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Neo-Pagan student celebrates Samhain, Halloween, to host ancestor feast

The end of October means something more than dressing up for Mariah Scott.

Scott began celebrating the Celtic and now neo-Pagan holiday Samhain at a young age.

“Samhain is the beginning of winter and the time where the veil between our world and the next is the thinnest,” the Dearborn junior said. “It shifts depending on the equinox, but tends to be Oct. 30, 31 or Nov. 1.”

She grew up celebrating Halloween, getting dressed up and trick-or-treating, and plans to hand out candy this year.

Scott said her parents raised her and her sister without a religion, so one day they could find one that meant something to them.

At age 11, Scott started attending rituals with her sister, beginning with a celebration of summer, life and things that grow, a ritual called Beltaine. Not long after, Scott began identifying herself as a Wiccan and now as a Pagan.

“Paganism is hard to define,” Scott said. “I can only say what I believe and what the Pagans I’ve met believe. I follow a polytheistic religion based on ancient gods and goddesses that are very much in tune with nature. The holidays I worship are based on the cycles of the Earth and the sun. The spirit allies I connect with are what mean something to me.”

Scott plans to celebrate Samhain this year by hosting an ancestor feast.

“My loved ones and I will make food that reminds us of our ancestors like potato leek soup, Irish soda bread and squash, and put a little bit of everything on a plate,” Scott said. "It’s the idea that your ancestors eat with you."

She plans on hosting a Samhain ritual with the Open Grove Society, a registered student organization that promotes religious diversity.

Michael Ostling, assistant professor of philosophy and religion, teaches REL 302: Witchcraft, Magic and Occult Phenomena.

He said the scholarly term for modern Paganism is actually neo-Paganism, and it’s a new religion.

“Historically, witchcraft was the practice of harmful magick to hurt people,” Ostling said. “Today, neo-Pagans have taken a negative term and turned it positive. It’s a non-harmful religion.”

Witches became associated with Halloween because it’s a festival related to dead people, and witches somehow got lumped in there, he said. Halloween is actually a Christian holiday.

“Hallows is another word for saints,” he said. “Halloween is the eve of the holiday All Saints Day, Nov. 1."

All Souls Day, Nov. 2, is historically the day to celebrate the dead, Ostling said.

For Scott, Halloween isn’t offensive, but a historically Christian holiday.

“Halloween is silly and a fun way to acknowledge that things kind of freak you out sometimes when you don’t know quite what’s there,” Scott said.

Similarly, Traverse City senior Melissa Hughes said she doesn’t think of Halloween as religious time.

“I never thought of it to be religiously related,” Hughes said. “It’s just an American holiday that’s fun and filled with superstitions.”