Vancouver, Canada - On Vancouver Island, pagans are lighting cauldron fires and dancing through giant evergreen hoops to symbolize being reborn.
In Metro Vancouver, pagans are bowing to stag antlers, revering pentangles and burning cinnamon incense to mark Yule, which celebrates the "rebirth of the sun" at winter solstice.
Most of these pagan rituals welcoming the arrival of the "Winter-born king" on Dec. 22 take place on different days in undisclosed locations, far from the public eye.
Pagans, often known as Wiccans, do not believe the era of witch persecutions are entirely over.
So, fearing being misrepresented as Satanists, hedonists or just plain weird, most are careful to keep their pagan "magic" only to the initiated.
That includes in their celebration of Yule, one of eight key pagan festivals marking the changing seasons. Yule contains many symbols associated with Christmas, including evergreen foliage.
There are roughly 400,000 pagans in the U.S. and Canada, according to the American Religious Identification Survey. Their numbers have more than doubled in the past decade.
Even though pagans usually meet privately in unconnected covens or circles, B.C. and the rest of the Pacific Northwest is considered a cauldron of pagan, or Wiccan, expression. Like many residents of Cas-cadia, pagans revere the awe-inspiring wilderness.
Alison Skelton, who helped found the Thirteenth House Mystery School in 1993, will be leading at least 60 pagans through a Yule ceremony this week in Victoria at an undisclosed location.
One of their rituals involves jumping through a large wreath. The hoop is made of evergreen branches, she said, to symbolize the "wheel of the year," and how "nature never dies."
Skelton, 52, is daughter of the late University of Victoria poet Robin Skelton, who identified as a witch in his later years. From her father, Skelton, a psychic and painter, learned of the power of being transformed by the "spell-like qualities" of both art and Earth-based paganism.
Skelton maintains pagans were originators of common Christmas customs involving star-topped evergreen trees (with the lights signifying "spirit") and seasonal gift-giving ("to redistribute wealth").
"Pagan traditions are focused on the sacredness of nature. At Yule we want to encourage the light to return" from out of the creative darkness, says Skelton.
Skelton's pagan circle, which includes children, will be collecting for the Mustard Seed Food Bank this Yule. Like other pagans, she says they follow the ethic: "Do as you will, and do no harm."
Despite many pagans' inclination to privacy, one spiritual organization in B.C. that won't be carrying out its Yule ceremonies in secrecy is the Vancouver Unitarian Church, at 49th and Oak.
The large congregation has, for years, offered a 10-week course called "Paganism 101," designed by Vancouverite Louise Bunn, 55, a Unitarian who has her artist's studio on Granville Island.
The diverse Unitarian Church has an ongoing "pagan" committee, along with "Buddhist" and "prayer" committees. Its sanctuary is decorated this month with pagan wreaths representing north, south, east and west.
In addition, Vancouver Unitarians will again this year hold a popular pagan-style ceremony, in which participants write down wishes for the new year on flash paper before tossing them into a cauldron of flames.
Bunn readily acknowledges that B.C. pagans are "like a herd of cats," virtually impossible to organize.
There is no shortage, she says, of outspoken "flakes." Many function in isolation, she says, after buying a book or two on witchcraft at a place like Banyen Books.
Indeed, it's exceedingly hard to keep track of the extremely eclectic movement.
Pagans claim to follow many different traditions: including the Druids (Celtic spirituality); Dianics (goddess-centred faiths, usually forbidding males); Norse mythology (revering Thor, Odin); Hellenistic pagan-ism (gods of ancient Greece); Kemetic paganism (Egyptian) and Roman gods.
The largest pagan school is known as Wicca.
However, Bunn emphasizes that modern paganism has more to do with what she calls "19th-century British romanticism," including the poetry of William Blake and John Keats, than any ancient rural religion.
As her authority, Bunn cites the noted 1999 book, Triumph of the Moon, written by University of Bristol scholar Ronald Hutton.
The book inflamed some feminists and others by arguing most modern neo-pagan, Wicca and goddess religions were basically invented within the past 200 years.
That said, Bunn remains an enthusiastic follower of contemporary paganism. She loves how Yule helps her experience a spiritual "liminal space," a contemplative zone between this world and the transcendent.
In addition to the Unitarian pagan events, she'll join her own Wiccan circle for a Yule ceremony in Vancouver this December.
Asked where the ritual will be held, she says with a smile: "I'm not going to tell."