Twelve years ago, in 1995, I resolutely determined to reinstitute the olde, free, sacred Sabbats rites entire towns enjoyed for centuries on end. I took a bold (and, in the South, unprecedented) leap of faith in this regard, as I had no roadmap, no guide, no mentor, and no predecessor, for the trail I intended to blaze.
Since then, though, my annual, free, public Witch ritual has become a cherished tradition for Asheville-area townies, families, and tens of thousands of Pagans and Witches nationwide. Indeed, I’ve become infamous for NEVER doing the same rite twice, and each Sabbat’s unique theme has emboldened Witches to do the same in such far away continents as Australia.I’ve done this in the buckle of "the Bible Belt" — the very town where Billy Graham has his international ‘The Cove’ training center. Most audacious of all, I chose to revivify, to re-sacritize, the scariest and most misunderstood Sabbat of all the Witches’ yearly eight — Samhain (what mundanes call Hallow’een).
Make no mistake — creating and conducting huge, free, public Sabbats takes nerves of steel, spiritual vision, media savvy, and a wicked balance between tenacity and flexibility that few folks seem to ever stretch themselves to achieve. Every year when the going gets rough (money’s tight, or committed volunteers seem too few to properly pull it off), my Coven and I loudly vow to never attempt it again. But they are SO worth it, for every year without fail, we see everyone arrive en mass from far reaches, pitch in with all their might, and make things come together so hauntingly beautiful, everyone leaves the rite revivified — passionately invigorated to stop at nothing to somehow top ourselves yet again the next year!
Over the years I’ve learned many secret keys to ensuring a huge, public Sabbats’ success. While many of my tips and past Samhain Sabbats’ info and pix are posted on my web site (www.oldenwilde.org), I feel most urgently that doing these rites is such a crucial component to Wiccans’ public acceptance, our increasing numbers, and Paganism’s religious longevity, that I want to share some of my secrets with you about how to conduct similar rites wherever you may bide.
The first few years a Coven or Craft Community holds a public rite are the hardest, as whoever’s organizing it not only has to manage a million details, but must also educate townies about what Witchcraft is and isn’t, in endless TV, radio, and newspaper interviews. This takes great juggling, aplomb, articulateness, perfected "sound bites", makeup, Witchy dress, and the certainty that you can handle instant interviews by phone at the drop of your Witch hat, while answering e-mail from excited attendees wanting more info on the ritual…
I recommend that you stop debunking typical, negative, Hollywood lucidity, Christian propaganda, and general Witch myths after year 2, and from then on, focus your pre-rite public relations and publicity on the upcoming year’s theme meaning related to whatever Sabbat you’re hosting, and whatever particular publicity "hook" you’re using to drum up enthusiasm for it.
Develop a rather "thick skin" when it comes to self-styled posers, braggarts, and local magical rivals, who are sadly, all-too-often needlessly envious of your success, and are wont to pump themselves up at your expense, making catty remarks or spreading outright, vicious lies about you, your Coven, and your rites. This is a measure of your success at reaching people, and has nothing to do with reality or your personality.
ESSENTIAL TIPS TO ENSURE A GLORIOUS RITETHAT FOLKS WILL REMEMBER FOREVER
* Pick one Sabbat and do it every year on the same date and nighttime. 8 to 10 PM is optimal, for this gives parents time to trick-or-treat with their wee ones, then attend the Sabbat afterwards. You can float your ritual’s venue (where you have the rite) every few years or so, just let folks know the new location.
My daughter-Coven Highlandwilde does Beltane complete with a traditional Maypole dance each year, so folks have at least 2 major Sabbats they can attend every 6 months.
* Visualize your Sabbat from the God/desses’ eye-view. Conceive of your rite in terms of "How will the God/desses see this from above, around, and throughout?” and "How will THEY feel about my plan/design/idea?"
This is why we often feature long processions, intricate mazes, Spiral dances, and light our rites to be pleasing to the eyes and hearts of both human attendees, AND the Gods.
* Think BIG. Don’t drape a cloth or two and call the Sabbat decor "done" — imagine the most elaborate, Witchy rite of your dreams, then work for months to make your vision manifest.
As long as you’re going to do a rite, do it so hundreds and thousands — not a mere handful of folks — can fully participate in it and duly take heart from your magical gathering.
Though the idea of leading thousands in a hand-to-hand dance may seem daunting, doing so touches attendees’ hearts in a very deep way and gives everyone a sense of accomplishment and hope for our religion.
* Save something for the sequel. Don’t put ALL your ideas into one rite — remember that you’re going to be conducting this Sabbat every year for years to come, so save many other aspects and mythos about the Sabbat you’ve chosen to highlight, so you’ll have endless themes to use in following years.
Samhain, for example, has millennia of history to select from, and some themes we’ve used in previous years have been: Bones & Roses, Haunted Woods, Black Masquerade, Gypsy Revel, Dumb Supper, and Creatures of the Night…
* Make land and attendee safety priority one. Don’t make any permanent changes to the land site. Set tiki-torches deeply and shim them at their base with small termite wood stakes to prevent tilt and grass fire. Put tea lights in glass jars purchased cheaply from a local thrift store.
