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Halloween and Samhain: Secular and Sacred Celebrations

Halloween, or Samhain, is celebrated in many ways, some religious, some spiritual and many secular. It is a religious holiday that has entered the general American cultural ethos.
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Halloween, or Samhain, is celebrated in many ways, some religious, some spiritual and many secular. It is a religious holiday that has entered the general American cultural ethos and is celebrated with trick-or-treating and costume parties. The vivid orange and black colors associated with the day bring to mind the colors of bare trees silhouetted against the autumn sunset, and the turning of the season towards the coming winter's darker and colder days. Jack-o-lanterns, carved from the fall's pumpkin harvest, add their orange color as well as flickering candle light in the growing darkness.

It is not surprising that people are at least somewhat sensitive to this turning of the wheel of the year, and its evocation of the cyclic nature of life and the inescapable route towards death. The evening's darkness comes earlier and earlier, and at least in New England, leaves fall and in years gone by were burned in local streets, adding the light of flames and the smell of smoke to the season. The pungent smell of sweet apples adds to the season's treats.

In recent years, neighborhood trick-or-treating has moved indoors to school celebrations, partly out of safety concerns. For most this is a cultural, secular and safe celebration, although with the danger of tooth decay. For others, the sensitivity towards spiritual underpinnings of the cultural expression leads to concerns about participation. For example, some Muslims both dislike and respect this religiosity by choosing not to have their children involved. Objection and refusal to participate can be a form of respect.

Taking witchcraft seriously is a complicated matter in America. The question of whether one is willing to believe in witches is an old one. To believe extends credibility, whereas not to believe removes that power. Laughing is often a wonderful kind of disarmament. The pleasures of trick-or-treat parties both reflect and disarm the season's impact. Why face the reality of life's basic trick that we are all getting older every minute, when one can focus on the many treats of living?

On Halloween, one can pursue the pleasures of costume and intrigue at parties both public and private. In Salem, Mass., where there has been a traditional witches' ritual of the season for many years, now there is an entire weekend of events called the Festival of the Dead, including the Official Witches' Halloween Ball, a costumed dance party for $150 per person. (You can follow these events on Facebook and Twitter: Pagans are known for use of electronic media, communication that flies through an unseen medium, on which so many rely without question these days.)

The traditional religious ritual involved a procession toward land where people were hung as witches back in the 1690s. As a ceremonial ritual, the leaders formally invited everyone into the ritual circle and then perform sacred rites. One year, lighted pumpkins carved with runes beautifully demarcated the circle. Ceremonial robes are religious garb but can be confused with costume worn by secular revelers of the evening.

In San Francisco, for those who prefer participatory ritual, the Spiral Dance is the large public gathering of choice. Now in its 31st year and attended by more than a thousand people, the gathering in a huge space includes altars to the four directions, an altar to the beloved dead and an opportunity to dance in the interconnected spiral, honoring those who have gone before and honoring those to come, the newly born. One of the beauties of the spiral dance is the ability to see face to face all those in the dance. Here, grieving people can place their sorrow over the death of loved ones into a community context. Many are dealing with such losses, and it need not be an isolated experience. (There's a video about this community ritual here.) The intention for the 2010 dance is "With our Beloved Dead we dance the spiral, honoring the cycle of death and rebirth. We will drink together from the healing pool, re-sourcing ourselves in service to all life. "

The opportunity to participate in large-scale public ritual, with musicians, dancers, procession and pageantry, is a powerful way to experience religion and religious freedom. For some, the intimacy of smaller private magical gatherings is more powerful. These may be held in private homes, outdoors in nature and even in cemeteries, where the quiet of the tombstones adds to the gravity of the holiday.

This time of year, when some experience the veils between the living and the spiritual realms as thin, is a particularly good time for opening to messages from loved ones who have died and crossed over. Rituals will likely include time for this listening, time for communion with the beloved dead. For those of other faith traditions who might want to visit a celebration, contacting the organizers is one way to clarify whether a ritual will be participatory (which might be in conflict with one's own religion) or whether you may simply attend as an observer. Public rituals are one way that witches hope to spread accurate information and to offer the benefits of their perspectives to the general public.

American culture doesn't deal well with aging or death, and laughter over a political candidate's teenage exploration of the craft does not deepen understanding of interconnection and the cyclic nature of life. Public awareness of grief, and understanding of how to support those in grief, can certainly be found in many religions traditions. Judaism has rituals that make known those in grief and that honor an extended time for grieving. Moving through grief into honoring of the ancestors is central in the Mexican Day of the Dead celebrations, which are now available in American cities. And religious Halloween celebrations are now available to the public. One example: this year in Atlanta, witches attending the American Academy of Religion's annual conference will hold a Samhain ritual in a downtown hotel.

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