Wicca ‘not a religion but a way of life’

LAKELAND — At 2:04 a.m. Dec. 22, the Earth was at its farthest point from the sun, the winter solstice.

It was nothing more than an astronomical and meteorological footnote for most people — the official start of winter. But for Maria Thomas and others, it marked a sacred occasion, something to be observed.

So Thomas and a group of about a dozen other followers of Wicca gathered for a ceremony.

“The year-end celebration is just the culmination of the cycle of the wheel of the year. Now, we put to rest everything that’s happened and get ready for the coming of spring when everything blooms,” said Thomas, a Lakeland travel agent.

It is mostly lost these days in our modern Christmas traditions of shopping, parties and church services, but some of our customs reflect a time before Christian missionaries arrived in Europe. Mistletoe, holly and the decorating of evergreen trees reflect the customs of the druids, the Celts and the Anglo-Saxons who, on the longest night of the year, would light the Yule log to celebrate the rebirth of the sun.

This pagan past is now being revived and observed by practitioners of Wicca, the earth-centered religion that is sometimes called witchcraft, a term that makes Thomas and other Wiccans uneasy.

“Most Wiccans don’t want to be called witches because of the connotations. So many people think of Wicca as satanic. Wiccans don’t subscribe to satanism because we don’t believe in the Christian God,” she said. “Wicca is really a celebration of nature. All our ceremonies focus on nature.”

Wicca is a specific group within the broader neo-pagan movement, said Heather Morcroft of Orlando, president of the Wicca Religious Cooperative of Florida. She estimated that there are several hundred Wiccans in the Central Florida area and 2,500 to 3,000 pagans, people whose beliefs and practices vary widely, from agnosticism to the worship of ancient Norse gods to the embrace of nature.

Thomas said she knows of groups of Wiccans in Polk County, but they tend to be wary of exposure because of fear of misunderstanding or harassment. The misunderstanding also extends to people seeking out Wiccans.

“We’re not out to attract people looking for a cult-type situation. We get girls coming with piercings, green and purple hair, looking for a bizarre experience, and we have to say, ‘We’re not like that,'” said Thomas, a grandmother who favors sweatshirts and jeans.

As a religion, Wicca has no hierarchy or doctrines. It is rather a loose association of individuals who hold some principles in common. In fact, most followers of Wicca are solitary practitioners who only occasionally gather to celebrate one of the eight “sabbats,” or festival days, throughout the year, Thomas said. A signature word of blessing or farewell is “Blessed be.”

“The basic creed of witches is ‘Do what ye will and harm ye none.’ In Wicca we subscribe to multiple gods and goddesses. We see them as ever present. Earth and nature are sacred,” she said.

There are certain spells that can be cast, so long as they do not harm anyone, Thomas said.

“People come to me and say, ‘I want this person to like me.’ I can’t do anything to make someone do something he doesn’t want to. I tell them, I can cast a spell to make you more desirable, and if he comes to you, it’s of his own free will. We can’t make it rain, and we can’t win the lottery,” she said.

The eight sabbats are the spring, summer and autumn equinoxes, May Day and Samhain, a festival to honor the dead held on Oct. 31. Yule is the last — or first, depending on your point of view, since it is both the ending and beginning of the circle of the year.

Before the Yule ceremony begins, the space is decorated with colors of the season, such as evergreens. Participants burn sage and repeat incantations, “to cleanse the area of any negative influences,” Thomas said. A circle is formed around objects representing the four natural elements — earth, air, fire and water — and verses are recited honoring each. Wine and food are offered to the gods and goddesses.

“It’s a beautiful ceremony. We try to bring honor back to the earth. Throughout the ceremony we pronounce our allegiance to the laws that govern Wicca,” Thomas said.

In her small downtown office, surrounded by Betty Boop murals and memorabilia, Thomas said she has practiced Wicca for about 20 years.

“It’s been more of a seeking of knowledge that goes with it. I believe anyone can subscribe to the beliefs of Wicca,” she said.

Betty Hoey of Lakeland, another participant in the recent ceremony, refers to herself as a novice who has been practicing Wicca for about five years.

“It’s something I’ve always been interested in. My husband and I lived in England a couple of times, and that was the first time I met people who practice Wicca,” said Hoey, who is retired but works part-time at a tea room.

Her practice is mostly solitary, Hoey said, including personal rituals associated with daily and monthly cycles — prayers, lighting candles and burning incense.

“When I first get up, I face east and thank the god for the sunrise. It’s the same in the evening, to the goddess, for the end of the day. I observe some days of the full moon,” she said.

Thomas said she sees parallels between Wicca and Zen Buddhism.

“Wicca is not a religion but a way of life,” she said. “We have a gentle, peaceful way of living that takes everything as it comes.”

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(Listed if other than Religion News Blog, or if not shown above)
Heraldtribune.com, USA
Jan. 1, 2004
Cary McMullen, NYT Regional Newspapers

Religion News Blog posted this on Friday January 2, 2004.
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