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Barbara's Column
October 2003 #4

Salem's Halloween celebration wears several faces
by Barbara Anderson


The Salem News
Monday, October 27, 2003

There is nowhere else I'd rather be this time of year than where I live, on the North Shore of Massachusetts near Salem.

Witch City contains three worlds which co-exist as contradictions of each other. One, where it all began, is the history of the 17th century "witch trials" that took place there and which were repeated during the 1980s with the day-care "sex abuse" cases nationwide.

In Massachusetts, the Amirault family was persecuted by people who, without any evidence but the coerced testimony of children, sent them to jail. Like the accused witches of 300 years ago, Violet, Cheryl and Gerald Amirault refused to admit guilt, even when this admission would have freed them. The women were eventually released anyhow, and Gerald has just been told that after 17 years in prison, he will soon be paroled.

Someday they will be recognized by history as wronged and valiant, just like the earlier victims of a flawed judicial system.

Laurie Cabot, the modern "official witch of Salem," writes that the real meaning of the word "witch" is "wise one." Though the people who were killed by the Puritans may or may not have been witches in that definition of the word, there are now many Wiccans who live in Salem or visit during October. Theirs is the second Salem world, based on an ancient religion that celebrates good magic, the goddess culture and the seasons.

To Witches, Oct. 31 is Samhain, the most important of the Celtic festivals. In her book "Celebrate the Earth," Cabot says this is the night "the veil between ... spirit and matter is lifted" and they "perform rituals to keep anything negative from the past - evil, harm, corruption, greed - out of the future."

Though most Wiccans object to the Halloween image of the green-faced witch on a broomstick, they manage to co-exist with this fantasy caricature that fits in with the spooky fun of the holiday. There is no reason that rational people can't deplore the witch trials, respect the Wiccan religion, and at the same time dress up as ghosts, goblins and ghouls to reflect centuries of attempts to deal with the reality of death.

The Halloween celebration is Salem's third world, and Wiccans join with other city businesses to attract tourists and help the local economy.

Sometimes, though, feelings are hurt. During the 1998 gubernatorial campaign, Paul Cellucci ran a late-election ad showing stereotypical evil witches. As soon as I saw it, I faxed his campaign my advice to drop the ad before the governor was accused of an attack on a recognized religion. The campaign, of course, ignored me and continued with the ad, and of course the Wiccans objected.

A few weeks later I ran into the governor at a function in Boston.

"I see you are still running the witch ad, and offending the Wiccans," I scolded him.

"Barbara" he replied. "How many of them can there be?"

"You'd be surprised how many of us there are," I said.

He looked startled and moved away. But despite playing with the wrong witch image, Cellucci beat his opponent, Scott Harshbarger, who as Middlesex County district attorney prosecuted the Amiraults and still insists they are guilty. I like to think, on balance, that good magic prevailed in that election.

Now ambassador to Canada, Paul Cellucci probably still thinks I'm a witch and, considering how little he knows about them and their refusal to do black magic, is glad he kept that "no new taxes" pledge.

I'm actually not a Wiccan, though I can fill in when necessary. My former boss, Don Feder, wrote a book called, "A Jewish Conservative Looks At Pagan America," which was hostile toward all New Age religions. He was a columnist at the time for the Boston Herald, which threw him a book-signing party.

Thinking that all the guests would be newspaper people, I decided to go as Pagan America. I wore black slacks and sweater, my long, brown wool cape, a Zuni fetish necklace and Kokopelli fertility earrings. My co-worker, Chip Faulkner, wore his Michael Dukakis Halloween mask.

We walked into a room filled with orthodox Jewish men, also all in black, and wearing beards. So there were a lot of Jewish Conservatives looking at Pagan America, to everyone's surprise and Don's dismay. Good thing my necklace contained a blue charm against the evil eye.

Sometimes you just have to have fun. And every year, getting beyond the initial tragedy and its copycat hysterias, and the misunderstandings among different religious beliefs, Salem celebrates the ancient holiday, across the harbor from where my jack-o'-lantern grins at the night.


Barbara Anderson is executive director of Citizens for Limited Taxation. Her syndicated columns appear weekly in the Salem News and Lowell Sun; bi-weekly in the Tinytown Gazette; and occasionally in the Providence Journal and other newspapers.


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