Voodoo's Holiest Day Celebrated in New Orleans

June 24 is St. John's Day, named for St. John the Baptist, cousin of Jesus. It's also the holiest day of year for voodoo practitioners.

Voodoo has long been accepted as part of New Orleans' culture, while in the rest of the country it remains misunderstood and often disparaged.

St. John's Day, which falls every year around the summer solstice, is a celebration of growing and moving forward. Practitioners and curiosity-seekers alike gather and participate in various ceremonies.

This year, the observance of St. John's Day is more important than ever. "This is a time when people can heal or choose not to," said John T. Martin, a voodoo priest. "New Orleans needs a lot of help now."

It's been estimated that 15 percent of New Orleans residents practice voodoo in some way, although it is impossible to confirm.

"Most believers are solitary practitioners, fearful of negative energy from others not true at heart," said Martin.

On special occasions, people gather to celebrate what is often perceived as a dangerous religion.

Voodoo is a nature-based system of worship, similar to pagan religions. There are even certain similarities between Catholicism and voodoo. Both religions believe in an omnipotent creator as well as intermediaries between man and God - the loa in voodoo, and saints in Catholicism.

Celebrating the Voodoo Queen

The religion came to New Orleans via the slave trade and has had a presence in the city ever since.

Marie Laveau, a voodoo priestess who died in 1881, furthered the religion in the region through her immense popularity. She was a free woman of color and a devout Catholic who became the most powerful voodoo queen in the world.

Working as a hairdresser for New Orleans' elite, she transcended the racial and class boundaries of the time.

She was also believed to have magical powers. It is said that she had 15 children, including two sets of twins and one set of triplets, after performing a fertility ritual.

Ceremonies are being held throughout New Orleans this weekend to celebrate renewal and to honor Marie Laveau, as well as the loas who are believed to look over the living.

Voodoo priestess Sallie Ann Glassman will host a head-washing ceremony, similar to a baptism, on the banks of Bayou St. John, which runs alongside New Orleans City Park.

Followers will offer gifts at makeshift altars, some private and some public, around the city.

Tourism is New Orleans main industry, and inquisitive tourists can learn more about voodoo at the various shops and the Voodoo Museum in the French Quarter. The International House Hotel in downtown New Orleans also caters to interested visitors, hosting an array of voodoo events around St. John's Day.

Asked if Hurricane Katrina has changed the way voodoo is seen in New Orleans today, John T. Martin said, "More people are interested in alternatives because they are troubled due to things not happening as they should."