Afghanistan as they celebrate Samhain this year, the original Halloween

Halloween’s roots can be traced back to Samhain – a harvest festival celebrated by ancient Celts. The original inhabitants of Britain believed that at Halloween, the veil between worlds of living and dead is thinnest. They put out treats to welcome spirits who they believed were returning.

Samhain, one of eight major holidays celebrated in Wicca today, is partly inspired by the practices that were prevalent in pre-Christian Britain. Wiccans are called witches regardless of gender. Samhain is the Wiccan New Year, celebrated on October 31. The holiday is meant to be a time of reflection and remembrance of those who have passed away, but also to honor death as a natural part of life.

As a scholar in contemporary paganism, I am aware of how Samhain will be especially poignant this year for Wiccans that are veterans or members of the U.S. Military as they reflect on the fallen and the aftermath of a 20-year conflict in Afghanistan.

Wiccan rituals

Wicca is a form of paganism that has been popularized in recent years. Its practices are based on pre-Christian religions. All of these religions, including Hellenic pagan Druidry Heathenism and others, hold the Earth, and the spirits believed to inhabit animate and non-animate objects, as sacred.

Wicca is centered around rituals called Sabbats . Each of these rituals makes a link between the seasonal change in nature, and what’s happening in peoples’ lives.

Participants are asked to reflect during Samhain on death and the shorter daylight hours that occur at this time of the year in the Northern Hemisphere. In the ritual that follows, participants form a circle and surround an altar with symbols of the time, like colorful leaves, cornstalks, and pomegranates. The four directions are invited to join in the ritual.

Normaly, there is a reading that is often quite poetic and describes the time of the year, the changes in nature, and the life of the people in the circle. I’ve attended Samhain ceremonies where participants called out the names of those who they wanted to remember and honor. Some people will bring along a photograph or object that is associated with a deceased person.

Wiccans also use Samhain to look inwards, as though they were entering Mother Earth’s womb. They reflect on themselves and on the areas of their lives that require correction or change. The Wiccans focus on their experiences, such as healing emotional or physical wounds, writing books, or starting new careers, which they hope will become reality in the spring.

Samhain rituals link seasonal changes in nature with changes that occur in people’s life. avtor/ Getty Images

Wicca in the Military

Since the late 1970s, Wicca has been included in the military chaplains’ handbook. In 2007, after a lengthy court battle, the pentagram (a five-pointed Star associated with Wicca) became an accepted icon on military gravestones.

Fort Hood in Texas was the first military base to host an official pagan circle, which is a gathering for Wiccans and other pagans. This took place in 1997. blowback by some Christian churches did not stop the military from reiterating its policy of promoting religious freedom to its members.

Others followed. Fort Bragg, North Carolina’s open circle Wiccan gatherings, which are available to anyone interested in participating, celebrated their 20th anniversary on Oct. 2, 2020.

No official statistics are available on the number of Wiccans in the military. Circle Sanctuary is a Wisconsin nonprofit church and nature reserve that has 46 pagan circle sponsors and endorsers at military bases in the U.S.

A religious organization must endorse a pagan group before it can be accepted on a military base. Circle Sanctuary is the organization that has recognized the most pagan circle on military sites.

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Fort Bragg and beyond

This year’s Samhain rituals at Fort Bragg will be centered on healing military personnel and their families who have served in Afghanistan.

The Rev. Christine Ahrens is a pagan volunteer chaplain who uses the seven stages to help her open circle. These include denial, guilt, and bargaining.

Ahrens told us earlier this month she hoped Wiccans in Afghanistan, their family, and friends would use this time to go inward and process their feelings regarding the end of the war and the deaths or injuries they or their loved ones suffered.

Fort Bragg sent tens of thousands of troops to Afghanistan. Service members on the base and their families have expressed anger and disappointment following the U.S. withdrawal. Ahrens hopes that the circle will help to bring about acceptance and internal peace.

Samhain will be celebrated on Oct. 31 in homes, on college campuses, and on military bases. While many Americans are mourning their losses and continuing restrictions due to the COVID-19 epidemic, I think everyone could benefit from spending some time on Halloween thinking about the seeds of change that they want to plant in the spring.

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