Halloween and Witches

Learn about witchy Halloween celebrations around the world.
By: Jeff Thoreson

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On Halloween, the dead whisper from forgotten places. Ghosts, ghouls and goblins whisk about. And witches stir brews intended for satanic consequences. If you want to move outside the realm of the neighborhood costume party -- and get to the pinnacle of Halloween celebrations -- here are a few trip ideas. They might not get you all the way to the underworld, but they will get you a lot closer than those costumed kids who come knocking at your door on All Hallows Eve. So hop on your broom and check out these witchy festivals.
Step through the portal of reality and into the realm of the spirits with the help of witches in -- where else? -- Salem, MA, site of the Salem witch trials of 1692. Each year, during the peak of New England’s fall foliage season, tens of thousands of travelers visit Salem to help the modern-day Witches of Salem honor the dearly departed at the Festival of the Dead. The festival explores death’s macabre customs, heretical histories and strange rituals. The 2011 festival is open daily from Oct. 1- 31 at sites around Salem. The festival’s big events, including the Salem Witches Halloween Ball, the Salem Witches Magic Circle and an authentic séance are held the last 2 weekends in October. At the Festival of the Dead you can learn to hunt ghosts, communicate with spirits and see into the future. The Salem Witches’ most sacred event, the Dumb Supper: Dinner with the Dead , gives everyone a chance to honor loved ones who have “crossed over.”
Who can forget Gotham for a good witchy getaway? NYC on Halloween night is fit for witches and all of the world's pagan beings. The New York Witch Festival has become part of NYC’s annual Halloween scene. This year’s festival, which bills itself as a “Wiccan good time,” includes merchants who sell oils and incense (in case you need to stock up for your next séance), handcrafted altars and ritual tools (wands, chalices, etc.) Hosted by third-degree Alexandrian high priestess Bonnie Marchione, the New York Witch Festival won’t teach you how to brew a magic potion or cast an evil spell, but you will find workshops on energy healing, spirit communications and even a witchy diet to help you stay connected to Mother Earth. "We honor the gods and goddesses of ancient mythology,” says Marchione. “We honor the sun, the moon, the Earth. There is nothing evil about it."
October in France is the peak of the grape harvest season, making France a delightful destination for the world’s oenophiles. But Halloween is gaining momentum, and it’s no longer unusual to attend a costume party or see kids trick-or-treat. The Fete des Sorcieres (Sorcerers’ Festival) is held each year in the town of Chalindrey, site of a historic 16th century witch hunt in northeast France. “Rather than buying into the commercial side of Halloween, this festival seeks to evoke its Celtic roots -- while still scaring you witless,” says French travel writer Christine Cantera. The witch festival has been held for nearly a century, and culminates each year with the election of Miss Sorcière. The festival runs throughout October, and don’t miss the haunting Celtic dance every Saturday night!
In his book, Halloween: From Pagan Ritual to Party Night, historian Nicholas Rogers says that Halloween originated as a pagan Celtic festival of the dead related to the Samhain, the Gaelic harvest celebration in Great Britain marking the beginning of winter. So that would make Great Britain the perfect place for the world’s largest festival of witches, which it is. Witchfest International is held in London each year. While much of the festival is deadly serious (pun intended) with academics and historians discussing paganism and witchcraft, the festival does have a lighter side. There is a workshop where you can learn to make your own magic wand. This year’s keynote speaker is British historian Ronald Hutton of Bristol University in England who’s one of the world’s foremost experts on witchcraft and Wicca. There is a day-long introduction to Wiccan course and a celebration to patron goddess Artimes.


Jeff Thoreson is a travel writer based in Washington, DC.

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