis is preparing an October 31 feast that some would consider much spookier, with table settings for her grandparents, a great-aunt and other relatives who have passed away.
As she and her living guests eat, they'll share stories and memories of loved ones they've lost.
The Christian debate over Halloween
Slaney-Davis, who is based in London, isn't preparing the feast for Halloween. Instead, she and pagans around the world are celebrating Samhain, the beginning of the pagan new year, a night when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is believed to be the thinnest of any time during the year.
That's why it's a night devoted to ancestors. "We honor them, and we recognize that we don't live in a world of people who are merely dead or alive," says Slaney-Davis, 46. "Ancestors are central to us."
Along with the Catholic holiday All Saints' Day, Samhain is considered an ancient forerunner of Halloween. Samhain began as a Celtic celebration marking the end of harvest and the beginning of winter's hardship.
Today, pagans play down the Halloween-Samhain connection. But the growing popularity of the pagan new year in Europe and North America is part of what many experts say is a global revival of paganism.
Slaney-Davis, who trained as a witch and a druid, says her religion has nothing to do with ghosts and ghouls. "To me, being a pagan means being in divine balance with nature and being responsible for my actions," she says. "I understand that my behavior has an effect on people I don't even know exist. It is not a theology of perfection but one of belonging."
But it is a theology that's gaining ground. According to the 2008 American Religious Identification Survey, the number of members of "other religions" or "new religious movements," categories that include pagans, more than doubled between 1990 and 2008, to 2.8 million.
The survey, conducted byTrinity College in Connecticut, reported that the numbers of Wiccans and neo-pagans had also doubled in that time.
Contemporary pagan religions like Wicca and druidism are considered neo-pagan movements.
"(Paganism) is one of the fastest growing religions in the world," says Michael York, a retired religious scholar from Bath Spa University in the UK. "True numbers are impossible to come by because many people are wary to admit they are pagan, and reliable statistics just don't exist."
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While paganism covers a range of individual religious groups, including Wicca, druidism, and shamanism, they're bound by some common denominators, such as roots in ancient, pre-Christian beliefs, and their view of nature and the whole physical world as sacred.
"In traditional religions you have a conflict between God and nature," says York. "But for pagans, nature becomes the truest expression of the divine."
That, he says, is a big reason why paganism is seeing a revival: "If nothing else, because of the impending destruction of our environment, and our focus on finding a way to live in balance with nature."
Another key pagan belief is the freedom for each person to determine his or her own way to and view of the divine. "Paganism doesn't put restrictions on what you can and cannot believe," says Jason Pitzl-Waters, co-founder of the Pagan Newswire Collective and the pagan blog The Wild Hunt. "It grows out of an ethos that there isn't just one sacred way to understand the world."
But that lack of dogma has become something of a stumbling block for the movement. "Because paganism is very individual, it creates the problem of not having a unified voice, because nobody speaks for the movement as a whole," says York.
Another problem pagans face is one of image: For centuries, including during the Roman Catholic inquisition, pagans were denounced as heretics and devil-worshippers.
"One of our greatest challenges is to overcome the hostility of groups that still see us as evil," says Pitzl-Waters. "To some conservative Christian groups, we are an early warning sign of societal collapse."
Just last week, an opinion column in The Christian Post, an online newspaper, warned that the "dark festival" of Samhain is an invitation to the devil. The column said that "even though you don't consciously call upon Satan, his demons are nevertheless present any time a Wiccan goes through a spiritual door by using magic." It calls on Wiccans to ask forgiveness for their sins and to turn to Jesus.
"Part of what is scary for conservative religions is that as a pagan, I consider myself part of the divine," says Holli S. Emore, executive director at South Carolina's Cherry Hill Seminary, which has one of the world's first graduate-level programs for pagan ministry. "That means God lives in me, and that is blasphemous to some. To me, it's a big responsibility to do good and act right."
Scholars say that the neo-pagan view of God being everywhere and in everything is not a foreign idea on the global religious stage. "Much of modern paganism looks to older religions like Shinto, Hinduism and indigenous religions, which see spirit in everything," says Jenny Blain, senior lecturer in sociology at Sheffield Hallam University in England and author of several books on paganism.
