The mighty dead, divination, and portals to other worlds… there are so many places to celebrate Samhain in the northeastern United States…
The cooler weather, the colorful leaves, and, as the memes say, "Pumpkin everything!" Like so many witches, autumn is my favorite season, and Samhain, my favorite Sabbat. As a child I loved Halloween for pretty much the same reasons, but as I grew older and eventually stepped on the Pagan path, I've gotten (and continue to cultivate) a better understanding about this turn of the wheel. I still love the candy, costumes, and popular culture that are Halloween; however, October's waning days have become more about remembering, of honoring ancestors and celebrating their lives, and of course, looking ahead.
In the process of writing and researching Magical Destinations of the Northeast, I've discovered many places where Samhain takes—or rather, can take—center stage. I'm really hoping that folks who read my book will be inspired to explore, read more, and—important, this—see that magical places and sacred sites exist everywhere. Sometimes it's just a matter of perspective. Here are 13 sites that you'll find in Magical Destinations of the Northeast—13-plus sites that are, IMHO, perfect sites for celebrating Samhain. They may not be what you expect, but remember, America is full of tricks and treats!
At Samhain, if you find yourself in…
- Washington, DC: Honor the service people who have passed at any and all of the war memorials to be found in the capital. All veterans are our ancestors; we may not know each one of them personally, but these folks put their lives on the line for us every day. The imposing World War II Memorial honors vets from every state (www.nps.gov/wwii); The Korean War Memorial's life-like sculptures put you face to face with war (www.nps.gov/kowa); The Vietnam Women's Memorial is an intimate portrait of feminine power (http://vietnamwomensmemorial.org); See yourself in the mirror of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial (www.nps.gov/vive). (In the case of the Vietnam Veteran's Memorial, you may not have to go to DC; the Vietnam Traveling Memorial Wall, a 3⁄5-scale model of the monument, makes regular tours of the country [http://www.travelingwall.us/].) Want to map some more magic? Cross the Arlington Memorial Bridge into Virginia to visit Arlington National Cemetery.
- Maryland: Embrace the darkness—literally. I went to Maryland to see a cave, because I thought that a cave—the underground kingdom of dwarves and gnomes—would be a cool, not to mention necessary addition to Magical Destinations of the Northeast. What I got was something completely unexpected. I visited Crystal Grottoes Cavern in the winter, a time when there's not much tourist traffic. When my husband and I went down into the caves, it was just us and our guide. Maybe that's what prompted the question once we were well underground: "You want to see total darkness?" I answered right away—before I could back out, but not before I made him promise to turn the lights back on. Samhain is about the shadow, and nothing speaks to the shadow as darkness—total darkness, which must be experienced to understand.
- Delaware: Walk through a grove of trees that are sacred to Hecate and Persephone. Venture into Brandywine Creek State Park to walk through Tulip Tree Woods, a two-hundred-year-old grove of tulip trees. Tulip trees are poplars and part of the willow family. The favored tree image of cemetery art, willows and their relations are sacred to Hecate, mistress-goddess of magic and the crossroads and Persephone, Queen of the Underworld. Under their boughs, invoke these incarnations of the Divine Feminine and the spirit of the veil to connect from this world to the next.
- Pennsylvania: At night, look up. "We are made of star stuff," said Carl Sagan, one of my favorite scientists. If that's the case, then the heavens are an immediate touchstone to the past. We look upon the same sky (more or less) that our ancestors did. I grew up and still live in an urban area, so even on a clear night I only get to see the brightest stars in the sky, those strong enough or close enough to combat light pollution. I felt like I first experienced the night sky (I'd never seen so many stars!) when I visited Cherry Springs State Park, one of the best places in northeastern America for stargazing. Want to map some more magic? Visit Your Sky to familiarize yourself with the night sky at this time of year.
- New Jersey: Relive the immigrant experience.Visiting Ellis Island and its near neighbor the Statue of Liberty is the ubiquitous tri-state area (NJ, NY, PA, and sometimes CT) school field trip. While I didn't get here until well into adulthood, the visit was no less awe-inspiring. About 40% of the people in the United States can trace their heritage back to folks who passed through Ellis Island, and I'm one of them. My Nonni came to the United States in 1921 from Calabria and entered through Ellis Island. When I visited I was able to find her in the digitized registry and see a photo of the ship that brought her here. Walking through the Great Hall, I could feel the energy—of anticipation, excitement, and anxiety—that still lingers here. If you have an ancestor that came to America via this or any other portal, a visit to this site is a perfect way to honor him or her. Re-enactment, even on a small scale, is ritual. Make a journey by water and toss a penny (a nod to the Statue of Liberty, made of copper) into the Hudson River as a tribute to their bravery for making the journey. Recite their names aloud as you do so. (www.libertystatepark.org)
- New York: Honor the forgotten dead. So many secrets linger beneath the skyscrapers, pavements, and subways of New York City; one such secret once was a centuries-old cemetery now called the African Burial Ground National Monument. The area, now marked by a stone circle carved with sacred symbols, was an African American cemetery where both free and enslaved folks were buried—over 15,000 people, unnamed, but now known. We are all ancestors of the human family, and DNA studies suggest all of us are descended from a common ancestor. Come to New York to get to know these mighty few. Want to map some more magic? Go across the street to Foley Square Park and look down—5 bronze medallions form a pentacle in the pavement telling the Native American, African American, and Colonial history of the area.
