Local pagans feel right at home amid mainstream holiday rituals when they celebrate the winter solstice on Dec. 21.
"Winter solstice is celebrated as a festival of light, just like Christmas and Hanukkah," says "Rhiannon," a Venice musician and the high priestess of a local pagan group called the Circle of Aradia. "The light becomes a symbol of hope that the sun will return."
Although the current incarnations of paganism are only a few decades old in the United States, people who pray to Celtic, Greek, Norse and Egyptian gods and goddesses claim their rituals were the first to include many popular traditions, such as hanging mistletoe.
"People don't realize that what they're doing is the same ancient ritual, when they light the Yule log, or when they light candles, or when they put up a wreath," said Sandy Kopf, a San Fernando Valley resident and former national officer in the pagan umbrella group Covenant of the Goddess.
Although some mainstream religious practices clearly have pagan roots, it's hard to determine the origin of practices such as lighting candles and singing because they have such universal appeal, said J. Gordon Melton, director of the Institute for the Study of American Religions and a research specialist at UC Santa Barbara.
Early Christians often incorporated pagan traditions to encourage the spread of their religion, he said. "They would build their churches on the site of pagan temples and try to get the local religious fervor in that way, rather than trying to push it aside," he said.
Although some of the rituals are similar, their significance to members of different religions can vary. One common pagan ceremony involves consecrating a glass of wine, dipping a knife or sword blade in it and passing the glass to others in the group.
Although that might resemble the Christian sacrament of communion, Melton said, in the pagan tradition "the consecrated wine becomes fertilized, the bearer of life itself."