Deep in Prince William Forest, in a rustic hall, with an enormous fire crackling on the stone hearth…sixty pagans cluster at tables and benches to hear a woman in an army jacket, a gray kerchief and fingerless gloves speak about encountering land spirits. “The air becomes fizzy,” she says, “like champagne.” This is Byron Ballard, a fifth generation witch from the Highland Planes of Appalachia. She embraces the title of “Village Witch,” and has come from Ashville, NC, to speak at Hallowed Homecoming: A Samhain Retreat, a local event that brings members of the DMV pagan-community together to observe and celebrate Samhain.
Ballard’s eyes are ringed with black eyeliner and her two coal-black braids hang past her shoulders. As she speaks, she hollows out a turnip. She will then carve two eye holes and a mouth hole into the root vegetable, a custom imported from Ireland. As she speaks, she intersperses quotations from Hemmingway and Dickens with stories of “the Cousins,” as she calls them. She offers them the type of sweets “most of us wouldn’t want to eat”: Swedish fish, gummy worms, flavored vodka, beer or cider. “Don’t give them hand crafted Belgian chocolates,” she says. “They don’t like that at all.”
Hallowed Homecoming, which began four years ago, is held each autumn near the calendar date of Halloween. Its attendees gather to observe “Samhain,” however, an ancient Irish and Scottish festival that marks the first day of winter. While feasting, merrymaking and divination, traditionally attended observations of the holiday, it was also said that the veil between worlds was at its thinnest Samhain eve. Spirits, faeries and ghosts of the dead walked the waking world—and so it was a time to venerate those who had recently crossed over and ancestral lines. (On the ancestor altar near the hearth, Hallowed Homecoming organizers place a photo of Brian, who was the event’s park ranger-contact before he passed.)
We wear costumes at Halloween in today’s era because in other eras, masks, costumes and wards were believed to foil the trickery and malevolence of those who rested uneasily. In contrast, today’s Pagan groups gather to commemorate the dead and ancestral ties to Europe. It is also a chance to simply slow down, gather with friends and share in community.
Celebrations in DC and the surrounding suburbs are common. Angela Raincatcher and Katrina Messenger, of Connect DC host a public Sabbat ritual, which is “as inclusive as possible and meaningful for both long-term Pagans and witches, as well as people new to the religion,” according to Raincatcher. Like many groups, members of Connect DC observe Samhain “to remember, mourn and acknowledge our beloved dead.” But, the group will also “celebrate, welcome and bless our cherished newborns.” They do so by reading their names in “sacred space [and] in the presence of the Greater than Human.” The group also remembers those who may have died in the past year from violence, those who were “unnamed” or “are un-mourned,” in DC and around the world.
One of the largest groups in the DC area, the Firefly House, holds an annual, members only, Dumb Supper (or “Red Meal”). It is a dinner eaten in silence to revere those who’ve passed. Firefly has hosted the event for eight years and the event has a very personal connection for many members. “Instead of a big public ritual that we all do in a park, it’s a silent, meditative practice in the comfort of a member’s home” Dash, one of Firefly’s leaders, confides. This meditative aspect, “as a spiritual practice, is a big part of what makes this, for me, an important and moving holiday” Dash says. As part of the ritual, each year, members at this event rend a veil, a move that “represents cutting the barrier between the living and the dead. Then, at the end of the night, we sew it back together to symbolically re-seal the same barrier and cleanse the space of any lingering energies.”
“Most pagan faiths are rooted in an earth-based spirituality,” Jay Greenwood, of the group named san Fhàsach, explains. San Fhàsach is a “contemplative” pan-pagan group, for those with a deep reverence for wild spaces and the outdoors. Jay’s group hosts a series of Twilight Walks that are not bound to holidays, but recognize instead “the cycle of the year” as it unfolds. For Twilight Walks, group members meet just before sunset in a wooded area. They open a brief meditation, then walk silently or sit in meditation together. “Often as Samhain grows near,” Jay shares, “I found myself walking alone in the woods and can hear the voice of my loved ones on the wind as it blows through the leaves of the trees.” Mason, a Druid member of san Fhàsach notes, “I always love the circling back to this time of year and the chance to turn inward and take stock of where I’ve grown over the last season.”
Community and gathering is important to many groups, but so is their privacy as they observe the holidays. Rath, High Priest of the Coven of the Black Vulture, leads his group in “private” observances, “thematic to the time of year.” This work, Rath characterizes as, “beyond just contact with the ancestors, beyond just having dinner, beyond just divinatory practices, beyond an energetic counter-point to that which is done at Beltane.” Rath notes that celebration of Samhain is “key” to his “personal journey,” but stresses that more so his journey—and in his experience the journey of many other pagans—is rooted in the work of community.
Mason of san Fhàsach agrees, “Paganism allows for and encourages people to develop their own practices. It doesn’t require that people join in spiritual or religious community at all. But for me, my religious communities are one way that I connect with Spirit. We are all interconnected.” David Ewing, who started Hallowed Homecoming with his wife Jeanet, adds his own recognition of this ethos: “We do it for the community. It’s the main reason we come back and do it every year.”
For more info on Hallowed Homecoming and other groups mentioned, visit this webpage. Some other resources are Connect DC; Firefly House; Coven of the Black Vulture; san Fhàsach or contact Byron Ballard.
Michelle LaFrance is a poet and writer living in the DC-area with a fat chihuahua. She teaches creative nonfiction classes at The Hill Center and research writing at George Mason University. She can be reached at [email protected]