At first glance, you'd never know that little Elizabeth Nettleton is Pagan. The vivacious four-year-old cuddles in her mother's lap, floppy blond bangs dangling in her eyes as she clutches her green stuffed alligator and a red teddy-bear blanket. Then the girl reaches underneath her pink sweater and pulls out a long silver chain bearing a dime-size pentacle.
"Why do you wear the pentacle?" asks Tina, who would pass as a typical San Leandro mom were it not for the tiny silver stud in her nose.
"Because mommy wears hers!" Lizzie exclaims.
"Do you remember what the pentacle stands for?" Tina, 37, asks tenderly.
Sean, her brown-haired six-year-old, sits playing with dominoes at a small table nearby. "The earth, the air, the fire, and the water," he rattles off, neglecting "spirit," the star's fifth point.
Last summer, Tina, a Wiccan, bought pentacle pendants for her children. Sean had been pestering her for months, ever since she started wearing hers. But after only a couple of weeks, just before he was due to start kindergarten, he took his off.
According to his mom, Sean doesn't like to stand out, while Elizabeth is the "free thinker" and "wild girl" who proudly declares that her mother is a Witch. But Sean's apprehension to display his Pagan side also has to do with his father.
Chris, 38, is Catholic. Since his wife began practicing Wicca two years ago, he has been largely supportive of his wife's newfound religion, even if there are some things he doesn't agree with. For her initiation which she likens to a Catholic confirmation he bought her a besom, a ceremonial witch's broom. There are several altars around their San Leandro home, including one in the living room by the front door. Bold bumper stickers adorn their refrigerator, such as "Born Again Pagan" and "Where there's a Witch, there's a way."
But navigating their religious differences has become trickier as the children have grown. Chris is worried the kids will face discrimination. "I had a discussion with him saying, 'Well, some people might not understand,'" he recalls telling Sean. "'And if you don't feel comfortable you don't have to talk about anything. But if you do feel comfortable we'll back you up.'
"I think that kind of backfired," Chris adds. "I think he kind of said, 'Well, people won't like me.'"
At just six, Sean is already highly aware of his dual religious identity even more so since he started attending Catholic school. He now calls himself a "Catholic Witch" and says he doesn't agree with all Catholic or all Wicca beliefs. The boy says he believes in one God and one Goddess, and that Jesus was "a great person."
His pentacle chain now also carries a cross a gift from his mom but Sean still won't wear it. It's hanging on a shelf in his bedroom.
Out of the Broom Closet
By many accounts, Paganism has grown tremendously in the United States over the last several decades, which means a lot more kids are being raised Pagan. The old religion reemerged during the 1960s after England repealed its anti-witchcraft laws, and began taking off in the mid-1980s. Once-secretive Pagan societies here and in Europe emerged from what they called the "broom closet." New books on Paganism were published, and small groups of devotees known as covens or "circles" began to multiply.
By far the biggest Pagan subgroup is Wicca, which itself has numerous subgroups with varying practices and beliefs. Generally speaking, Wiccans worship the sacred as existing in nature, are polytheistic, and can choose Gods or Goddesses from any pantheon, such as Egyptian or Norse Tina favors Tara, a popular Buddhist deity, whom she describes as "the all." Many Wiccans trace their roots to medieval pre-Christian European traditions.
"It's grown from being obscure to becoming one of the top four faith groups in the United States," said Reverend Patrick McCollum, a longtime Wiccan chaplain, activist, and instructor for Cherry Hill Seminary, an online Pagan religious school based in Vermont. Wicca has no central authority, and therefore nobody's membership estimates are definitive. McCollum, who lives in Moraga, cites estimates that range between 300,000 and 1.2 million in the United States he thinks the latter is most accurate. Some Pagan organizations boast upward of fifty thousand members, and the online WitchSchool.com claims nearly 180,000 registered students.
The biggest factor in Wicca's growth, according to McCollum, is that it encourages its adherents to participate in their own spirituality and connect with the divine in their own way. McCollum had his first divine connection in 1965 following a near-fatal motorcycle crash he encountered God, who was female. He details the experience in his book, Courting the Lady: A Wiccan Journey, Book One: The Sacred Path, which was published last year.
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