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December's ancient celebration Solstice: A growing number of Pagans herald the beginning of the return of the sun at Yuletide.


The Winter Solstice is upon us, and Druids, Wiccans, Pagans and Neopagans everywhere are hanging the evergreens and the mistletoe, lighting candles and burning the Yule log, forming circles and singing carols.

But when Beau Anderson's 10-year-old daughter comes home from school, she asks her mom why the teachers talk about everybody else's holiday, but not theirs. Her school marks the celebrations of Hanukkah, Christmas and Kwanzaa, but not the Winter Solstice.

That may be just a matter of time, though. A growing and surprisingly diverse bunch of people in Maryland celebrate the solstice rather than Christmas or other wintertime traditions.

"They're all festivals of light," says Aradia Lynch, Anderson's mentor, a Wiccan who is high priestess of her coven of witches. And they all have a lot in common.

Aradia and Beau and Wiccans and Pagans and even more worldly scholars find the roots of many customs of the season in ancient Pagan beliefs and rituals, from kissing under the mistletoe, to decorating the house with light, to the giving of gifts, to the making of resolutions, to the very date of Christmas itself.

For Wiccans and most other Pagans, the Winter Solstice is Yule, one of the eight Sabbats of the Wheel of the Year, the celebration of the return of the sun, the rebirth of light.

For astrologers, the solstice is the moment when the sun moves into the House of Capricorn. That's at 9: 06 a.m. today. Astronomers at the U.S. Naval Observatory figure it a bit later at 9: 50 a.m.

At the solstice, the sun seems to stand still at its lowest point of the year. It has ended its southward journey on its ecliptic path and turned back north. Depending on your outlook, it's the shortest day or the longest night of the year.

"The sun is at its nadir at the solstice," Aradia says. "You'll find that in pagan homes that there will be candles in all the windows and candles burning through the home. That's sort of like a sympathetic magic to bring back the sun."

And, as in homes celebrating Christmas, lots of red and green.

"Red represents the life force," Aradia says. "Green reminds us of the evergreens and that things will be green again. Red and green are the colors of the earth."

Aradia Lynch guides Beau Anderson in her study of Wicca and the Craft. Wicca and witchcraft are pretty much the same thing, perhaps subtle variations on the same beliefs, something like New Age and ancient wisdom. Wicca and witchcraft and Druidism, too, are rather like denominations within the cosmos of Paganism and Neopaganism, like Baptists or Methodists within Christianity.

Bells, books, crystals

Beau Anderson runs the Turning Wheel, a Pasadena shop filled with the books, bells, smells, crystals, herbs, music and no doubt vibrations of religious and psychic alternatives from channeling to shamanism.

She's 36, tall, slim and dressed in a long, velvety, silver-gray dress and high laced boots. She's the mother of a son and daughter.

Aradia, 47, is shorter, more emphatic. She's the mother of two sons and awaits her third grandchild next year. Her hair is long, parted in the middle and touched with gray.

"Paganism is one of the fastest-growing religions in America today," she tells a visitor to the Turning Wheel. In the 198Os, she says, the pagan community in Maryland community numbered at most 200 people. "And now it's expanded to probably around 1,500 people in the area."

In Silver Spring, a man named Charles Butler runs "Ecumenicon," a sort of combination of Pagan, Christian and Jewish beliefs.

"My coven ran a coffeehouse at Lovely Lane Church in Baltimore," Lynch says. "Cerribwen's Coffeehouse. She was the goddess of inspiration. We had a beautiful solstice ritual there. We had over a hundred people attend."

Many New Age-type people find Neopaganism attractive, perhaps because of its quality of psychic environmentalism.

"I can't say 100 percent of the people you meet in Paganism are concerned about the environment," Aradia says. "But they go hand-in-hand. We believe the planet is alive, that the spirit of the deity is not only in all of us , but in the Earth itself."

But many Wiccans and Pagans remain reticent about their faith. There's a long history of persecution of witches, as the new movie version of Arthur Miller's play "The Crucible" reminds us. Witches were burned at the stake in Europe and hanged and crushed in Salem, Mass., the historic locale of Miller's play.

Nothing satanic

Some Christians, mainly Bible-thumping fundamentalists, see Wiccans and Pagans as disciples of a satanic cult. In fact, Aradia finds satanic cults "terrible."

"We don't worship the devil, never have," she says. "We don't even believe in the devil."

Will Pierson, the senior Druid of Cedarlight Grove of Ar nDraiocth Fein (Our Own Druidry), agrees: "Satan doesn't enter into our world."

Today, Lynch will lead her coven in a private Yule celebration in the Celtic tradition. She'll cast a circle, "setting up our sacred space, our temple place, the place where we worship."

"Outdoors is best," she says. "Indoors we mark off the space with some stones or crystals or candles.

"We believe our deities occupy our space with us and we purify it to make it a sacred space for them to come into. And that's where we worship."

It's no different, she adds, "from a really good Catholic priest who knows how to do ritual," she says, a bit slyly. "But you have to believe."

They'll dance in a circle symbolic of the turning of the wheel of the year, stretching emblematic red and green ribbons between the dancers, like spokes revolving on a hub.

"We always conduct our circle in robes," Lynch says. "There are Pagan groups out there that are 'skyclad,' which is naked. But we never, ever we're not that kind."

In a central caldron, her coven will light a fire of fragrant herbs and woods specific to the solstice: cedar and pine, oak and mistletoe.

"Each member will light a red candle from the caldron," Aradia says, "the light of warmth, the light of love, the light of friendship, the light of wisdom, to light our way into the new year."

Open to everyone

At the Turning Wheel tomorrow Mike Woren, "a Buddhist Wiccan," and Patricia Swartz, who teaches shamanic integration, soul retrieval and beginning Wicca, will lead an eclectic Yule Circle that is open to anyone -- "ritual dress and tools optional."

Mike expects Christians, Jews, Pagans, Wiccans and people who follow Native American practices at his ecumenical solstice celebration.

"We want to show it's a circle of individuals working toward a common goal," says Mike, 51 and a former ordained Christian minister. "We want to show the unity of the community."

Across the harbor in Dundalk, that's an idea 46-year-old design engineer and Druid Will Pierson expresses, too.

"Paganism generally, and Druidry as we practice it," he says, "is something that grows out of the community, and so meets the needs and the expresses the heart of the community."

He's undecided on where he'll mark the solstice. But as he did for Halloween (Samhain to Druids), he may draw his circle outside his home on the banks of the Patapsco River, where the lights of Dundalk Marine Terminal and Key Bridge and Curtis Bay shimmer in water all year long.

Druids work with the spirits of the place, he says. At Yule they'll LTC be seeking wisdom and strength for the coming year. And when the spiritual work is completed, the revels begin. But there will hardly be a solstice saturnalia.

"We'll come inside," Will says. "And we'll have tea and coffee and eat bread and cheese and soups."

And so Baltimore's Druids may greet the reborn sun with far more benign sobriety than their Druid forebears ever envisioned.

Pub Date: 12/21/96

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