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Halloween's somber ceremony

This Halloween, when tiny ghosts and goblins are safely tucked in bed, it will be time for real witches to chant and try to raise spirits from the dead.

Skeletons, black robes and curling smoke from incense sticks will set the stage Friday night when high priestess Lori Newlove will prepare her coven to be visited by departed ancestors and friends.

The dark of Oct. 31, or Samhain, is perfect for communing with the dead.

"It is the time when the veils between the seen and unseen are the thinnest," explained Newlove, as she sat in the living room of her Largo home.

"It is the easiest time to make contact with the people who have gone beyond."

Hence, at 9 p.m. Friday, Newlove and 17 other witches will begin their Halloween ritual at her home in Largo. On Saturday, a public ritual will be held in St. Petersburg at the Unitarian Universalist Church, 719 Arlington Ave. N.

Two altars will be set up in Newlove's back yard, near the pool. On one altar will be statues of gods and goddesses, sticks of incense, candles, a mirror to see into the dark beyond, an athame or blunt witch's knife, two chalices, a bowl of salt and chunks of crystal.

On the second altar, set up especially for this festival, will be favorite foods of the dead to be contacted, and fruits and vegetables of the season.

Followers of witchcraft or Wicca, sometimes referred to as the Craft, believe there is a divine spark in everything animate. They also believe that inanimate objects can be infused with magical energy. Wiccans also have a deep reverence for the Earth and its environment.

Though the religion focuses on gods and goddesses, Newlove said, Wiccans believe in only one god.

"All gods are one god," said the former Catholic. "There is one god with many faces. My personal belief is that god is unknown. The face of our religion is a feminine face with a masculine counterpart."

Friday night, members will perform an act called scrying as part of their attempt to contact the departed.

"It is looking into objects such as crystal balls, mirrors, candle flames or bowls of water in order to go more deeply into trance," explained Newlove.

"We are going to be scrying into my pool."

Newlove will prepare her coven to meet the dead by leading members through a meditation. Though some in her group want to contact a particular relative, Newlove herself would rather be surprised at who shows up.

"I don't go looking for any particular person," she said.

As Halloween approaches, anticipation builds.

"It is a very exciting time because there is an element of risk in going between," said the Key West native.

"One of the potential problems is that if you're not grounded, meeting with your departed ancestors can be a shock to your body. We don't take this lightly. I would definitely not recommend that just anybody sit and talk to their ancestors without any training or grounding," she said.

"It can deeply frighten you if you are not prepared. You can't die from it, but you can be badly frightened. I am trying to discourage amateur witches."

Unfortunately, many people believe long-held myths about witches, said Newlove, a Florida State University graduate who became a high priestess after two years of study in California.

She says that talk of devil worship, black cats and evil spells is just so much rubbish.

"We don't even believe in Satan, so there is no point in us worshiping Satan," added the 36-year-old mother of two, who is a midwife by profession. She owns a gray, not a black, cat.

"We do positive magic because of the universal law that says what you do comes back to you," she said.

"We believe that things return to you threefold, so that if I send out positive energy, it comes back to me threefold. And if I send out negative energy, it comes back to me threefold. I don't want to go there."

She describes her coven, whose name is Shining Wheel, as eclectic.

"We borrow from whatever works," she said, explaining that they draw upon pagan religions from around the world.

In her daily life, Newlove lives by the precepts of her religion, doing such things as recyling, refusing to put pesticides on the lawn and sharing her knowledge of herbs.

In her midwife practice, however, she does not raise the subject of religion with patients, though fellow pagans often ask her to deliver their babies.

She and her husband, Andrew, a high priest, celebrate Christmas with their children, Dana, 5, and Ian, 7. However, important holidays are Wicca festivals such as Halloween, Yule, which is celebrated on Dec. 21, and Beltane, a holiday of early summer and fertility that is observed on May 1.

Andrew Newlove, who is a technician at Lokey Mercedes, said he was brought up as a Lutheran but always had doubts about certain teachings. When he was growing up, he was taught that non-Christians would go to hell. "I always knew there had to be something more to it than that."

In the Tampa Bay area, there are about 2,500 followers of Wicca, said Lori Newlove, a licensed minister who performs marriages, baptisms and funerals.

Many witches, such as the two women who sat in her living room Monday night, remain underground. They, like many others, fear they would be fired for their beliefs.

On Friday, though, behind the privacy fence of Newlove's back yard, they will feel free to express their faith.

They will bring plastic skeletons to represent their dead ancestors, food with which to honor them and perhaps an article they once owned.

As 9 o'clock approaches, the drumming will begin, and the witches at the simple house with a sprinkling of Halloween decorations will begin their celebration.