"If you add all those to modern paganism, that is a considerable part of the world that does not live with traditional Abrahamic views," she says.
There are signs that paganism is gaining some acceptance in the nonpagan world. For the first time last year, the government of Britain recognized druidism, an ancient pagan belief system, as a religion.
"People either see paganism as dangerous or as a joke," says Pitzl-Waters. "But it is a serious global movement. Paganism has arrived as a world religion. It's not just a bunch of counterculture types playing witchcraft games."
That said, traditional witchcraft rituals, like gathering in circles and uttering spells, have an important place in modern paganism, which further unsettles more traditional religious believers.
"Because Christianity is more conservative, anything seen as supernatural or magic automatically becomes of the devil," says York. "Because of that dichotomy, paganism is automatically seen as satanic."
"People fear what they don't understand," says Emore. "But spells are basically prayers with props. What we call magic is the intentional use of power to achieve change, and just like with prayer, what you are doing is tapping into an inner resource. Gathering in a circle and acknowledging the four elements is nothing new – this is something Native Americans and many ancient nature-based religious people did as well."
For neo-pagans, the four elements – earth, air, water and fire – are closely linked to their view of a sacred planet. "The attributes associated with each element become tools in our meditation and in practices such as spells," says Emore. "Water is associated with emotions and intuition, air with intellect and communications, earth with foundation and stability, and fire with passion and action."
To York, paganism's ancient rituals also help bring a sense of enchantment back into life.
"The ancients had a sense of the magical, but with Christianity came a diminishment," he says. "The magical was denied, everything became inanimate, and from a pagan perspective we lost our connection with the sacred. I think we are rediscovering that now."
"Pagans understand there comes a winter, which is a time to ready for rebirth," York says. "For us, the last 2000 years has been the pagan winter."
when the last pumpkin finishes off, when the first leaves start to turn, when the weather at night bites at your skin, you know its time to begin, the harvest festival is now untill the food and drink be gone, all the night be lite by fire's song, let the fair folk dance and sing for they rule this time of merriement and take your soul if you do wrong!
old harvest song.
oh and if the date of oct 31 means anything to any pagan then that pagan is a moron! and as for the day in question – it just falls in the time span of the festival not truly having anything to do with it nor does it represent the holiday. the festival normally a week or longer...
the long festival was made into a weekend thing then a single day... and it was placed at the end of the month so it was still in the span of real festival time and easy to rememeber for all the non followers so they could celebrate it too, afterall it is a festival of food and drink!
Samhain falls on Nov 6 in 2011 in North America and on May 5 in Australia. It's a cross-quarter date which means it falls exactly between the Autumnal Equinox and the Winter Solstice.
It would be nice if the article had mentioned the proper pronunciation of the holiday but the author, like most people is probably ignorant of it. It's pronounced SAH-win.
I enjoy studying the philosophy of the Tao Te Ching (the philosophy, not the religion) and I guess that would be a sort of pagan like way to live. It's all about being in tune with and learning from nature. The Tao also has chapters on how to live a life of virtue and how the government should behave. Should pass out a bunch of copies to our congress!
This symbolic harvest is of our thoughts.
Seeds – planted and nurtured throughout this past year.
May the good come to pass and the bad be cast aside.
With your divine guidance and protection, we step into the New Year,
May we have good health, prosperity, and happiness.
As the New Year is born, we are all reborn, with new hopes and dreams.
Guide us in the future as in the past.
Give us strength and courage, knowledge and fulfillment.
Assist us as we attempt to achieve our goals
Every beginning has an ending.
And every ending is a new beginning.
In Life is Death, and in Death is Life.
Watch over us, our loved ones, and all of our brothers and sisters, here and departed,
Who tonight are joined together again for fellowship and celebration.
Bless us all as we light our bonfires, our hearth fires, and the eternal fires in our hearts.
Guide and protect us, tonight and throughout the coming year.
