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.