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Witchcraft isn’t just for Halloween anymore

Halloween's commercialized kitsch and other hocus pocus can be, well, dispiriting.

Halloween is a highly commercialized holiday. Photo by Paige Cody/Unsplash/Creative Commons

(RNS) — It’s late October, and witches’ phones are ringing.

Every year as we approach Halloween, media outlets hungrily seek out witches for stories that discover, year after year, that witchcraft is “real.” Social media feeds fill up with witchy hashtags (including my personal favorite: #witchtober). Witches are everywhere, for one month.

The autumn media barrage can take its toll.

“Normalize media coverage for witchcraft businesses outside of October,” wrote Steven Intermill, director of the Buckland Museum of Witchcraft and Magick in Cleveland, in a recent tweet. “I fantasize about being interviewed around Beltane about what we do all year round,” he wrote, referring to a May celebration.

Witches’ association with Halloween seems natural and intuitive, but like a lot of things that seem intuitive, it also has a history: a long and winding story of belief, fear, folklore and nature that has been emphasized as Halloween became increasingly commercialized in the 20th century.

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The connection is not necessarily a problem. Every subculture needs its time to shine, and witchcraft-related businesses and whole towns directly benefit. In Salem, Massachusetts, the scene of some of the most infamous witch trials of the 17th century, Sandra Mariah Wright, author and manager of Festival of the Dead, a celebration of witchery in Salem, said the “witch frenzy … brings hundreds of thousands of dollars into the city annually.”

Ever since the 300th anniversary of the witch trials in 1992, Wright, a Salem native, said the city, once just a popular summer destination, gets swamped with visitors each October.

What the public and the media don’t seem to grasp is that when Halloween ends and the plastic cauldrons disappear, real witches don’t.

The first time I participated in a group witchcraft ritual was for a spring equinox celebration, often called Ostara. Held in the middle of a field on private land, the group’s leaders meticulously set up an altar and cauldron, lit candles and invited guests, including myself, into the sacred space.

Six weeks later, I attended Beltane and then summer solstice in June, Lughnasadh in August and every seasonal festival thereafter.

My point is that witchcraft practice is not a spooky version of “Brigadoon,” appearing once a year before dissolving again into the mist like the titular town of the 1940s Broadway musical. There are no time constraints on witchery, and pumpkins are not a prerequisite. Every day is a great day for spell work when you are a witch.

An individual uses tarot cards. Photo by Cat Crawford/Unsplash/Creative Commons

An individual uses tarot cards. Photo by Cat Crawford/Unsplash/Creative Commons

Quarantining witches into October makes less sense given the increase in Wiccans, witches and other pagan practitioners over the past few decades. Trinity College’s 2008 survey registered a rise from an estimated 8,000 Wiccans in 1990 to about 340,000 in 2008. Since then, the Pew Research Center found in 2014 that there were about 1 to 1.5 million Americans who identify as Wiccan or pagan.

These numbers don’t magically swell between Sept. 30 and Nov. 1. Witches read tarot, making offerings to their gods and engaging in ritual all year long.

Yes, I said gods.

While some people combine witchcraft with other faith traditions or none at all, Wicca is a recognized religion with rights afforded to its followers as with any other faith. And Wicca is just one of many religious paths that incorporate magic and fall loosely under the expansive pagan umbrella. There are pagan deities and rites that some in other faiths might find familiar.

But the singleminded fascination with witches on Halloween means that witchcraft-related events at other times rarely receive media attention, unless there’s been a disruptive incident, as happened at the 2016 Nashville Pagan Pride festival when a street preacher harassed attendees.

Intermill pointed to Cleveland Pagan Pride Day, which attracted 4,500 attendees this past August. Held annually, the festival benefits the pagan community as well as local food banks, much as other faiths’ events do. In 2021, Cleveland pagans donated 2,400 pounds of non-perishable foods to Southeast Clergy Hunger Center. Witches are in every community, doing charitable work throughout the year, not just in October.

The attention given to witches and witchcraft around Halloween is a double-edged sword. It provides the opportunity to dispel myths and offer resources to the growing number of seekers as well as showcase the many faces of witchcraft. But it also creates a whirlwind of activity spinning aggressively around commercialized kitsch and other hocus pocus, which can often be dismissive and degrading.

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While #witchtober is fun or at the very least tolerated — many modern witches, especially those with children, will often celebrate secular Halloween — Samhain, observed anywhere from Oct. 31 to Nov. 7, is a more somber remembrance of the dead. It’s a time to turn inward, to celebrate the harvest and to honor ancestors. It is a time of magic and divination.

In that way, October offers witches a spiritual power not felt during the rest of the year, just as the broader culture is focusing on us. It truly is the season of the witch. But you can count on witches celebrating much the same cycles as other faiths’ celebrations based on the coming and going of the sun, the harvest and annual renewal. Don’t be afraid to come ’round the cauldron in the spring and see what’s brewing then.

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