On Halloween, kids get the opportunity to dress up and assume another identity. For me, it wasn’t enough to just dress up as a witch; I wanted to be one.
When I was little, my sister and I would pretend we had magical powers like Sabrina, the teenage witch. We wrote a book of rhyming magical spells and rode around on our mom’s vacuum cleaner, like Sabrina did on TV. We dreamed of having magical powers and of discovering an Other Realm through the linen closet.
Then the “Harry Potter” series became popular and a new world of witchcraft and wizardry was opened to me. I began to look for more books and more TV shows and films that had elements of magic to them.
Though I knew that wiggling my nose like Samantha on “Bewitched” wouldn’t actually cast a spell, I was still fascinated by the possibility that the supernatural existed. I began reading a book series called “Sweep” and was suddenly presented with a glimpse into the real world of magic: Wicca.
I’d always been interested in different religions and worldviews, but Paganism was something I didn’t know much about. It became an opportunity to dive into something new and interesting, even if it drew me strange looks from my conservative friends at my Catholic school.
To many, the word “Wicca” conjures images of Satan worshiping and other demonic rituals but, in reality, Wicca is not about devil worship. While Wiccans recognize other gods and goddesses, at the core of the religion is the worship of both a God and Goddess — or, in some traditions of Wicca, only the Goddess.
Wicca considers itself to be a neopagan religion that is a modern reconstruction of Paganism. The word “wicca” is the feminine form of an Old English word that refers to a magician or sorcerer. The term was first used in 1939 by Gerald Gardner, a retired English civil servant, who claimed to have been initiated into a coven, a group of practicing Wiccans. In 1949, Gardner convinced his coven to allow him to publish information about Wicca in the form of a novel. Gardner then wrote several follow-up publications about Wicca and its rituals.
Although Gardner was the first to publish materials in the mainstream about Wicca, the religion itself is the product of several different philosophers and authors who helped develop Wicca into the modern magical religion it is today.
The traditional image of witches in pointy black hats and flowing robes that we often see on Halloween are a negative stereotype to Wiccans, but it doesn’t make the holiday any less important for them. Wiccans celebrate eight festivals, or Sabbats, during the year, the most important being Samhain.
Like Halloween, Samhain begins the evening of October 31. Similar to the Mexican holiday El Día de los Muertos, it is a time to celebrate the lives of the dead. Samhain is also traditionally recognized as the first day of winter in Ireland and as the Celtic New Year.
Wiccans believe that on the eve of Samhain, the veil between the living and the spiritual realm is thin, making it easier to communicate with the departed. To honor the dead, it is common for Wiccans to leave food on their doorsteps or on altars in their homes for the “wandering dead,” as well as leaving lit candles by windowsills to help guide the spirits of the dead home. During dinner, extra seats are left empty for “unseen guests” and some even bury apples along roads for departed souls who are lost or have no home to return to.
Bonfires, which we college students have come to grow fond of, also originated with Samhain. Part of the old tradition of Samhain involved burning animal bones to ward off evil spirits. In fact, the word “bonfire” is a contraction for “bone fire.”
When I compare what I know now about Wicca and Samhain to my childhood filled with Sabrina and Halloween, I see a major difference, but I’m not at all disappointed. I still enjoy the Hollywood form of magic and its depiction of those nose-wiggling, wand-waving, finger-snapping witches, though I know they aren’t real.
Learning about the Celtic tradition behind Halloween has made the day more interesting for me and is part of my ongoing fascination with Wicca, which I continue to enjoy learning about…even if it means having to go to the store to buy candy instead of pointing my finger and having it magically appear.