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Blake Bromley

Blake Bromley

Posted: October 29, 2010 01:50 PM

Like most holidays, the scary marketing monster known as Halloween has deep religious roots.

The children banging at your door probably don't know that in the past, the greeting wasn't "trick-or-treat," but "all Hallows Eve."

But long before western Christianity reserved a frosty fall day to venerate its saints, the Celtic world commemorated harvest with the festival of Samhain, when celebrants wore costumes and masks and warded off evil with lanterns carved from roots.

Every year, thousands of Neopagans -- including Druids, Wiccans, and Shamans -- forgo costume parties to commemorate these historic roots with ceremonies, bonfires, and preparations for another year.

Most people don't consider such practices religion because they are not mainstream. Nor did the law, since there was no monotheistic god who was worshipped in a conventional way based upon a coherent body of theological teaching.

But that might be changing.

Earlier this month, England accorded full legal status as a charity to the Druid Network on the basis that they were a religion. Druids, best known for annual summer solstice pilgrimages to Stonehenge, are now as legitimate as Anglicans in the eyes of the law.

In a 16-page ruling, the Charity Commission held that because the Druid Network was a serious organization with a positive moral framework that venerated a supreme being or spiritual principle, it satisfied England's definition of religion set out in the Charities Act, 2006.

The ruling describes Druidry "not simply a way of life or philosophy," but a religion with a veneration of nature so complete it creates "feelings of connectedness" with a power "apart from and greater than itself." The commission also held that the group demonstrated that it met the public benefit criteria.

The real significance of being recognized as a religion is that groups are then entitled to tax benefits. Since the Druid Network has only 350 members, the immediate implications may be negligible for British taxpayers. However, if the Druid Network is charitable, then hundreds of other Neopagan organizations may potentially register as charities and benefit from the same tax benefits.

That's certainly the hope of Emma Restall Orr, founder of the Druid Network. In a triumphant release after the ruling, Orr declared that "Pagan, animist, and polytheist religions should find registering a much shorter process now than the pioneering one we have been through."

This Halloween, as you greet vampires and Harry Potters with a fistful of andy, ponder whether religious purists might eventually rescue the night from secular marketers. There are few Druids and no ready equivalent to Stonehenge in Canada. But Neopagans, which don't even register as a blip on Canada's census data, would happily emphasize the sacred beginnings of Halloween if it meant tax privileges for the other 364 days a year.

It hasn't happened yet. Canada has not adopted England's statutory definition of religion, and the Canada Revenue Agency has thus far refused registered charity status to Wiccans and other such groups on the basis that they don't meet the historic common law definition of religion.

There are significant financial implications if Canada eventually follows England's lead. Approximately 44 cents of every dollar donated to a religious charity is funded by Canadian taxpayers.

On some not-too-distant Halloween, or Samhain to your Druid friends, Canadians might be tempted to claim a charitable donation tax credit for the cost of those Twizzlers and Twix.

After all, aren't they religious offerings given to little ghouls and vampires on a holy day?

 

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