As the hustle and bustle of the Christmas season grew into a roar earlier this week, preparations for a less-celebrated December holiday were more quietly under way.
Three days before Christmas Eve, on Tuesday, Wiccans and other Earth-based faiths celebrated Yule on the winter solstice. Wiccans follow a yearly "wheel" of eight major holidays, or Sabbats, that follow the path of the sun through the seasons.
Yule is rooted in ancient agricultural festivals that celebrated the return of the sun. The term "yule tide" is linked to the changing of the seasons. In some traditions, at Yule tide, the immortal Earth goddess gave birth to a new sun god, who would light the earth until the harvest season, when he would begin his decline.
Many modern Christmas traditions like the hanging of holly and mistletoe, the decorating of Christmas trees and the lighting of candles in windows have their roots in Yule traditions.
Wiccan groups like Our Lady of the Woods in Los Alamos and Rising Stones Circle in Boulder, Colo., celebrated Yule this week, with ceremonies and feasts open to the public.
There was a time when groups like Our Lady of the Woods might have celebrated Yule in secret, fearful of repercussions from their neighbors. But minority religions have increasingly found their voices and are stepping out of the "broom closet" as they say, to educate their own and the public.
"By remaining secretive, many groups foster fear and mistrust in the public," said Emory Erickson, co-founder of Rising Stones Circle. "We have no reason to hide in the shadows because we are not doing anything wrong."
Our Lady of the Woods and Rising Stones are just two regional groups that operate openly in their communities. By offering public events, they hope to build community among those interested in Earth-based spirituality and to dispel negative ideas people may have about Wiccans.
Michele Vochosky, current acting High Priestess of Our Lady of the Woods, said her coven strives to educate those interested in Wicca and those who believe Wiccans are devil worshipers who cast spells.
"People think we worship Satan, which is not at all a part of Wicca," Vochosky said. "By being open, we hope to heal that."
Our Lady of the Woods has been a part of the Los Alamos community for 14 years and uses the Unitarian Church for its public ceremonies. Though the group has received its share of nasty letters in the past, the group is now widely accepted, Vochosky said.
Modern Wiccans are also working to educate a growing lay community that includes the children of adult Wiccans, both Vochosky and Emory said.
There are no hard statistics regarding the growth of Wicca, a faith that has no central governing body and no central text, and whose members often practice in private. But there is evidence that more people are joining the community.
Longtime Wiccans say there is an increased demand for teachers and larger numbers of open circles and pagan and witch "meet-ups," or social gatherings that may have 80 to 100 people present, Erickson said.
The lack of organization makes it difficult to track Wiccans, said Albert Webb, a member of the Covenant of the Goddess, an international nonprofit networking group for Wiccans. Webb estimated the Wiccan population to range in size from 500,000 to 2.5 million in the United States.
"It is the fastest-growing religion in the country," he said. But there is no "Southern Baptist Wiccan Church" that tracks growth of the faith, he said.
Wicca traces its origins to the ancient religions of Europe. The word Wicca is an Anglo Saxon term that means "to bend or to shape," Erickson said. Our modern term witch comes from the word Wicca. To many people, the word witch and witchcraft is associated with Satanism or Hogwartz, the magical school of the Harry Potter books.
To Wiccans, to be a witch is to reclaim a goddess religion that honors the Earth and is nonviolent. The main ethical standard of Wicca is "And ye harm none, do as ye will." Though followers may cast spells, they may not do so if it will harm others, Vochosky said.
People who are curious about Wicca's ethics and practices have many opportunities to learn more, thanks to a recently developed Pagan college in northern New Mexico and classes offered by Our Lady of the Woods.
Our Lady of the Woods offers a seven-session Wicca 101 classes each year in addition to private instruction for those who want to join the group or become a Wiccan.
Vochosky is also the dean at the School of Witchcraft at Ardantane, a Pagan college outside of Jemez Springs. Ardantane was founded to provide a space for Pagans of all stripes to study and have a place of their own, the founder, Amber K, wrote on the college's Web site.
The college "is proof, hard rock solid physical proof that the Goddess movement isn't something tenuous and doomed to fail," she wrote.
In addition to creating their own learning centers, Wiccans are also reaching out to their communities. Covenant of the Goddess does interfaith work, and Rising Stones will soon offer its members ways to volunteer in the community.
The years of hiding from witch hunts and other persecutions are over.
"It's time to get out of the broom closet we've been in for several hundred years," Erickson said.