(Reuters) - The following are five facts about the witch religion of Wicca and Halloween, known as the Wiccan New Year of Samhain:
* The word “witchcraft” has three main connotations: the practice of magic or sorcery; the beliefs associated with the Western witch-hunts of the 14th to the 18th century; and varieties of the modern movement called Wicca.
* Wicca was first publicized in 1954 by a British civil servant named Gerald Gardner who said the religion dated to an old witch cult that existed in secret for hundreds of years, originating in the pre-Christian Paganism of Europe.
* Wicca is recognized as an official religion in the United States. It is a primarily Western movement of nature worship based on pre-Christian traditions.
* In the United States, there are between 250,000 and 500,000 followers of the Wiccan witch religion, which honors the “Elements of Nature” — Earth, Air, Fire, Water, Spirit — and their associated directions — North, East, South, West, Center — in “sacred circles” where rituals are held.
* The Wiccan New Year of Samhain is considered a precursor to modern Halloween. Today it coincides with Halloween on October 31. Historically, it was a Celtic festival held on November 1 where the world of the gods was believed to be made visible to mankind. Modern witches say it is a time of year when the “veil between the dead and the living is thin.”
Sources: U.S. Wiccan group Circle Sanctuary, Encyclopedia Britannica, Wikipedia, Reuters.