My Faith: Reclaiming Halloween's religious roots
A pagan altar constructed for Samhain, which Pagans celebrate around October 31.
October 31st, 2012
11:36 AM ET

My Faith: Reclaiming Halloween's religious roots

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.

In some communities, windows and doors would be left open to invite the dead to visit. Herds would be culled and a feast prepared, with a portion set aside as a gift for the spirits. Those who were grieving spouses, parents, children or friends would hope, on that night, to receive a special communication from their loved ones, some message of love from the other side of the veil.

This ancient festival comes down to Americans through the Christian church. In Mexican Catholicism, it is still celebrated as El Día de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead, observed on November 2).

The Samhain trend grows globally

On this day, family members build altars with photographs of deceased loved ones, bright marigolds, special food items, candles and images of playful skeletons in bright costumes. Families visit the graves of their loved ones, often holding picnics in the cemeteries so that the spirits of the dead can join the feast.

American Pagans are inspired both by the ancient Celtic Samhain and the Mexican Day of the Dead. In Paganism, death is seen as part of a natural cycle. Every fall, farmers harvest the crops that feed us, and then the plants begin to die. The death of the crops in winter is necessary to help fertilize the land and prepare for another year’s growth. This cycle of growth and death sustains human life.

Human life and death are often seen similarly, as part of a natural cycle. We are born, we make contributions to our families and communities, we raise children and then we pass away so that those children can make the world their own.

CNN’s Belief Blog: The faith angles behind the biggest stories

Samhain is a time to contemplate mortality. But when Pagans remember their dead, they also affirm that those who have died are not wholly lost. As one Samhain prayer says, “What is remembered, lives.” Through remembering our ancestors and our loved ones, we maintain a connection to the past and to those we loved so dearly.

As a Pagan, I gather with friends and family on or near the night of October 31 to tell stories of our deceased loved ones. My beloved dead continue to teach me through the stories of their lives.

In years when I am grieving, I tell stories of my grandfather, who was orphaned as a teenager and lost his first wife to tuberculosis, but who learned to love again. In years when I am having adventures and taking risks, I remember my great-grandfather, who as a child once escaped from a locked schoolroom closet by tying the coats together and climbing out the window. And when I am nurturing my independence, I remember my grandmother, who lost her husband too early, but found her bliss in a close and loving group of friends.

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Halloween need not be a whirlwind of frantic social obligations and expensive purchases. Nor do you have to be Pagan to remember those who have passed over, or to make peace with your own mortality. This Samhain, I invite you to decorate not just with ghosts or witches, but also with photographs of your beloved dead.

Buy a bouquet of your grandmother’s favorite flowers, and invite friends to cook old family recipes for a Halloween potluck. Tell the family stories that your children or your spouse may have never heard; light candles, dim the lamps and listen to the wind. This year, let Halloween once again be a time for family and friends, and for welcoming the dark.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Christine Hoff Kraemer.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Halloween • Opinion • Paganism

soundoff (591 Responses)
  1. finnian

    Differences in approaches,
    What's your point? Atheist are superior?

    October 31, 2012 at 4:07 pm |
    • Differences in approaches

      If that is your takeaway, I'm good with that.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • Eliminate hinduism, religions corruption of truth absolute by hindu's lairs, for peace, Islam among humanity.

      Only by their hindu atheism, ignorant self center ism, secularism, denial of truth absolute, like hindu stupid hanuman, self centered, hindu's, ignorant s god monkey.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  2. Nobody's Fool

    I see a lot of hate and blaming here by people who call themselves pagans. As a pagan, third generation, I have been taught that arguing with someone about their beliefs opens us for criticism as well. I acknowledge all religions. Every religion has valid things to teach us. Who cares where "Halloween," "Samhain," "All Saints Day," "All Hallow's Day," or "Dios de los Muertos" came from? Who cares what it is called? What we are dealing with is the holiday of today. Can't we all agree that we are talking about the same date? Pagans as well as Christians have both contributed heavily to both the practice and the meaning of "Halloween," or whatever you want to call it. Arguments here serve no purpose. Who is "right" and who is "wrong" is irrelevant here. What religion you profess to is irrelevant. As Jesus, a very wise prophet once said, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." A pagan quoting Jesus? Of course. Paganism isn't limited to just an old set of beliefs. Religions and belief systems are born, grow, evolve, influence each other and sometimes die. I celebrate Halloween, Samhain and All saints day. Paganism as I was taught by my Nona is more of a philosophy and a belief than a religion, as is Buddhism a philosophy and not a religion. One CAN be a pagan, a Buddhist AND a Christian all at the same time, as am I. They do not disagree with each other nor do they exclude the rest of the others. Please don't tell me I am not a true Christian or a true pagan. There are varieties of paganism as well as different denominations of Christianity. Each of us can learn so much from the others. How can we as followers of Christianity or paganism call the other one wrong? To do that only severs our connection to God and/or Goddess or whomever or whatever we believe in.