Prominently display a fully stocked med kit on site. Provide water, cups, and candy to help dancers get their sugar level up as needed. Use hundreds of snapstix and glo-bracelets to help light participants’ way. Fill in potholes and remove briars well in advance of the rite.
* Trust no one, but keep everyone "in the loop". Words are cheap, but deeds are dear, so disregard all volunteers’ promises to help you with this or that, for they often flake out. (Musicians are especially prone to promising they’ll come, and then simply don’t show.)Whenever someone actually delivers on his or her promises, hug them hard and thank them profusely. Send out constant e-mails asking for donations of prop items, money to help defray event costs, equipment needed, prep and setup meeting dates, times, and locations, etc.
* Screw pride — when you need something to make the rite successful, ASK FOR IT. Use all your e-contacts and friends or relatives or whomever. Beg them to donate tables, chairs, whatever you need, just for the night, label them with masking tape, and have them pick up their stuff the week after the Sabbat.
Ask that people play parts or roles during the rite. Tell them what you want, how they should dress, and work with them so they get it right, make the Craft look goodly, and please the God/desses.
* Throw everything at it but the kitchen sink. What often looks a tad "trashy" in daylight looks gorgeous in moonlight or torchlight. If it’s black, silver, red, or blue, it’ll be beautiful. Green and orange are alternative colors, but purple doesn’t fare so well by candlelight.
* Use the best ingredients possible. Use real tumbled stones, collected herbs in jars, food coloring, and other Witchy things more than store-bought, plastic Halloween decor.
If you’re super poor, search the Net for easy, cool, Witchy options. For example, we vertically cut black trash bags into one inch strips still connected at the bag’s top, then stretch them out and knot them in places to create fabo fluttery curtains…
* Think outside the box. When we realized during setup this year that we’d have trouble seeing in the dark the double spiral maze 3 football fields long we’d made for adults to trance dance on, we solved the problem by stringing $32.00 worth of metallic red wire garland along the entire route.Years ago we draped bolts of black garden cloth from the ceiling to the floor to create a huge maze in a pavilion. During year one when we wanted to weave a massive dreamcatcher using attendees’ hands, we used undyed cotton clothesline that worked beautifully on site.
* Publicize your Sabbat early and often. Tout your event via every free media outlet or event you can, such as the religion or lifestyle sections in newspapers, radio stations, online events calendars, and annual events like Pagan Pride Day. Include helpful info such as nearby hostels, hotels, or camping sites’ locations and contact info in case attendees want to spend the night before hitting the road home the next day.
Our posting about Samhain 12 this year got 11,000 hits on a rather obscure page on Witchvox.com because we’ve learned how to: link our event to current controversies or news stories; entice attendees with tantalizing promises about what we’re going to provide them at the rite; and all the facts they need to know to travel to it, as well as a map to the site.
* Stay on top of everything, all the time. For us, Samhain starts right after Litha (Summer Solstice). It takes us a full 6 months to gather all components, fix and recycle all materials from previous years, make new stuff, publicize the event widely, do pre-rite interviews, organize volunteers and rite roles, devise the rite itself, burn the music, and a million other details.
The only way we’ve ever seen that works is to make written lists, talk often, share ideas, brain-storm options, locate land venues quickly, and generally, stay on top of all of it from start to frickin’ finish…
* The High Priestess rules. Micro-manage all details yourself. Sabbats like mine are attended by hundreds and thousands and take months of prep to ensure their success.
The High Priestess should consider the merits of all possibilities coming from her High Priest, Initiates, and volunteers, but has the final say in all matters of dispute regarding the ritual.
* Don’t allow vendors, and issue no disclaimers. This keeps the rite spiritually oriented, and won’t be viewed as yet another clever fundraiser in disguise. Allow Pagan businesses to post business cards or pamphlets on a table, but not their products. Insist that diviners charge attendees nothing for reading for them after the main rite.
Don’t be a buzz-kill by posting endless, legalese-type "disclaimers" forbidding drugs, dogs, and such from your rites. No, we don’t allow dogs, but that is the extent of it, and only because they could bite someone. Otherwise, we encourage everything and the free expression of each attendee’s spiritual bliss…
* Hope for the best, but plan for the worst. Have backup plans for all rite components. For instance, pray that live musicians DO show up — just know that musicians tend to be a flaky lot, so pre-burn the music you want onto CDs and have a skilled music-spinner play it using amps, etc.
Perform many weather-working spells in advance to ensure the best weather for your outdoor rites (our mantra is "No wind, no rain, no cold, no snow, on Samhain).
Run through the rite often in your mind and ask "What if" this or that happens questions. Think of all conceivable problems and try hard to conceive of things you’d never even consider that could spell the ruin your rite or cause you, the Craft, or your Craft Community any kind of embarrassment. Then, devise contingency plans "just in case", and let everyone know in detail what to do in case such problems arise.