My favorite part of the article:
How can this religious scholar proclaim something he admits has no evidence to substantiate?
The number of people who will publicly claim Paganism has grown exponentially in recent years. It stands to reason that the number of people who still can not or will not claim the religion has grown in a similar pattern. That is the basis of the claim.
And "fastest growing" is deceptive. If there was one last year and two this year, the religion has doubled in size. There is probably no other religion doing that, huh?
Exactly. Besides, who's Pagan anymore anyway? That's so old school.
Brian – "fastest growing" is not deceptive. Your comment explains what "fastest growing" means pretty well. It is a fairly common-sense definition, actually.
An unsubstantiated claim related to religion? I'm shocked, SHOCKED I tell you!
Justice, "True numbers are impossible to come by" and "no evidence to substantiate" are not the same thing.
ONE of the fastest growing religions. Islam is the fastest growing by a considerable margin.
It amuses me that a religion as young and destructive as christianity can thow stones at one that goes back 40,000 years. the fear of death and retribution versus the celibration of life seem a no brainer to me
Yawn. Anything for attention, I see....
I respect a system that is interested in protecting the planet more than one that is trying to destroy it with over-breeding.
Oh, please. Paganism is even more ridiculous than Christianity.
Not if you are Pagan! ;-)
is it because they respect things and other people or because they believe differently that makes them ridiculous ? not that i believe in anything myself i am just curious.
Not true. They are equally ridiculous.
Really, Godfrey? Believing we are all part of "the devine" seems far less loony-tunes than believing in a white bearded man in the sky who impregnated a virgin with himself or his son (depending on your trinity perspective). Snakes with apples? Pillars of salt? A boat big enough to contain two of each species? A man being swallowed by a whale and living to tell about it? A dead man being brought back to life? I don't believe in any of it, I'm an atheist, but neo-paganism is nowhere near as ridiculous as the traditional Abrahamic religions.
I have found NOTHING more ridiculous than Christianity except perhaps Mormonism and Scientology.
Very nice article! Thank you for taking the topic seriously, and using good sources.
FYI: Many pagans celebrate Samhain when the sun is at 15 degrees of Scorpio, about a week later. The date of October 31st is arbitrary.
Why should a Christian have a problem with Paganism? They themselves are practicing magic rituals where bread is turned into a man, spirits are communicated with, and the dead live on forever.
But...but... but... it's all REAL.
Mick – you sound like a hick...have you ever been in church? Have you read the bible at all? Can you have an intelligent discussion on the topic of religion? I suspect your answer to all three questions would be no. So your comments are not worthy of the HTML is takes to produce them.
908Patriot, the answer to all three questions is yes. Other than childish insults, do you have anything to say to counter my points?
"bread is turned into a man" It's not turned into man, it's symbolic.
"spirits are communicated with" Christianity is against so called attempts to communicate with the dead and vice versa. Have you read the part about the rich man who goes to Hell and wants to warn his family? No go.
"and the dead live on forever." -Sigh- Here's an idea: Why not READ the bible before you try criticize it. They live on in Heaven. Not literally still here living on Earth.
Human sacrifice and symbolic cannibalism are two undeniable tenets of christianity. Praying to an unseen (and unproven) force is certainly trying to commune with something other worldly. Christians forget how ridiculous their own religion appears or else they are in denial.
For Christians, the difference is in where the power comes from. If the power is from God, then it is acceptable and in fact, a blessing. If it is from any other source, such as the trees, the rocks, or some other spirit, it is allowing a power to enter your life other than God, which may (and probably doesn't) have the best intentions for your life.
"(Bread is) not turned into man, it's symbolic."
False. I grew up Catholic and it was stressed that the transformation is NOT symbolic – the bread literally becomes the body of Jesus. Not sure how that works, but that's the teaching.
"Christianity is against so called attempts to communicate with the dead and vice versa."
By "communicating with spirits" I was referring to the fact that you communicate telepathically with an invisible supernatural being.
"and the dead live on forever." -Sigh- Here's an idea: Why not READ the bible before you try criticize it. They live on in Heaven. Not literally still here living on Earth."
