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Pagans celebrate as numbers soar

As the UK becomes awash with ghosts, ghouls, tricks and treats on Halloween night, thousands of pagans will be celebrating a far more ancient festival.

The pre-Christian festival of Samhain, which falls on 31 October, is the biggest event on the pagan calendar.

Paganism, which embraces a variety of groups including druids, witches and followers of the Viking god Odin, is one of the fastest growing religions in the UK.

At Samhain - pronounced "sow-en" - pagans remember their dead and look to the future.

A study in 1997 suggested there were 100,000 practising pagans in the UK, an increase of 95,000 since 1990.

The Pagan Federation says it is currently getting 100 inquiries a month from potential new recruits.

It continues to grow despite widespread prejudice - often fuelled by the tabloid newspapers - and the mistaken belief of many that paganism equates to black magic and even Satanism.

Central to pagan beliefs respect for nature, the existence of both male and female gods and empowering individuals to fulfil their potential.

Kate West, vice president of the Pagan Federation and a practising witch, told BBC News Online Samhain markrf the end of their year and the beginning of a new period.

'Remember our dead'

It is the Celtic equivalent of New Year's Eve, and is regarded as "a time of positive celebration to be enjoyed".

She said: "It is when the veil between the worlds of the living and the dead is at its thinnest and we remember our dead."

Ms West said the way pagans celebrated Samhain varied from group to group, but a feast was central to most events.

But it might also involve singing, dancing and chanting around a bonfire.

She said: "We gather together and look into the future to see what is coming in the year ahead, perhaps with tarot cards, but we also celebrate what has past.

"We celebrate the lives of loved ones and their achievements."

Fully clothed

She said the festival fell at "a time of plenty" and feasts developed in ancient times as pagans prepared for the winter.

They would use up excess grain and other food and slaughter old animals - not as sacrifices, but because they were not expected to survive the winter.

But unlike the May Day celebration of Beltane, their fertility festival, when some pagans shed their clothes, celebrations on Sunday night will be fully clothes: the UK weather is just not conducive to such behaviour, said Ms West.

She believes paganism is becoming more popular as people seek more freedom in their beliefs.

She said: "Spiritually, people want more than the paternalistic 'I will tell you what to think and what to do' attitude.

"As a race we are maturing. We want to make our own decisions about our own morality. We don't believe in indoctrination."



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