* Insist on your religious rights. Each state’s different, but it’s illegal to disrupt any religious rite in North Carolina, so be prepared to press charges if some fundie makes verbal, "terrorist" threats at attendees.
Oppositely, cops have no right to attend, much less interfere, with Sabbats, but they’re quite adept with spouting excuses for why their presence is "necessary", such as traffic control, etc. Their mere presence often intimidates attendees, so resist them verbally and in Letters to the Editor in newspapers to make your point.
* Have your own internal security armed with walkie-talkies. Deal with trustworthy folks, and have them dressed in costume like every else (not with any obvious "badge" on their breast), roaming from the parking area throughout the rite site acreage, deftly, quietly handling any problems as they arise.Their purpose is to be so goodly, that no one ever knows there was any problem…
* Keep up your strength Witch-wise. Eat early and often, feed your help, take Echinacea before the rite, and slurp up tons of fruit juice throughout preparation time. Take tinctures and such if you’ve a cough or cold.
Wear tons of layers of clothes you can discard as it gets cold or you sweat during the dance. Dress for both comfort AND stunning beauty. Avoid high heels — instead, opt for flat boots with sole traction.
* Protect your Covenstead while you do the God/desses’ work. Everyone knows where you’re gonna’ be during your annual rite, so wire your Covenstead for security if you can, with motion-detecting, night-vision cameras on each floor, VCR recording capability, and put alarms on every door and window.
Failing that, have someone sit on your front porch passing out candy to trick-or-treaters, with a cordless phone nearby to call 911 in case anyone tries to burn the place down.
* Differentiate between when you should stress for success, and when it’s time to revel in the rite itself. Work hard, well, and fast during setup, then quit fussin’ over minor details, change into your costume, and start fairly levitating as you walk, dance, and cavort in the beauty of what you’ve created.
* Welcome attendees who’ve braved much to come from hither and yon to your rite. It’s nice to be welcomed to the rite from the parking lot to the circling site. Do this with torchlight to light pathways, stick incense, glow-sticks color-coordinated to support and set your rite’s theme mood, and props, etc.
Prior to each rite, we station dozens of costumed attendees to line the "admit path", and give them fairy dust to sprinkle on arrivals, feathers to smudge them with incense, roses to sprinkle scented water on them (splurging), and to pass out glo-bracelets or ritual mementos for them to wear. This reduces their nervousness or travel fatigue, and increases their rite anticipation.
* Set a high tone for the event, and all will follow suit. If you’re in the spiritual zone for all to see, no one will be telling tacky jokes or acting undignified.
Your confidence in your ability to pull off the Sabbat with grace and aplomb will radiate and attendees will feel safe, excited, expectant, and reverent.
* Use a wireless, headset mic. Do sound and equipment checks well in advance.When you’re dealing with thousands, wireless mics help all hear you explain the meaning of the Sabbat, the spell’s purpose, and your planned activities.
* Wear clothing or a costume that makes you — the rite leader — easily visible from far away.Sure, we all favor dress blacks and capes, etc., but when everyone wears one, the HPS can blend in and become invisible, causing needless confusion and preventing rite helpers from finding her if need be.
A polished, sparkling silver crown, glo-bracelets at the wrist, and similar items make you stand out, and all know where they are in line in relation to the High Priestess or rite leader.
* Keep ’em moving and mum’s the word. The biggest magical mistake many gathering organizers too often make when planning rites is to have everyone stay overlong, still and freezing or bored, while someone preaches, reads poetry, or does an elaborate altar rite that attendees can’t see well, hear well, or participate in. This is an automatic buzz-kill, and the origin of many a needless complaint about Craft rites.
We avoid this by circling folks hand-to-hand briefly, called Quarters quickly, taking five minutes or so to explain the meaning of the Sabbat and the upcoming rite’s magical purpose. Then we get right to the dance or other plan that gets everyone moving, smiling, and immediately invested in ensuring the rite’s success.
* Assume nothing. If a parent swears blindly their kid is missing, don’t panic and call 911 — you WILL find them — dancing and having the time of their lives!
* Follow the money. If you put a donation bowl out, take steps, like cementing it down on a table or some such with duct tape, to make sure no one runs off with it.
* Delicate "take down" of props after the rite is AS IMPORTANT as setting up fragile, packed props before the rite. Everyone who helped for months, weeks, or days to make the rite a success will be thoroughly exhausted when the rite’s done.
So do yourself a favor ahead of time by insisting that some people do nothing but show up the next day to help you take down the props you used, or they’ll be hopelessly ruined, and unusable next year.
* Don’t reinvent the wheel next year. Recycle all the props you can in creative ways depending on the theme you set next year.Store Sabbat stuff in large plastic bins, and collect donated items throughout the year to use when the time comes for the next year’s Sabbat.
Lady Passion is a co-author of The Goodly Spellbook: Olde Spells for Modern Problems, a registered nurse, and gifted psychic. She lives with her mate in a rambling 3-story Covenstead in the Blue Ridge Mountains. She may be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org or www.oldenwilde.org.