Oct. 30, 2009— -- Patti Wigington is a soccer mom. She is the vice president of her local PTA.
And she's a witch.
This Saturday while her neighborhood outside Columbus, Ohio, is crawling with costumed witches in search of candy, Wigington and a group of other local witches will not be celebrating Halloween, but the new year festival Samhain, which also occurs Oct. 31.
In her backyard, Wigington and six other local women who make up her coven will stand in a circle, each holding a lit candle dedicated to a dead ancestor. They will offer an invocation in each direction of the four winds. They will build an altar upon which they will offer their deceased ancestors gifts of food and wine and "celebrate the coming of the dark half of the year… and do a ritual that honors death."
When she gets to the part about death, Wigington, a middle-aged mother of three, stops for moment in her explanation of a typical Samhain ritual.
"Look," she says, "I know some people are freaked out by death. But death is part of the life cycle. This time of year we say farewell to the garden, to the crops and to our ancestors. We welcome and celebrate the coming of the dark half of the year. It's at this time of year we communicate with the spirit world and we honor the spirit world," said Wigington, who writes extensively about her faith and hosts the page on paganism and Wicca at about.com.
Wicca is a relatively new religion, which its practitioners say is based on ancient precepts. A hodgepodge of ancient European pagan practices and new age spirituality, Wicca is practiced by a small but growing number of Americans.
In 2008, some 342,000 people identified themselves as Wiccans, up from 134,000 in 2001 and up significantly from 8,000 in 1990, said Barry Kosmin, a sociology professor at Trinity College, and the lead researcher of one of the largest surveys on religion in the U.S., the American Religious Identification Survey.
But the number of Wiccans remains relatively small to the U.S. population, less than 0.3 percent, according to the Pew Forum for Religion and Public Life.
"Wiccans are rare but certainly more common," said Kosmin. "We don't know if there are more new adherents, or if they are just less likely to hide their religion than they used to be, if they've come out of the closet -- or coven."
"I never heard of Wicca in 1990, and now you see it in the newspapers. It's become more fashionable. There's been an uptick," Kosmin said.
Wicca has become increasingly popular as the word has spread about it, said Rev. Selena Fox, leader of the Circle Sanctuary in Madison, Wis., the oldest established Wiccan church in the U.S.
Fox, who last month became the first Wiccan religious leader to deliver the invocation at the Wisconsin State Assembly, said that Wicca is a non-proselytizing religion and people have learned about it from hearing about Wiccan civil-rights cases and searching the Internet.
In 2007, the Department of Veterans Affairs, under pressure from two lawsuits from civil rights groups, agreed to allow the Wiccan pentacle -- a five-pointed star inside a circle -- on tombstones at Arlington National Cemetery and other U.S. military burial grounds.
More than a dozen veterans' families have since requested the symbol be placed on tombstones.
Modern Wicca, which draws its practices mainly from pre-Christian Europe, was established in the U.K. in the 1950s. Its popularity coincided with an in interest in other ancient religions that emphasize beliefs in magic and nature.
"Wicca emphasizes environmental relevance and responsibility. There is gender equality. People are looking for religions with a greater balance between male and female, the god as well as the goddess, the mother as well as the father. It's an equal opportunity religion," Fox said.
For a thousand years to be called a witch was tantamount to being labeled a heretic and ended with many innocent women on the wrong side of a fiery stake. Witchcraft remained a crime on the books in many western countries until after World War II.
Today, with the success of Hollywood franchises like the Harry Potter and Twilight series, being a witch has not only become mainstream, it's become cool.
"There's nothing supernatural about magic at all. The point is nature is magical. Magic comes from nature," said Wigington.
"Magical religions -- paganism, Wicca, the earth-based religions – have really gone mainstream," said Wigington. "The witches in Harry Potter are not wiccans, but it gets interested in wondering if magic could be real. The best thing that ever happened to Wicca is that it went mainstream, and the worst that happened is that it went mainstream."
Most Wiccans are women, but "we are neither frumpy old ladies, or teenage sex-pots like the girls from 'The Craft,'" said Wigington. "There are a lot more wiccans and pagans than people realize. There is a good chance you know one, you just don't know who they are."
With no central authority, anyone who publishes a book or creates a Web site, can say whatever they want about the faith, said Wigington.
With so much competing information, the Rev. Don Lewis established the Witch School to train the next generation of practitioners of Wicca and other so-called natural religions.
With some 250,000 students enrolled in online classes, the school recently moved its physical location from Illinois, to the a far more likely setting – Salem, Mass., home of the famous 1692 witch hunt.
"Interest in Wicca has been building for years, but every year there is a spike in interest around Halloween. It's a huge advertising campaign the world runs for us," he said.
The practitioners all stressed that Wicca is in no way associated with Satanism or devil worship.
"Satan is a Christian concept," explained Fox. "We don't believe in him at all."
Wiccans traditionally end Samhain festivities with a silent meal that witches call a "dumb supper."
Following the Samhain rituals practiced by Wigington's coven, the group will eat silently together and they believe, be visited by their ancestors who will communicate with them psychically at the table.
"It's not all that different from most people's beliefs," said Wigington. "When you blow out the candles on birthday cake, that's making a wish, but you could also call it casting a spell, or saying a prayer."