    October 31, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • Mike

      If the basic tenants of the most widely practiced religions didn't require their religions be practiced to the exclusion and assumed incorrectness of the remaining religions you might get more mileage out of your reasonable words.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • Spencer

      Paganism its self is not one specific religion. It describes pretty much any indigenous religion. Celtic beliefs, Native American beliefs, pacific islander beliefs... All defined as pagan belief systems and one does not have any greater claim on the term as another.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
    • 7deadlyshins

      No, we cannot all agree on the same date. Halloween/All Hallows Eve is October 31. All Saints Day is November 1. As a "third generation" pagan (and I find the fam-trad qualifier rather trite and irrelevant), you should know that Samhain is the First full moon of the Wheel of the Year, but many merely observe it on October 31 out of convenience.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
    • DeadRelativism

      You say there is no point arguing, yet you spill a lot of pixels trying to make an argument. You are clearly saying the view you are describing is correct, and telling others that theirs is incorrect. Your point of view is self-defeating.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:14 pm |
    • 7deadlyshins

      Christianity, by its very nature, (rather, Judaica and Judeo-Christianity) excludes others. there's that whole "thou shalt have no other gods before me" thing. Eithe that means exclusivity in deity, or else the J/C god no-likey sloppy god seconds.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  3. Portland tony

    Paganism followers should've changed their religion's name to something more mystical. The word "pagan" is a definitely a turn off...at least for me!

    October 31, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • Winnemucca Bill

      How about "The Smokin' Hotty Skin-Tight Leather Catwoman Outfit Religion Of Gravity-Defying Orgification"?

      October 31, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      Because you were brainwashed into thinking Paganism is bad.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
    • Tortland Pony (The lawyer)

      Heavy Duty Wash cycle, Rinse, Spin Dry.

      October 31, 2012 at 5:02 pm |
  4. finnian

    Reclaim it so we can keep it out of school. Separation of Church and State.

    October 31, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
    • Winnemucca Bill

      No! Teach the controversy! Include all Pagan creation myths too!

      October 31, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  5. Spencer

    sorry USDude; been down that road. The more I read, the less I could take seriously.

    October 31, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
  6. Eliminate hinduism, religions corruption of truth absolute by hindu's lairs, for peace, Islam among humanity.

    Halloween, Hal, high in limit , place, LO quantified, WE he/ third person or a place, in my desire, EN, established Or enshrined.


    October 31, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • Yes, but aren’t you qualifying Kant’s categorical imperative by way of the relativistic quantum field?


      October 31, 2012 at 4:11 pm |
  7. Yes, but...

    "Samhain is a time to contemplate mortality. But when Pagans remember their dead, they also affirm that those who have died are not wholly lost. As one Samhain prayer says, “What is remembered, lives.” Through remembering our ancestors and our loved ones, we maintain a connection to the past and to those we loved so dearly."

    "I don't want to live forever through my works. I want to live forever by not dying."
    Woody Allen

    October 31, 2012 at 3:59 pm |
    • emma

      Sorry if I find no humour or wisdom by incestuous child molesters.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:36 pm |
    • Yes, but...

      No need to be sorry, Emma. it's okay, really.
      Some of us are just humorless dour literalists by nature

      October 31, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  8. gstlab3

    yeah ok whatever...,
    I've been to one side of this galaxy and the next and I've seen some weird things in my time.,
    Old time religions are no match for a good blaster on your side let me tell you that.,

    Let some wierd hokus pokus go on around here and I be sure to show you the way out in a big hurry.

    Go ahead travel down the road towards the demonic and you might get lucky and you might not.,
    You could unleash the Devil himself or lessor spirits controlled by greedy and hatefull men.
    Unleash the godless hethen upon the face of the Earth and you'll have hell to pay for your mortal Sins.

    Without the rule of law, truth and fear of an all powerfull creator God I think all this multiculture religious game of twister we play is going to get us all killed sooner rather than later.

    Stand up for universal truths and be strong with your convictions and never back down from the greatest of all fights that wages on all the time.
    ,The battle between good and evil.

    October 31, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
    • Bob

      I endorse some of this statement!

      October 31, 2012 at 4:01 pm |
    • Press the else-not key, boB

      and I'll endorse the rest.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
  9. Seinor Brainwash

    The indios in Mexico where celebrating the Dia De Los Muertos before the Spanish brought the church.

