Some are fat and cherubic; others are wrinkled, gray and warty. They are fashioned from glass, clay, fabric and even dried-fruit peels.
Steele enlists her husband, Tim, to bring down the boxes each year and help set up their University South home for Halloween. It's mostly a private affair, to be savored by the couple's young grandchildren. But Steele also invites children of the other Homer Avenue condominium residents to ooh and aah at the cackling, red-eye-flashing, singing and dancing crones.
"Girls just want to have fun," one sings to a Cindy Lauper-inspired hit. The ditty's lyrics have been changed to notions about casting spells and turning people into toads.
"This one is my favorite," Steele said of a warty, white-haired witch adorned in a black peaked hat, rose brocade dress and black pantaloons.
Clapping her hands, Steele activated the witch's song-and-dance. The doll waved its arms as it jiggled and cackled and jauntily croaked Shakespeare's most famous cauldron song: "Double, double, toil and trouble."
In a corner hangs one solitary witch — the one that started it all, Steele said. When the others come down and are packed away in boxes, her "kitchen witch" remains. With its babushka, red cape and broomstick, its toothless smile and long, pink-tinged nose, the kitchen witch presides over the stove, keeping a watchful eye on simmering pots and pans.
Kitchen witches are a centuries-old tradition in parts of northern Europe, including Scandinavia and Germany, and are supposed to ward off bad spirits and bring good luck, Steele said. Some believe she has the power to keep roasts from burning and soups from boiling over.
Steele first hung up hers in the 1980s and has collected witches for 30 years, she said.
"My three sons never paid much attention to them," she recalled.
In Eastern Europe where one of her sons now lives, witches are so popular they can be found year round, she said. Steele has picked up several from Prague, including one that "is so ugly she even has hair coming from the wart on her nose," she said.
She held up one of variously colored blown glass with a finely hooked nose.
"This one is exquisite," she said.
"I just think they are characters. They are portrayed in so many ways," she added.
The witches go back in the box on Nov. 1, but that's not the end of the Steele's festivities. The crones will make way for the 25 pilgrims and turkeys she'll display for Thanksgiving. Jovial Santa Clauses will supplant the turkeys and pilgrims for Christmas.
And if 87 witches seem to be an awesome quantity, Steele has a surprise: "There are more Santa Clauses than witches."
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