Of Witches, Warlocks and All Hallow's Eve

It has to be the least understood, most taken-for-granted holiday in the calendar, to say nothing of the most fun.

Hallowe'en has long been thought of the ultimate in fourth-grade holidays, next to only birthdays and the winter holidays. You think of it as "a kids holiday, their one chance to stock up on candy for the rest of the year." You remember that when you were seven you didn't eat your last Tootsie Roll until the following May. You kept it under the mattress.

Once you got over the loot stage, Hallowe'en wasn't the same, though. No free candy, the costumes all became tacky, and the plastic decorations in the dining hall the same, except for the added layer of dust. Trick or drink sounds promising, but how many variations can you do on black and orange liquor?

But underneath the common misconceptions, Hallowe'en is much deeper, more meaningful. Every Hallowe'en ritual has a history and is not merely a way for the American Dental Association to promote business. There's a reason why people dress up on Hallowe'en. There's a reason why it's associated with the occult and supernatural. There's even a reason why it has an apostrophe in the middle of it.

And here at Harvard, you are smack-dab in the middle of all the tradition of All Hallow's Eve (the apostrophe in the middle is to shorten `evening'). For starters Harvard's very location is at the center of a mystically important region. Cambridge itself, and New England, in general, are the birthplace of American mysticism and folklore.

Just up Mass. Ave., past the Old Cambridge Burying Ground on Garden St., lies Arsenic and Old Lace, a hot spot for learning about the heritage of Hallowe'en. Specializing in occult supplies and antique clothing, Arsenic and Old Lace smells of must and mysticism.

This store, located at the intersection of Mass. Ave. and Linnaean St. near the Quad, is a gold mine for anyone searching for the true meaning of Hallowe'en. The owner, Sherry Gamble, and most of her staff are practioners in the art and religion of Wicca, commonly known to most people as witchcraft.

Herbs and magic oils, crystal balls, animal skulls, magical jewelry, tarot cards, books on the occult and antique clothing suitable for mourning are all included in the inventory. People are greeted at the door by George, a skeleton in a coffin who holds a collage of costume ideas. The stuffed raven on the counter wears a Hallowe'en mask.

"We have a strange sense of humor," admits Debra Floyd, the store's book buyer. Floyd has stocked the store well with a wide variety of books on the occult from facsimilies of ancient manuscripts to recipe books for herbal potions.

Despite their strange sense of humor, the staff of Arsenic and Old Lace are serious about their beliefs. "Wicca is a religion, a philosophy, and a way of life," says Floyd who is also a practicing mystic. But the widespread stereotype of witches as the evil, magic hags of legends and fairy tales is in no way related to modern reality, she is quick to add.

"We don't fly broomsticks, we don't drink blood," Floyd sighs. "Modern witches use cars."

"Well, I am getting a bumper sticker that says `My other car is a broomstick,'" adds Vinnie, the shop's assistant manager.

The History of Witchcraft

The current world of witchcraft that Floyd and Vinnie describe, is a far cry from the historical facts of the trade. Let's start with some history. The ancient pagans of Ireland and England--not pagans as in the cannibals of Borneo, but simply non-Christians who worshipped nature--threw big parties every year on the day of Samhain, or "Summer's End." These were the first Hallowe'ens, according to The Origin of Festivals and Feasts by Jean Harrowven.

Samhain meant a great deal to the Celts (the pagans who threw the parties): It was a celebration of the harvest, a way of thanking the gods for their help, and it symbolized the coming of Death to the world in the form of winter.

Perhaps nowadays the coming of death doesn't sound too joyous, but as the Celts believed in Nature and its cycles, death actually symbolized a chance for rebirth, Floyd says. And this seems a much better reason to party.

This is also one of the founding beliefs of Wicca. The modern witch sees the year as a great wheel, with a cycle of eight festivals that fall on the solstices, the equinoxes, and certain points at the heights of seasons. Samhain or the Hallows is still the most important one, the New Year celebration of the pagan cycle.

"Death symbolizes great transformation in occult circles, and this is the time when we can select what we want to die of ourselves," Floyd says. "It's the time to leave your fears, dissatisfactions and anything else useless or outdated behind."

And here is where the use of costumes comes in.

"Some witches--though not all--such as Laurie Cabot's group use this time to project what they want to become. In observing their rituals, they don all their finery: If someone wants to be a dancer, they'll dress as a dancer," Floyd says. "It's done as an affirmation that you already are anything you wish to be."

Modern Day Witches

Laurie Cabot, by the way, is the most well-known practioner of Wicca in the area, as the Official Witch of Salem. Gov. Michael S. Dukakis dubbed her with this title for the work she has done with dyslexic children. Cabot's good deeds are a far cry from the stereotypical view of witches as child-killers, courtesy of Hansel and Gretel and most other fairy tales.

But modern-day witches say that regardless of this, most people still see them as evil. Within the witch community, there is a great deal of apprehension about the image of modern-day witches. People have such strong preconceptions about what witches are that they rarely listen to the facts. People have thrown bricks through the windows of Arsenic and Old Lace because they thought it a hangout for Satan-worshippers, Floyd says.

"There's still a lot of oppression. People do actually think that we are Satanists that eat babies, and its simply misinformation. Witches consider themselves the keepers of the earth, working to preserve it and reenergize it," she adds.

"Wicca is about acknowledging that the earth is a conscious, living entity that we are all a part of and that everything in it is equally important," Floyd says.

If Wicca piques your interest, go talk to someone at Arsenic and Old Lace, which also posts notices of classes and seminars on magic and the occult in its windows. Or make a pilgrimage to the home of witchcraft in the United States, Salem, which is just an hour's drive to the north, and visit Crow Haven Corner, an occult store run by Laurie Cabot's daughter.

Mt. Auburn Cemetery

If you always preferred the skeleton to the witch costume, perhaps you would be more comfortable spending this Hallowe'en in a cemetary, rather than a store of the occult. Cemetaries are particularly appropriate places to spend Hallowe'en as it is the time when the dead are commemorated, remembered, and are seen walking the earth again. Both pagan and Christian philosophies believe this, so it must be true.

And that's why Mt. Auburn cemetery, on the Cambridge-Watertown line, is such a valuable resource around this time. Mt. Auburn is an historical landmark as the first-ever `garden' cemetery in the United States and houses the graves of some of the most respected men and women of America.

Go mingle with such erudite, dead Harvard grads as Buckminster Fuller, Oliver Wendall Holmes, and Henry Cabot Lodge. Mt. Auburn is also home to refined spirits such as Mary Baker Eddy, the founder of the Church of Christian Science, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the poet, and Winslow Homer, the artist.

However, if you'd rather stay at Harvard, free from ghosties and ghoulies, there's still plenty to do. If you need a costume, try the Hasty Pudding Theatricals which is holding its annual costume sale. They're actually only renting this year, but $10 will get you a terrific, professional costume, perfect for expressing what you wish to become in the new pagan year.

"We have lots of dresses," says Sarah Laskin '89, the house and advertising manager for Hasty Pudding Theatricals. "And they're all in good condition for having been used 40 times by sweaty guys."

Arsenic and Old Lace, Oona's in the Square and Act II in Central Square also have lots of costume items and accessories.

So go to whatever parties you think will be fun, dress up as the person you want to become, or curl up alone in a dark room with a good book--anything by Poe, Lovecraft or King is highly reccomended--but whatever you do, stay true to the grand old holiday of Hallowe'en by having as much fun as you possibly can.