    October 31, 2012 at 3:55 pm |
    • Speedy

      You mean back when still-beating hearts were bouncing down the steps of their pyramids?

      One dark religion replaced by another.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • Greg s

      I got a pretty good visual off your Post Speedy, LOL!

      October 31, 2012 at 4:24 pm |
    • Wasn't

      there a scene in "Airplane"...?

      October 31, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  10. Bob

    I'm a Catholic, but I remember Halloween, dead cats, hanging from poles. Little dead are out in droves, I remember...

    October 31, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
    • Knucklehead


      October 31, 2012 at 4:13 pm |
  11. little timmy

    I'm glad my parents are not Pagans. I hate turnips.

    October 31, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
  12. Eli

    So are we also going back to human sacrifice Druid style?

    October 31, 2012 at 3:36 pm |
    • Ann

      Christianity is based on human sacrifice, too. And cannibalism.

      October 31, 2012 at 3:41 pm |
    • Lamb of dog

      Just like we are going back to burning people alive. Why do idiots always assume that if it isn't their personal religion its evil.

      October 31, 2012 at 3:44 pm |
    • Arvoasitis

      Human sacrifice, Druid style, was actually a way of preventing war. When two villages or clans were on the verge of war, the Druid priests would visit each group, select the finest young man from each and disembowel them publicly and from observing how they died declared a "victor." by thus deciding victory without warfare, the priests prevented a lot of unnecessary bloodshed.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  13. mordrud

    Soap Box time..." Known as Samhain (pronounced SOW-un)," really? You know the nice thing about English is that words can be spelled just like they sound. It's a fairly phonetically friendly language. I am so sick of things not sounding remotely like they are spelled. If Samhain is pronounced SOW-un, then dammitall it should be spelled sowun. From now on I want Mordrud pronounced MOR-At-IT-Tude-Mutha-F-ER!

    October 31, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • redruw

      Sanhain is not English; it's Celtic, and Celtic spelling is not phonetic.

      October 31, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
    • redruw

      Oh, and in Celtic, "mordrud" is pronounced "moron."

      October 31, 2012 at 3:30 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      its Gaelic not Celtic and Ogham is phonetic

      October 31, 2012 at 3:34 pm |
    • redruw

      Gaelic is one of the two branches of Celtic language.

      October 31, 2012 at 3:37 pm |
    • mordrud

      It just reminds me of chinese people show translate their names to english using weird spellings. i don't get it.
      If your name is She-Lun then spell it like that. not Xilun! The chinese don't even have greek letters in their language!! Why spell it X_I_L_U_N???? Help a brutha out! SOW-UN aint' even close to Samhain. I think yall just prejudice against W's. Although to be fair the only people who actually pronounce it SOW-UN are people who dance around bonfires with no clothes on on Halloween. The rest of us pronounce it SAM-HAIN.

      October 31, 2012 at 3:40 pm |
    • Lanfear

      Wholy shiit, Simpleton. Do you really need everything dumbed down to spell exactly how it sounds?

      October 31, 2012 at 3:56 pm |
    • mordrud

      Yes. I'm rumored to have a bit of drain bramage.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:03 pm |
    • Sam Yaza


      do you see any 'W'

      i don't

      how about Ice age Ogham

      still no W

      October 31, 2012 at 9:25 pm |
  14. Knowledge

    @Atheist Hunter: I would not want to be part of any (interpretation of a) religion that says if I don't join I will burn in the after life. Threat of harm is not peaceful or godly in any way. Your rhetoric is the very reason why people are reject such a sad theology despite the good things in the teaching of Christ.

    October 31, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
  15. Valerie

    November 1 is All Saints day.

    October 31, 2012 at 3:23 pm |
    • Really

      January 19 is National Popcorn Day

      October 31, 2012 at 3:33 pm |
    • Badda Bing

      March 28 is Something On A Stick Day, an old and noble Christian holiday, a variation of Jesus On A Stick Day.

      October 31, 2012 at 3:34 pm |


    October 31, 2012 at 3:22 pm |
  17. Henry

    My favorite holiday is St. Crispin's Day. Oh the great feast!

    October 31, 2012 at 3:18 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      nope the best holiday is and always will be October 10th Moe day

      October 31, 2012 at 3:27 pm |
    • V

      And Crispin Crispian shall ne'er go by
      From this day to the ending of the world,
      But we in it shall be remembered,
      We few, we happy few, we band of brothers.
      For he today that sheds his blood with me
      Shall be my brother; be he ne'er so vile,
      This day shall gentle his condition.
      And gentlemen in England now abed
      Shall think themselves accursed they were not here,
      And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
      That fought with us upon Saint Crispin's Day.