Of course I know that. Both ideas are equally absurd. As far as reading the Bible goes, I have read much of it. I love the talking donkey!
Well there's the real problem: you grew up Catholic. :P
Luke 22 –
19 And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.”
20 In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you.
In doing this at the last supper, Christ is telling his disciples to "do this in rememberance of me"....at no point does he state that the bread and wine magically transform into His actual flesh. So communion is for a Christian to remind himself what Jesus did for the world by shedding his blood and giving up his physical body.
Damian, there is no doubt that trees and rocks exist.
@Rich - "....at no point does he state that the bread and wine magically transform into His actual flesh. So communion is for a Christian to remind himself what Jesus did for the world by shedding his blood and giving up his physical body."
You're arguing beliefs here, so Mick's point and comparison both stand. Bear in mind that the entire Catholic church disagrees with you on this, it's not just him you're arguing against.
PS: I have no stake in this, I think both viewpoints are equally daft. Just supporting his logic.
I grew up Southern Baptist. I can trade stupidity for stupidity with ANY Catholic.
Look at the word: transubstantiation. It means that the substance has changed, not the symbol.
even if satan himself would say today this pagan holiday should not be for Christians, no one will listen....Some Americans are addicted to holidays
Most Pagans don't even believe in Satan. To put Pagans into the "devil worshipper" context is very archaic. That's Hollywood for ya – perpetuating the myth.
I definitely wouldn't listen. I love Halloween!
I save up all my free packs of ketchup,mustard,hot sauce sugar and what every else I get from the fast food places Then hand it out on Halloween. After all they shout trick or treat at my door so I give them a trick and no treat
That's clever, Susanna, but also more than a little mean. Didn't you ever go Trick-or-Treating when you were a kid? How did you feel when some mean old lady handed out something like salt packets or little bars of soap? Be nice.
Yours might be the house that ends up with the burning bag of doggy doo doo out front.
I love all these kids who think it is cool to a Pagan or Wiccan. I have religious Celtic tattoos all over my body and the first thing some dumb tween will ask me if they see is if I am Wiccan. Really? It's a joke really, and it just makes me sick that people can just be so ignorant and stupid and just make stupid assumptions.
While it is true that Celtic symbols were derived from Druid symbols, they are still Christian symbols in their own way.
Not all Pagans or Wiccans are kids. I'm 43. Most of my Pagan friends are in the 30-70 age bracket.
And yes, most Celtic knot work designs and the like were first Druid symbols, or cultural symbols that were kept by the people as they converted to Christianity, the meanings changing slightly to reflect their new belief system. That doesn't mean that those who now are reclaiming the historical meanings are wrong.
How you figure that then? I'd love to hear that reasoning
-_- Ok, I don't mind people taking pieces of different cultures and claiming them as their own, but to be upset that someone wonders if you are a reconstructionist because they see admittedly pagan designs on your skin is rather silly.
That would be like a pagan having a cross tattoo'd on their back, and then seeing them get upset when someone asks if they are Christian.
Instead of getting upset, why not just calmly explain that you are a Christian who found some of the symbolism to be lovely, and decided to incorporate it into your own beliefs?
If you're cool with your religion stealing another religions symbolism as a means of converting the heathen masses (which is why they adopted them!) then you should be prepared for an occasional person mistaking you for a pagan. most people associate the symbolism with irish catholics, so i don't think that will happen often
@Morgan MY tattoos are a way of simply expressing the Irish/Celtic roots of that side of my family. Nothing more. And it angers me when a poorly educated individual thinks they are automatically a Wiccan symbol, rather then a symbol of my heritage. Little things like that do bother me.
Bates, lighten up. You're taking yourself way too seriously. Why do you give a ratz azz whether or not anyone else understands your tattoos? Did you get them just to impress others? If so, how pathetic are you?
You turned your skin into a joke? You're a human comic book. You're the joke.
Monty Python, please resurrect yourselves!!! You've got so much good material to work with here for another movie!
totally agree! i just wish john cleese wasn't soooo stuck up!
