For practitioners of the religion Wicca, Halloween marks the start of a new year. With the spiritual and material worlds converging, they anticipate new life and remember the deceased.
By WAVENEY ANN MOORE
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 31, 1998
PINELLAS PARK -- Tonight, clad in black and donning a pointy hat, Susan Granby will take her children door to door in what, for many young parents, is part of an annual Halloween ritual.
Later, though, while her children eat popcorn and watch a Scooby Doo movie, Granby and two friends will practice a ritual of their own.
The three women will light candles and pray before an altar that honors the dead. They are witches, after all, and Oct. 31 is their most important holiday.
It is when followers of Wicca, a neo-pagan religion, gather to observe Samhain (pronounced sow-an). Marking the beginning of a new year, it is a time of reflection and celebration. New life is anticipated. The dead are remembered.
According to Wicca, tonight the veil between the spiritual and material worlds will be thinnest and the stroke of midnight will mark the most auspicious hour for communing with the spirits.
For Granby and her friends, members of the Compass Coven, tonight's observation will be particularly poignant. The coven's high priest, Brooksville resident Tom Tibbetts, 31, died Tuesday.
"We are going to have a ritual to say farewell to Tom," Granby, 32, said.
Additionally, another member of the coven miscarried a few weeks ago and "is going to make peace with that," she said.
And Sunday, Granby, who was raised in the Jewish faith, will join worshipers at St. Petersburg's Unitarian Universalist Church for another observation of the holiday.
A special liturgy has been planned, during which the congregation's ancestors and friends will be remembered, said the Rev. Dee Graham, minister of the church at 719 Arlington Ave. N.
Much of this is no different from the ceremonies that will take place in many Christian churches this weekend, Graham said.
"Some churches celebrate All Souls' Day. This is the same theme," she said. "From a UU perspective, the point of the holiday is honoring those who came before.
"Samhain is a historic holiday with roots back in the Celtic religion and the tribal religions of Africa and Native Americans. Asian countries also honor their ancestors."
Wicca, or witchcraft, is a nature-based religion that is said to predate Christianity. Followers revere a variety of gods and goddesses and celebrate eight Sabbats, the most important of which is Samhain.
Robin Spaulding, a Wiccan priestess who lives in northeast St. Petersburg, plans to participate in three rituals celebrating Samhain this weekend.
"On Samhain, that is the time when you are most likely able to communicate with the spirits that have passed on," Spaulding, 43, said.
"At midnight is when the veil is thin, and that is when people are able to communicate with the spirits of the dead," she said.
A former Episcopalian who attends the Unitarian Universalist church, she declined to divulge the method of the supernatural exchanges.
"I prefer not to go into it," she said. "There are many ways, including meditation or channelers."
In preparation for the holiday, Spaulding and Granby have prepared ancestor altars in their homes to honor relatives, friends and other people they admired. Granby's altar includes, for instance, tributes to her father, her grandparents and Grateful Dead guitarist Jerry Garcia.
"I have two candles on the altar that are dedicated to the goddess Hecate, the crone goddess," Granby, a Pinellas Park resident, said. "She is the mistress of death. She is the one that ushers the souls into death."
There also is an owl, representative of the goddess Athena and a symbol of wisdom. A pumpkin, brimming with seeds, signifies life. A pomegranate, symbolizing the sacred food of the underworld, has a place on the altar as well. There is a cauldron candle holder.
Granby also has placed photographs and mementos of her family on the altar. There is a picture of her father, Bryan Burns, who died 10 years ago.
"He is standing there with my dog Goldie," she said.
Her grandfather Seymour Bernstein also is remembered.
"I have a picture of my grandmother on my mother's side. Her name was Betty Ross. . . . I have a picture of my son's grandmother, Gladys Smith."
Added are her grandmother's favorite candy and a yarmulke, a reminder of her father's Jewish faith. A string of beads that belonged to a former coven member who died three weeks ago also has been given a place of honor. And Tuesday night, Granby added a pendant that Tibbett, the high priest who recently died, had given to her son.
Though the emphasis is on remembering the dead, Samhain is not meant to be a sad occasion, Granby said. A goblet of ale on her altar is evidence of the holiday's joyous aspect.
"It is to welcome the spirits of those who died this year and help send them over, celebrate their life," Granby said of the beverage."It is not a season of death, it is a celebration of life. We also welcome in the souls of those who are going to be born in the coming year." Without question, however, this time of year can be frustrating for real-life witches, who must confront the stereotypes of fairy tales and films.
"We are not devil worshipers," said Spaulding, who has been a Wiccan more than 10 years. "We do not believe in Satan."
Graham also came to the defense of Wicca.
"We are not talking about some type of satanic cult, sacrificing live animals," the minister said. "Those kinds of things have nothing to do with creation. The goddess principles have to do with loving, creating, nurturing one another in our world."
Even so, many witches are forced to hide their beliefs. Spaulding, who kept her religion a secret from her former husband, today is among the more fortunate.
"Everybody in my neighborhood knows that I am a witch," the grandmother of two said.
The truth is, she said, "I worship the god and goddess in all of us, and I respect all religions. Whatever religion makes a person have faith and be a better person, and that person touches other people's lives and touches the world, I believe in all of it."
Spaulding, who teaches classes on Wicca, said witches choose the god or goddess with which they want to identify.
"I identify more with the Egyptian goddess, as in Isis. I relate a lot to the Roman and Greek gods and goddesses, like Diana. Isis, she is a mother goddess. She is extremely wise," she said.
"We learn what the traits and qualities are and you study them so that you will hopefully pick up some of the qualities of these gods and goddesses you work with. . . . You invoke the goddess. You pray and you worship her and you work with her to be a better priestess, person in life."
Sunday, Spaulding, who heads the Covenant of Unitarian Universalist Pagans at the St. Petersburg church, will attend its Samhain service. Graham's sermon for the day will be titled "Ghost of the Past."
The celebration is not unusual for the denomination, which embraces all beliefs and philosophies. Unitarian Universalist literature describes the organization as "a liberal, creedless religion with Judeo-Christian roots."
Samhain is among the many holidays members celebrate.
"Truly all of the Christian holidays were brought into conformance with pagan holidays in order to convince the nature-based people that Christianity was right," Graham said this week.
"The point of religion is to help us live our lives and find meaning. I think maybe what "Ghosts of our Pasts' is about is it is about ancestors who have guided us and the people we have been in different parts of our lives and how we build on that foundation to make a positive difference in our lives and in today's world."
Tonight, as the skies darken, witches will prepare for their most important celebration of the year. Granby will don appropriate holiday apparel.
"I have a very long, flowing black skirt and a flowing black blouse and a pointy witch's hat. But it is a pretty one. It has stars all over it," she said.
"It's the one time of year when it is okay to be a witch. Unfortunately, so many people still have to be in a broom closet."