      October 31, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      May the fourth be with you.

      October 31, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • emma

      Isn't celebrating a French defeat rather redundant? You'd have to feast nearly every fortnight...

      October 31, 2012 at 4:39 pm |
  18. Sam Yaza

    Peace mounts to the Heavens
    The Devine waters descend to earth
    fructifies our lives
    We are of the earth now
    every one is strong

    no one truly dies, matter always remains and energy is never destroyed all of those who are gone are alive in the worlds around us.
    let us be great full of the bountiful life our ancestors have left us, and let peace be upon all of the wolds.

    ... and don't eat to much candy that stuff is pretty bad for you,... who am i kidding celebrate life in all its glory

    happy Samhain

    and know the great words of a king and poet

    ᚛ ᚔ ᚒᚐᚄ ᚐ ᚂᚔᚎᚓᚅᚓᚏ ᚔᚅ ᚒᚑᚑᚇᚄ ᚜
    ᚛ ᚔ ᚒᚐᚄ ᚐ ᚌᚐᚎᚓᚏ ᚐᚈ ᚎᚐᚏᚄ ᚜
    ᚛ ᚔ ᚒᚐᚄ ᚁᚂᚔᚅᚇ ᚒᚆᚓᚏᚓ ᚄᚓᚉᚏᚓᚈᚄ ᚒᚓᚏᚓ ᚉᚑᚅᚉᚓᚏᚅᚓᚇ ᚜
    ᚛ ᚔ ᚒᚐᚄ ᚄᚔᚂᚓᚅᚈ ᚔᚅ ᚐ ᚒᚔᚂᚇᚓᚏᚅᚓᚎ ᚜
    ᚛ ᚔ ᚒᚐᚄ ᚈᚐᚂᚉᚐᚈᚔᚃᚓ ᚐᚋᚑᚍ ᚋᚐᚅᚔ ᚜
    ᚛ ᚔ ᚒᚐᚄ ᚋᚔᚂᚇ ᚔᚅ ᚈᚆᚓ ᚋᚕᚇ-ᚆᚐᚂᚂ ᚜
    ᚛ ᚔ ᚒᚐᚄ ᚎᚓᚏᚅ ᚔᚅ ᚁᚐᚈᚈᚂᚓ ᚜
    ᚛ ᚔ ᚒᚐᚄ ᚌᚓᚅᚈᚂᚓ ᚈᚑᚒᚐᚏᚇᚄ ᚐᚂᚂᚔᚓᚄ ᚜
    ᚛ ᚔ ᚒᚐᚄ ᚐ ᚚᚆᚔᚄᚔᚉᚘᚅ ᚑᚃ ᚈᚆᚓ ᚄᚔᚉᚉ ᚜
    ᚛ ᚔ ᚒᚐᚄ ᚒᚕᚉ ᚈᚑᚒᚐᚏᚇᚄ ᚈᚆᚓ ᚃᚓᚓᚁᚂᚓ ᚜
    ᚛ ᚔ ᚒᚐᚄ ᚎᚏᚑᚍ ᚈᚑᚒᚐᚏᚇᚄ ᚈᚆᚓ ᚚᚑᚒᚓᚏᚃᚒᚂ ᚜
    ᚛ ᚔ ᚒᚐᚄ ᚅᚑᚈ ᚉᚂᚑᚄᚓ ᚂᚓᚎ ᚔ ᚄᚆᚑᚒᚂᚇ ᚁᚓ ᚁᚒᚏᚇᚓᚅᚄᚑᚋᚓ ᚜
    ᚛ ᚔ ᚒᚐᚄ ᚅᚑᚈ ᚐᚏᚏᚑᚌᚐᚅᚈ ᚈᚆᚑᚒᚌᚆ ᚔ ᚒᚐᚄ ᚒᚔᚄᚓ ᚜
    ᚛ ᚔ ᚒᚐᚄ ᚅᚑᚈ ᚌᚔᚃᚓᚅ ᚈᚑ ᚚᚏᚑᚋᚔᚄᚔᚍ ᚈᚆᚑᚒᚌᚆ ᚔ ᚒᚐᚄ ᚎᚏᚑᚍ ᚜
    ᚛ ᚔ ᚒᚐᚄ ᚅᚑᚈ ᚃᚓᚅᚈᚒᚏᚓᚄᚑᚋᚓ ᚈᚆᚑᚒᚌᚆ ᚔ ᚒᚐᚄ ᚄᚒᚔᚃᚈ ᚜
    ᚛ ᚔ ᚇᚔᚇ ᚅᚑᚈ ᚇᚓᚏᚔᚇᚓ ᚈᚆᚓ ᚑᚂᚇ ᚈᚆᚑᚒᚌᚆ ᚔ ᚒᚐᚄ ᚔᚑᚒᚍ ᚜
    ᚛ ᚔ ᚒᚐᚄ ᚅᚑᚈ ᚁᚑᚐᚎᚃᚒᚂ ᚈᚆᚑᚒᚌᚆ ᚔ ᚒᚐᚄ ᚐ ᚌᚑᚑᚇ ᚃᚔᚌᚆᚈᚓᚏ ᚜
    ᚛ ᚔ ᚒᚑᚒᚂᚇ ᚅᚑᚈ ᚄᚚᚕᚉ ᚐᚁᚑᚒᚈ ᚐᚅᚔ ᚑᚅᚓ ᚔᚅ ᚆᚔᚄ ᚐᚁᚄᚓᚅᚉᚓ ᚜
    ᚛ ᚔ ᚒᚑᚒᚂᚇ ᚅᚑᚈ ᚏᚓᚚᚏᚑᚐᚕ ᚁᚒᚈ ᚔ ᚒᚑᚒᚂᚇ ᚚᚏᚐᚔᚄᚓ ᚜
    ᚛ ᚔ ᚒᚑᚒᚂᚇ ᚅᚑᚈ ᚐᚄᚉ ᚁᚒᚈ ᚔ ᚒᚑᚒᚂᚇ ᚌᚔᚃᚓ ᚜