I wish that Graham Chapman wasn't so dead.
And blah blah blah blah blah blah...lol
Ah, the joys of being stoned, huh?
It's nice to see a fairly well researched piece on Paganism for a change.
Of course, there are many different traditions within Paganism for celebrating Samhain. It is a day for communing with those who have left this earth, a day for divining the future, a day for quiet reflection on the year that has passed...it is the final harvest, time to prepare for the long winter ahead.
Traditionally, our feast is silent, with the table set for the ancestors and beloved dead. The living fast most of the day and spend time in meditative contemplation of the last year and the coming year, of those things it is time to cut away from us and the planting of intentions for the future, like a tulip bulb planted before the winter comes to sprout in the spring. We break out silence with the calling of circle and the calling of the names of the dead.
We feast with the spirits after, and honor their memories with song, stories and many a glass of mead/beer/wine.
Well said, well said.
Just another fairy tale.....
actually this is a tale that involves fairys... and has more meaning then most other holidays, nearly equal to new years.
99% of "pagans" I know treat it like a hobby and not a formal system of belief. I wouldn't call it a fast growing religion – I would call it an increased interest in historical spirituality.
That is a good way to describe it, but that's the great thing about Paganism, believe what you want and how you want it
Because they watch too much Charmed on TV or Harry Potter and are expecting such Hollywood dramatics. Magic is in us as living beings, our life force – not in wands and spells. They are only keys to those who cannot unlock thier own energy for themselves.
Funny...I could say that about most of my "Christian" friends...(Chuch on Christmas, Church on Easter and Prayer as Needed.) Belief is not what we do...it's what we fundementally Believe on the inside, whether or not we choose worship in Church or in Circle doesn'/shouldn'tt make a lick of difference. I don't feel a need to demonstrate anything to anyone like announcing "Oh, I'm planning to be in Circle that night" meerly to prove to anyone it's not just a hobby or collection of artifacts I keep around the house. Frankly, it's nobody's business.
What complete fruitcakes! I could just bet that all of these characters used to be devout bible thumpers as well.
LOL! I never thumped a Bible in my life, lol. I've read it with other books from the book religions to learn what goes on in the world around me so I won't make ignorant comments like yours, lol.
Sorry to disappoint. Never a bible thumper and proudly a heathen, pagan, heretic, or if you prefer, witch. Always have been, always will be.
People who recognize and honor the changing of the seasons and recognize that the Great Goddess is in everything are truly in alignment with the workings of the universe. Christianity and Catholicism, on the other hand is/are predicated on the fallacious ideas of "sin" and "guilt" (more like guilt-tripping) and the laughable patriarchal idea of needing an intermediary to have a two way conversation with Goddess/God/All That Is/The Great Spirit. Blessings to All and to All Our Ancestors.
In other words "My kooky belief system is better than your kooky belief system."
Neither are "Kooky", they are different ways of viewing the universe, i will say though that 99% of pagans i know are wonderful people who don't hate others for their belief systems. I can only say that for about 50% of the Christians i know.
Y'know, it's possible for us to enjoy and promote our own faith without needing to trash others. Many people get a lot out of their belief systems, Liberty Queen, whether those are matriarchal, patriarchal, or individualistic. Let's not fall into the divisive trap of insulting the Christians just because we differ from them, OK?
I'm a pagan who left a loving and tolerant church because it didn't have the answers I needed. I'm at peace with the Christian God and his followers, and cultivate friendships and relationships with those Christians who are at peace with me and my beliefs, and we all get along fine without anyone having to be better.
Josh, that's because of the 50% of the Christians you know, only about 25% are really living like they follow the teachings of Christ.
"...truly in alignment with the workings of the universe"
Just out of curiosity, how do you tell if someone is in "alignment" with the universe?
Josh – No, both are kooky. Incredibly kooky.
@Nominus - "Just out of curiosity, how do you tell if someone is in "alignment" with the universe?"
You use a spirit level.
AAHHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA. HAHA. hah.
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