- Connecticut: See the real Pixie Smith. Samhain is the witch's new year, a time for appreciating the past and contemplating the future—often with a bit of divination. One of the world's msot widely used divination tools is the Tarot, with the Rider-Waite-Smith deck being among the most beloved (and the most copied in terms of iconography). Pamela Colman Smith never got to see how much her work has helped and inspire people—but you can honor that work and her life with a trip to Gillette Castle State Park. The "castle" was once owned by William Gillette, an actor famous for bringing Sherlock Holmes to the stage, and Smith's cousin on his mother's side. A set and costume designer, Smith envisioned Gillette's Sherlock in costumes, sets and ephemera. Tucked away in one of the upper galleries is a collection of her original drawings. The only permanent public display of her art in the country contains no Tarot imagery, but you will definitely see shades of esoterica in these works. (www.ct.gov/deep/cwp/view.asp?a=2716&q=325204&deepNav_GID=1650%20).
- Rhode Island: Revel and delight in fantasy and horror. It is Halloween, after all, so this list should include an element of the fantastical and the frightful. One person who successfully captured this aspect of the season was Rhode Islander. H.P. Lovecraft. Steeped in science, history, and anthropology, his imagined worlds are believably real. From his tombstone in Swan's Point Cemetery (proclaiminig famously, "I am Priovidence") to the streets of Providence, you will find spots that inspired him. Visit The H.P. Lovecraft Archive for a detailed listing of sites associated with him—but tread warily. Who knows what you might accidentally piece together or encounter in the narrow streets of Rhode Island's capital.
- Massachusetts: Give thanks and heal. Say Halloween and Massachusetts in the same sentence and most folks immediately think of Salem. There's no doubt that there's much to experience in Witch City, USA in October (or any other time of the year), but further east on the inlet of Cape Cod there's a spot for some serious seasonal reflection, gratitude, and healing, not to mention that it's a poignant spot to honor the original ancestors of this land. Along the shores of Cape Cod is the narrow strip of beach where the Pilgrims first encountered the Wampanog. Do a seaside meditation of healing and thanksgiving at First Encounter Beach: "I am grateful for all that I have. I share my bounty of light, warmth, and hope." Want to map some more magic? Iconic artist Edward Gorey called Cape Cod home. The tiny house where he lived on Strawberry Lane houses a museum dedicated to his merrily macabre artwork.
- Vermont: Honor pets and familiars. Dog Mountain was the passion project of artist Stephen Huneck and his wife Gwen. The mountain and its adjoining chapel is dedicated to the unswerving and unconditional love for—and given by—dogs and all pets. The only place of its kind in the world, the 150-acre sanctuary of mountain, forest, walking trails, and ponds is privately owned but open to dogs and their owners from dawn to dusk. You may want to prepare yourself before entering the chapel: the walls are covered with slips of paper. Sticky notes, torn sheets from notebooks, napkins—whatever was available, it seems. There are also photographs and pictures, drawn, painted, or framed—of cats, dogs, birds and other pets—to which you can add your own.
- New Hampshire: Head for the sea. It's been said that spirits are active by water. You probably won't find many haunted houses on New Hampshire's tiny coastline (it's only 18 miles!) but it does hold an ancient secret in its shallows. At low tide a small collection of stumps sometimes become visible in the water, the remnants of pines and cedars drowned by the Wisconsin Glacier when it blasted down the east coast thousands of years ago. Sometimes it's hard to remember that the land of the United States has a deep past. This tiny patch of shore at Jenness Beach is a place to appreciate the ancient past and the spirit of the land.
- Maine: Visit the grave of a real (?) witch. OK. Maybe not real, but who can say for sure? Mary Nasson's being a witch is a thing of New England folklore, but you can't have a Samhain hit list and not have a cemetery on it—and New England (Maine in particular) has some of the best cemeteries. If the carving on her headstone is any indication, Mary Nasson was gorgeous—and it's worthy to note that portraiture is unusual in an 8th-century memorial. Local legends say that Mary knew her herbs as well as how to deal with supernatural entities—perhaps that was the reason her husband installed a headstone AND footstone over her grave in Old York Cemetery (it was a common practice at the time to keep animals out of the graves)? Was she a witch? Who knows—but apparently the cemetery is a gathering place for black birds. Perhaps they know something we don't.
Where do you celebrate Samhain? Keep your eyes and mind open—you never know when you'll stumble upon a magical spot!