    ᚛ ᚃᚑᚏ ᚔᚈ ᚔᚄ ᚈᚆᚏᚑᚒᚌᚆ ᚈᚆᚓᚄᚓ ᚆᚐᚁᚔᚈᚄ᚜

    ᚛ ᚈᚆᚐᚈ ᚈᚆᚓ ᚔᚑᚒᚍ ᚁᚓᚉᚑᚋᚓ ᚑᚂᚇ ᚐᚅᚇ ᚉᚔᚍᚂᚔ ᚒᚐᚏᚏᚔᚑᚏᚄ᚜

    ᚛ ᚜

    October 31, 2012 at 3:16 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      oh and no i don't dress up in customs i do that every other day besides Halloween, and the kids that come to my do wont get candy, they'll likely get a lesson about there ancestors. Samhain was on the 29th your late but nice article never-the-less

      for pagan holidays please utilize the lunar calender; the Gregorian calender was designed to strip us of our holidays.

      Halloween does not equal Samhain, unless it fall on the full-moon i will look foreword to Yule which will be on the 28 not the 25th (yule does not equal Christmas otherwise)

      October 31, 2012 at 3:25 pm |
    • Cheryl

      Lunar calender belongs to satanists.

      October 31, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
    • Sam Yaza

      no the lunar calendar belongs to every one save Christians and Muslims
      following the cycle of the moon is a natural a breathing air

      once again Christan your the odd duck out, we do the new religions think them selves right. your a baby

      PS your a biggot

      October 31, 2012 at 9:29 pm |
  19. Enlightened

    Nice article. It put a human touch to the much maligned Pagan religion. If all religions acted in such tolerance, the world would be a better place.

    October 31, 2012 at 3:08 pm |
  20. The Path

    Paganism is a half-way house on the journey from the opressive darkness of religion to the enlightened reason of secularism.

    October 31, 2012 at 3:02 pm |
    • dock your dong with dudes

      Shut up you skeet guzzler.

      October 31, 2012 at 3:05 pm |
    • JJ

      "Paganism is a half-way house on the journey from the opressive darkness of religion to the enlightened reason of secularism."

      Ah spoken like a truly unenlightened and uneducated evangelical. Perhaps the commenter should spend a few hours actually researching how many of their beloved Christian traditions have pagan origins. It's about 90%. Likewise, spend a day or to actually research the tentants of their (my former) faith and learn to judge not, lest ye be judged first.

      Blessings and peaceful night to all my brethren remembering those gone and watching us from the other side.

      October 31, 2012 at 3:28 pm |
    • ladies luv d'log

      paganism is a half way house on a one way street. Satan still cops better dope than all the Xitans combined. No seeds, shake...

      October 31, 2012 at 3:48 pm |
    • Differences in approaches

      Christians killed huge numbers of cats for they were in league with the devil

      Pagans worshiped cats as deities.

      Atheists pet cats.

      Oh, those crazy atheists.

      October 31, 2012 at 3:57 pm |
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