MODESTO, Calif. — Shrines to earth, fire, air and water made four points. A bottle of wine, chalice and cauldron on a Celtic altar made the fifth -- the five points of the pagan pentagram in a Rowland Avenue back yard. Wood stacked for a bonfire waited for a match, and the burnished steel of a long sword stuck in the ground glittered as the sun set.
Druids, witches and warlocks gathered in Modesto to celebrate Yule, a winter solstice festival and the pagan precursor to Christmas. Pagans have been loosely defined as practitioners of non-Abrahamic religions. (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam trace their origin back to Abraham.) Neo-pagans, or current practitioners, consider themselves separate from mainstream world religions.
Twenty-four people walked through an archway last weekend while The Association of United Pagans President Wil Hatfield and group secretary Elise Fisher wafted white sage smoke over them and splashed holy water from the Irish Well of St. Brigid, or Bhríde (in pagan circles pronounced like brie).
The national group, started in Modesto, seeks to connect pagans across the country looking for collective or group worship.
The sage smoke was meant to clear away the negativity; the water was a blessing.
"At times like these, the veil to the other world is at the thinnest. Like a Christian going into a haunted house would ask for protection, we ask for the same," Hatfield said after the ritual.
In pre-Christian times, Yule was celebrated in northern Europe. It now is considered one of three festivals, along with the Roman holidays Saturnalia and Sol Invictus, that morphed into modern Christmas, according to many religious scholars. The giving of gifts over a seven-day period, starting around the modern calendar's Dec. 17, was emphasized on Saturnalia and ended with Sol Invictus, or "the birthday of the unconquered sun," on Dec. 25.
Much of Yule in Hatfield's druidic tradition is the story of the Holly King and Oak King, which represent the darkness and the light. After a long battle -- the darkest night of the year -- the light Oak King triumphs and sun returns to Earth, according to the myth.
Hatfield led the group of pagans through the archway, called for peace at the four elemental points and lit the bonfire.
Clad in a ceremonial robe of his druid order, the U.K.-based Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, Hatfield raised his hands from the top of the pagan circle.
"Let us raise a Circle of Power to outline our sacred ground by chanting the energy of divine inspiration, the flow of spirit, the essence of life in motion," he said.
Held hands strengthened the circle, and everyone chanted "Awen" nine times -- a deep, sonorous sound not unlike that made by monks at Mass.
"We greet the spirits of the east, powers of air!" Hatfield said.
Holly sprigs were passed through the circle, and Hatfield asked that participants think of something negative about themselves that they wanted to turn over or end with the light of the new year. After a moment of meditation, one by one the pagans threw the sprigs into the bonfire.
"I cast this away into the dying darkness!" each said.
Mistletoe was handed out next. Hatfield told them to imbue it with something positive that they would like to see happen in the new year.
There are no centralized texts in druidic worship or in paganism as a whole. Even the word paganism is something of a catchall, Hatfield said.
Some children are raised pagan. Others "find themselves missing something" and start reading about ancient religions on their own, Hatfield said. He discovered the druidic tradition while researching his Celtic roots.
Wicca is the most well-known pagan religion. It traces its roots to cave paintings and what archaeologists think was the first cult of worship, the mother goddess, or earth worship.
"I tell people I believe in all possibilities," said Eldene Gallagher, a solitary, eclectic witch. "Solitary" means without a coven or group of practitioners, and "eclectic" means not limited to one particular type of magic.
Wicca got its name in 1954 when a retired British civil serv-ant popularized a polytheistic, nature-based philosophy that he said was rooted in the witchcraft of pre-Christian Europe. That probably is the main difference between pagans and Christians -- the pagan has many gods. Many of their festivals, such as Yule, seek to recreate those ancient traditions.
"It was easier for Christians to convert the pagans if they kept their traditions," said Edye Cheeseman, a druid and the pagan association member outreach coordinator, standing next to a decorated Yule log -- the spitting image of a Christmas tree.
In the United States today, pagans are a misunderstood lot. They've been pegged with human sacrifices, animal killings, devil worship and Satanism -- acts everyone at the recent Yule ritual and all codified pagan religions reject.
"We get that all the time," said Debbie Trow, an eclectic Wiccan in Turlock's Five Points Coven. "We don't believe in Satan. We don't believe in hell. That's a Christian thing."
After the ritual, there was lasagna, a gift exchange and a raffle. Children ran around guzzling soda. There was laughing and games, jokes and singing. There were colored lights and candy canes and an electric reindeer on the front lawn. It looked, by all accounts, like any Christmas party. Except, that is, for all the people in robes.
"Pagans," Gallagher said, a pentagram swinging from her neck, "like to be different."
On the Net: www.aupagans.org; www.paganpedia.com.
Modesto Bee staff writer Michael R. Shea can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.