In a grove near you, pagans are gathering to celebrate Samhain, the night when the veil between the living and the dead, between this world and others, is thin. We will wear cloaks and have ritual daggers, called athemes, at our waists. The prerequisite silver jewelry will gleam in the firelight. Natural fabrics flow as freely as the mead. There will be an unfortunate excess of tie-dyed material. In other words, we will look most like your picture of witches.
This picture leaves out an important detail, and I don't mean the whole human-sacrifice-and-stealing-Christian-babies thing. Planning a ritual, whether it's for Halloween or any other holiday, is a conflict-filled battle. It's like trying to herd jack rabbits on horseback. Those who practice witchcraft tend to be strident nonconformists, and the very nature of paganism, which has no unifying body or text, means that we have no obligation to believe the same thing or listen to anything beyond the dictates of our own consciences to unite in perfect accord. Often we flow together, achieving unity in which we are transported beyond ourselves, connected with the earth we love and the energy we feel from it.
And just as often, we don't.
A few weeks before the ritual comes the discussion. It may begin with a priestess asking what song we should sing for the Spiral Dance, the part of the ritual in which we dance clockwise ("sunwise" is our term for it) to generate energy and to unite us with the god and goddess. One person suggests "There Is No End to the Circle." Any number of coven members nod; the rest groan. Somebody says, "We did that last year." Somebody else: "Exactly. It's traditional with us." Another person asks, "So, we're faux fam-trad now?" A new coven member tries to remember what, exactly, a fam-trad coven is. Inspired by the discussion, someone spontaneously sings out, "There is no end to this song, there is no end." The high priestess glares. Eventually, the debate is resolved simply because everyone is sick of talking about it. Now the rest of the ritual has to be planned—and it's just more of the same. Scintillating debates may rage on such issues as vegan vs. nonvegan cakes and alcoholic vs. nonalcoholic ale. The more essential parts of the ritual, the invocation of the elements and the arrangement of altars, seem to work themselves out fairly easily. Like most family fights, any acrimony is focused on the details.
Once we've agreed on the parts of the ritual, we actually have to execute that plan—and the nonconformists have to remember what they agreed to do and do it, which is a challenge in and of itself. The Samhain ritual in which we performed "There Is No End to the Circle" was lovely and went relatively smoothly, though we started late, just as we always do. I've given up on that score—I'm the only witch I know who has any interest in punctuality. The song itself is broken up into three parts, sung by the maiden, mother, and crone, each corresponding to an aspect of the goddess. As the youngest woman in the coven (this was depressingly long ago), I danced the part of the maiden. Sadly, between my cerebral palsy and the pack a day I smoke, song-and-dance routines are really not my thing. Further complicating things, several people seemed to have forgotten when they were supposed to come in, which led to hissed directions from about five self-appointed stage managers. But everyone was pleased by the time we sat down for the traditional cakes and ale.
These problems aren't restricted to our Halloween celebrations. A few years ago, I led the Lughnasadh ritual. The festival, which takes place on Aug. 1, 2, or 6 (we can't even agree on a date), honors the beginning of the harvest and the sun god, which bring me to my two major complaints about Lughnasadh. I hate making corn muffins in August. It makes the house much hotter than it ever needs to be. In addition to corn muffins, the festival calls for a bonfire—in August. In Virginia. There's nothing quite like a grumpy high priestess to set the tone for a spiritual experience. As soon as we had cast the circle, it began to pour. As members of a nature-based religion, this seems like the sort of condition we should be able to cope with. And I suppose we did. My sister removed my wrap (it's a good thing it was a private ritual, because that's all I was wearing), and we held it over the as-yet-unlit bonfire until we successfully ignited it. So far, so good. But the spell, as it were, was broken. As I was invoking the relevant deities, I heard a crack and a hiss. Someone had opened a beer. I glared. She ignored me and began to chat with somebody else. I began to think longingly of religions that stress obedience, remembered that those traditions tend to have poverty and chastity associated with them, and felt a certain nostalgia for of my days as a solitary witch.
These sorts of events inspired me to leave the coven behind. I currently work with one other witch, whom I've known since we were 3 and 5. We plan our rituals with little fuss and no doctrine. Our litmus test is, Does it feel right? One decision we've made is to rebuff curious friends who ask to join our Halloween rituals. It seems like half the people I know want to be pagan on Halloween. I have no problem with a little religious tourism. I'm a bit of a spiritual slut. I have never turned down an invitation to a Seder. Bach thundering through a church transports me. But when I see visions of bacchanals dancing in my nonpagan friends' heads, I get a little testy. Certain experiences are too comforting, too sacred to be spectacles. For me, Samhain is one of them.
So it will be just the two of us this year—imperfect people doing our best to honor the pagan ideal of "perfect love and perfect trust." We will light the candles, cast a circle, honor our dead. We are aware of our connection to all other pagans, who are doing the same thing in big rituals, in solitary practices, celebrating with children who will behave like kids at any religious celebration: with wide eyes, wondering attention, giggles at the wrong moment. My working partner and I will close the ritual with words that Starhawk, one of the leaders of the neopagan community, wrote not long before we were born but that nonetheless feel traditional to us: "The Circle is open but always unbroken. May the peace of the Goddess go in your heart. Merry meet, merry part, and merry meet again."