Salem solstice ceremony celebrates season of rebirth
Christopher Penczak, co-founder of the Salem Temple of Witchcraft, prepares his altar for the annual Yule ceremony at Upper Village Hall in East Derry on Saturday. (APRIL GUILMET/Union Leader Correspondent)
SALEM - For followers of the witchcraft tradition, the end of December is a time to look inward, to count blessings and prepare for new beginnings.
On Saturday evening, members of the Salem-based Temple of Witchcraft gathered inside Upper Village Hall in East Derry in celebration of Yule, an ancient holiday with many familiar trimmings. Candles were lit and there was much merriment, singing, dancing and feasting. Evergreen boughs and mistletoe sprigs show signs of life in the winter air, while the birth of a new year awaits.
"Winter is a time when we like to reflect," said Krista Carmichael, a native of New Orleans who now lives in Waltham, Mass. "With the bright light of the stars, you can just see so clearly this time of the year."
As a modern-day pagan, Carmichael and her fellow followers find peace and solace in the forces of nature, the deepest corners of the human soul and the interconnection of all living things. On Dec. 22, the day after the winter solstice, witches of past and present celebrate that each coming day will bring a little more light.
Longtime Salem resident Christopher Penczak, one of the temple's cofounders, said his spiritual path was a winding one. At age 18, he'd graduated from a parochial school when he stopped by to catch up with an old family friend. Upon learning his old friend had been following witchcraft for many years, Penczak was initially taken aback.
"I was skeptical, to say the least," he said with a laugh.
But after learning more about the faith, Penczak's skepticism turned to interest. Now a high priest of witchcraft who's trained with the famous Salem, Mass. witch Laurie Cabot, Penczak co-founded Temple of Witchcraft in 1998.
Earlier this month, Salem planning officials granted final approval for the temple's move to a Victorian house at 49 North Policy Street. Recognized as a 501(c) nonprofit religious organization by the state, the new house of worship will soon be the site of classes and small gatherings.
For now, large events like Yule are held at the historic East Derry hall.
Though many do not understand the religion, Penczak said a lot of today's Christian holiday traditions are rooted in the ancient traditions.
"In our religion, the Holly King is the god of winter," he noted. "Drinking wassail is a pagan tradition, as is the Yule Log."
The tradition of giving gifts dates back to the ancient Roman festival Saturnalia, which honored Saturn, Roman god of agriculture.
Celebrated in late December, the festival was a time when ancients awaited the return of the sun and longer days, where crops would renew and the harvest restored.
For Salem resident Alix Wright, who was raised as a Catholic but began reading about witchcraft at the age of 10, Yule is one of "the more lighthearted of holidays."
"Our ancestors brought evergreens into their homes to show us that life never really dies," she noted.
Around 80 temple members and friends attended Saturday's Yule ceremony, some dressed in flowing velvet and others dressed more casually, in jeans and sweaters. There were grandmothers and executives, soldiers and civil servants.
Some prefer to stay "in the broom closet" as one member puts it, due to the judgment of relatives and professional associates. Others, like Wright, wear the name "witch" proudly and publicly.
On Saturday, a pile of donated toys brought by temple members awaited delivery to the local Toys for Tots drive, while others collected funds to send to the victims of Hurricane Sandy.
"It's all about service to others in need," Carmichael said. "Each one of us can assist the world in different ways."
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