Opinion by Candida Moss, special to CNN
(CNN) - It’s that time of year again: the time when chocolate comes in pastels, cherry blossoms start to bloom and well-marketed religion exposés are released to the world.
In other words, it’s Easter.
Among the rash of sensationalist stories we can expect through the season, the annual “Easter was stolen from the pagans” refrain has sprouted again just in time for Holy Week.
Don’t believe the hype.
Perhaps most misinformed theory that rolls around the Internet this time of year is that Easter was originally a celebration of the ancient Near Eastern fertility goddess Ishtar.
This idea is grounded in the shared concept of new life and similar-sounding words Easter/Ishtar. There’s no linguistic connection, however. Ishtar is Akkadian and Easter is likely to be Anglo-Saxon.
Just because words in different languages sound the same doesn’t mean they are related. In Swedish, the word “kiss” means urine.
But the biggest issue for Christians is the claim that Jesus’ resurrection - the faith’s central tenet - might have pagan roots.
Opinion by Joshua Rood, special to CNN
(CNN) - The word “heathen” is a very old one that once meant “heath dweller” or a person who lives out in the wild.
Eventually, when Christianity came into Northern Europe, it came to mean “one who still worships the old gods.” It still means that in some parts of the world, like Iceland, where it also goes by the name Ásatrú (“belief in the Aesir”).
Aesir is just a very old word for the traditional gods of Scandinavia. You’ve probably heard of some of these gods: Odin, Thor, Freyr and Freyja.
What you might not know is that many traditions, stories and celebrations have never gone away.
These can be as simple as the Scandinavian belief in vaettir (nature spirits) or as complex as the poems and songs about the Aesi that were written and are still sung and performed in Iceland.
Most of the stories were preserved in Icelandic poems and sagas, written in the 13th and 14th centuries. Others have been preserved in regional folk stories and folk customs.
Today, Ásatrú, which can go by many names, is the largest non-Christian religion in Iceland and is officially recognized in Norway, Sweden and Denmark. Thanks to multiculturalism, it exists in many countries around the world, including the United States, Canada and most European countries.
There are many organizations, private groups and individuals who adhere to Ásatrú. Although terminology, festivals and customs can vary depending on local lore and tradition, at its heart, Ásatrú is a celebration of the gods, stories and customs that have been passed down from Northern Europe into the modern world.
Unfortunately, there are people in this world who try to use these beautiful stories and traditions for selfish and hateful reasons.
By Daniel Burke, Belief Blog Co-editor
(CNN) - Like lots of people, when October 31 rolls around, Trey Capnerhurst dons a pointy hat and doles out candy to children who darken the door of her cottage in Alberta.
But she’s not celebrating Halloween. In fact, she kind of hates it.
Capnerhurst says she’s a real, flesh-and-blood witch, and Halloween stereotypes of witches as broom-riding hags drive her a bit batty.
“Witches are not fictional creatures,” the 45-year-old wrote in a recent article on WitchVox.com.
“We are not werewolves or Frankenstein monsters. We do not have green skin, and only some of us have warts.”
Warts or not, many witches say they have mixed feelings about Halloween.
Editor's note: Christine Hoff Kraemer is managing editor of the Patheos.com Pagan Channel and an instructor in Theology and Religious History at Cherry Hill Seminary.
By Christine Hoff Kraemer, Special to CNN
(CNN) – As Halloween approaches, Americans rush to malls and shopping centers, credit cards in hand. Children are outfitted as ghosts, Disney characters, princesses and superheroes, while adults dress to impress with “sexy” witch, vampire or pirate garb. Cookies shaped like jack o’lanterns fly off the shelves along with bag after bag of packaged candy.
In American culture, Halloween has mostly become a reason for a good party.
So it may surprise you to learn that the roots of Halloween are religious. In fact, for Americans who practice contemporary Paganism, Halloween is one of the two most important religious holidays of the year. Known as Samhain (pronounced SOW-un), the holiday is modeled after the ancient Celtic festival that marked the beginning of winter.
In Ireland, Scotland and parts of what is now France, ancient people believed that on the night of Samhain, the veil between the living world and that of the dead grew thin. The festival was a time to honor one’s ancestors and to remember deceased family members, as well as to prepare for winter.
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."
Pagans turned out to celebrate the fall harvest in Louisville, Kentucky, CNN affiliate WDRB reports. "It's a celebration of all polytheistic religions," Pagan Pride Day coordinator Mike Avery said.
Tuesday is the start of the summer solstice and at Stonehenge the party rages.
CNN's Kyra Phillips and Zain Verjee report.
Editor's Note: Philip Carr-Gomm is a writer whose books include What Do Druids Believe? and The Book of English Magic and Wild Wisdom Meditations.
By Philip Carr-Gomm, Special to CNN
The Druids have hit the headlines in the recent days because religious charity status has been granted in the UK to The Druid Network - a group set up to foster Druid values and projects.
This has caused excitement in a number of circles. Many Druids and pagans see this as a major triumph. Others are upset because they don’t think Druidry is a religion, they feel it is a philosophy or a way of life.
And it’s worked at least one journalist into a frazzle. In The Daily Mail, Melanie Phillips revealed her disrespect and ignorance for many cultures and groups of people by writing such nonsense as "without the Judeo-Christian heritage there would be no morality and no true human rights," in a column about Druids.
CNN's Phil Gast filed this report:
Britain recognized Druidry, an ancient belief that worships deities that take different forms in nature, as a religion for the first time and gave it charitable status on Saturday.
"There is a sufficient belief in a supreme being or entity to constitute a religion for the purposes of charity law," declared the Charity Commission for England and Wales in response to the Druid Network's application.
The decision will give the neo-pagan religion, known for its cloaked worshippers at Stonehenge (above, in 1999) and other sites, tax advantages and is expected to lead to broader acceptance.
The high priestess followed the media coverage this weekend and grew concerned.
Not only had a woman running for the U.S. Senate once lumped witchcraft with Satanism, a horrible insult in and of itself, but she also went on to distance herself from that earlier statement by calling those who practice witchcraft “questionable folks.”
Once again, the Rev. Selena Fox realized, it would be up to her and other Pagans to educate.
“It’s an opportunity to get some correct information out there. That’s how I see it,” says Fox, who is the high priestess and senior minister of Circle Sanctuary, a Wiccan church near Barneveld, Wisconsin, that serves Pagans worldwide. “There’s comedy about it, hot debate about it, lots of pundits weighing in. But one of the things that really hasn’t gotten through is how ridicule and defamation can harm people.”
The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.