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