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Thanks to everyone who offered suggestions for celebrating Samhain with my World Religions students. I've put my full script for the lesson under the cut, if anyone is interested.

What holiday are you all getting ready to celebrate this week? What are some of the things you do on Halloween?

Halloween is supposed to be a night when ghosts and spirits walk the earth. A lot of our Halloween customs were originally connected to the idea of needing protection from evil spirits. For example, you might wear a scary costume to scare the spirits away.

People who practice a religion called Wicca also believe that the separation between earth and the spirit world becomes thinner on this holiday, but they don't see that as a time to be scared of monsters. They see the holiday they call Samhain as a time to connect with, and honor, the spirits of people who have died.

Wicca is a religion that was developed in modern times, but it’s based on old traditions and beliefs from the British Isles – England, Ireland, Scotland, and Wales - from before those countries became Christian. It’s an earth-based religion, which means that their religious practices focus on the rhythms and cycles of nature – the turning seasons of the year, the cycles of the moon, and so on. Samhain comes at the end of fall. It marks a time when the harvest is over, and the leaves have mostly fallen (in places further north than Maryland), and people are preparing to enter into winter. So plants are dying, and everything is about to go still and quiet, and it makes sense for the holiday to focus on the boundary between life and death.

Some Wiccan families see Samhain as the beginning of a quiet period where they reflect on the past year and don’t start anything new. Just as the earth is settling down to rest for the winter, so will they, until late December when we reach the shortest day of the year.

If your family practiced Wicca, at Samhain time you would make an ancestor altar in your home. On it, you’d put things that remind you of people who have died – your relatives, beloved friends, pets, people who came before who you particularly admire. You would believe that Samhain is a time for their spirits to draw close to the world we live in, and you would be ready to make a connection to them and honor them.

You would carve out a fall vegetable, put a light inside it, and set it outside your home so that the spirits can find their way. Does anybody do that? Right, a lot of us put carved pumpkins outside our houses at this time of year. Sometimes Wiccans will carve out a turnip, like I did here – that’s an older tradition, because pumpkins weren’t discovered until America was.

You would have a special feast to honor the spirits on your ancestor altar. You might include their favorite foods, or you might offer them special treats of the season like pumpkin bread or apple cider. You would eat these foods too, but you’d also leave some of the nicest portions on the altar, for the spirits.

We’re going to celebrate Samhain today. If you brought a picture of someone who has died, or something that reminds you of that person or animal, please put it on our ancestor altar now. If you didn’t bring a picture, take one of these cards and write down the name of a person whose spirit you want to honor. It could be someone you know personally, or someone famous who you admire, who has died.

Wiccan religious ceremonies always start with drawing a circle around the place where you’re going to be, and honoring or recognizing the four directions: north, south, east, and west. The four directions are each associated with an element: Earth, Fire, Air, and Water.

We’re going to draw our circle by joining hands. Then we’ll all face each direction, around the circle. [Name] is on the north side of our table, and will hold up this stone while we call in the spirits of Earth. [Name] is on the east side, and will hold up this feather while we call in the spirits of Air. [Name] is on the south side, and will carefully hold up this candle while we call in the spirits of Fire. [Name] is on the west side, and will hold up this water while we call in the spirits of Water.

I’m going to take the hand of the person sitting next to me on the left. Then you take the hand of the person next to you, and so on, until we’ve made a circle all the way round.

Element of Earth, we honor you.
Element of Air, we honor you.
Element of Fire, we honor you.
Element of Water, we honor you.

I’ll serve our ancestor feast now, giving the first and best portion to the spirits of those who have died. As we eat, let’s talk about the people we’re honoring. What do you remember about them? What are the best things about them? This doesn’t need to be a time to be sad, although of course it’s totally okay if you are sad. It’s a time to recognize what these people brought to our lives. Does anyone want to go first?

At the end of our Samhain celebration, we’ll release the spirits and set them free. Now that we’ve called them here, we don’t want them to be trapped here! Let’s all say together: Spirits, we release you. Rest in peace. Now let’s all join hands again, all at once. We’ll undo our circle by letting go one person at a time, in the opposite direction from how we formed our circle.
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