HOUMA — That woman in the camo pants and sweatshirt looking through the holly boughs at Michael's is not just another Christmas shopper.John DeSantisSenior Staff Writer
HOUMA — That woman in the camo pants and sweatshirt looking through the holly boughs at Michael's is not just another Christmas shopper.
She is putting finishing touches on a different kind of celebration, shared by a small number of people in local communities.
Rhea Rihanna is a witch, and her preparations are for a Yule, or winter solstice gathering, to be held at her home just south of Houma. A lot of people who don't know this wish her “Merry Christmas,” but the 45-year-old mother of two doesn't mind.
“When they say ‘Merry Christmas' I say ‘Merry Christmas,' ” she said. “Amongst sisters and brothers and mothers of my faith, we say ‘Blessed Yule' or ‘Happy Yule.' ”
Rhea and other local witches willing to discuss their religious practices did so on condition that their Wiccan names, those adopted as part of their faith, be used rather than the names on their driver's licenses. Prejudice and misinformation, they said, create risks for people who identify themselves publicly as witches, ranging from threats of physical violence to loss of jobs.
“It is important to keep my privacy because there is a fear of religious prejudice,” explains Rhea, who works in the medical field. “I have had situations where I have worked for people for two years, and when they found out that changed everything.”
At this time of year, Wiccan belief and ritual centers on changes in nature — the coming of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year and the longest night — and the transformations relating to the coming renewal.
“It's getting rid of all the negative things that have happened to me during the past, looking forward to new goals in the future,” said a 41-year-old mother of five, who works for an oilfield-service company and calls herself Rayven.
In the tradition, a god called the holly king dies and a new one, the oak or sun king, is born and takes over. Both are honored during the winter festival. The holly king will resurrect when the summer solstice comes.
“The significance is the old king dies and the new king is born, the trees and the grass turn brown, but they are going to turn green,” said Rayven. “We honor the holly king and then we welcome the oak king because the days are starting to get longer, and we will have more light.”
Symbolically, Rhea said, there has been a fight between the two kings for the acceptance of the goddess. The holly king is killed – though not literally – and the oak king has won the acceptance of the goddess for bringing in more light. Concepts of fertility of beast and grain figure into the traditions as well.
Rhea said gift-giving is part of the Yule tradition, as is the burning of the Yule log. For the first 20 days of December candles are lit within the log. On Dec. 21 — which this year falls on Tuesday — the log is burned for 12 hours. There is feasting, singing and dancing.
Some of the songs may be familiar to non-Wiccans, including the one about decking halls with boughs of holly.
Yule trees look much like Christmas trees, although the colors of the decorations are different, Rhea said.
“The Yule tree doesn't have the basic Christmas colors,” she said. “We use brown, cream and gold. Gold is representing the goddess and the sun, brown is representing the earth base and cream representing the snow.”
Rhea doesn't know how many people specifically identify as Wiccan in Terrebonne, Lafourche or surrounding parishes. Four people are currently learning how to practice witchcraft from her. She is a priestess in accordance with Wiccan tradition and will soon be a high priestess.
She gets inquiries from people who come to her through a variety of channels, more recently from information on the Internet, seeking to learn the ways of the witches.
“There are a lot out there,” she said. “I have had people come to me from as far as Grand Isle, Donaldsonville. They are there.”
A chaplain's guide published by the Army provides general information on Wiccan beliefs, noting that while some groups are affiliated with the Covenant of the Goddess, a California group, many practitioners are autonomous and keep their faith individually or in small groups, sometimes called covens, circles or groves.
Some Wiccan groups professing a more-organized structure include the Wiccan Church of Thessaly, founded in Houma by Monte Plaisance and his wife, Tolia Ann. They now live in New Orleans.
Catherine Wessinger, professor of religious studies at Loyola University in New Orleans, said it is difficult to estimate the number of adherents, especially since there are many belief systems or religions related to what is broadly called witchcraft or Wicca.
“They are renewing the ancient pagan beliefs, particularly from the Celtic regions,” Wessinger said.
Some critics of witchcraft have branded Wiccan groups as cults, but Wessinger said there are inherent fairness issues with such descriptions.
“When a society tolerates pejorative language, it announces that some people are marginal, even subhuman,” Wessinger said.
Centuries of repression and persecution are the reason Rhea and Rayven say they are publicity-shy.
“What we do is we honor our earth. We don't sacrifice cats, we do not sacrifice children, we do not worship Satan,” Rhea said, adding that herbal remedies, similar to those used by some American Indians, are an important part of the Wiccan tradition and lore.
Rhea has some very specific Yule wishes.
“Our wish would be for our community to do well in cleaning up after the oil spill. It had a serious effect on our earth, animals and people,” she said. “And I honestly wish that people would look at us for who we really are, in a more positive way and not in the negative.”
Senior Staff Writer John DeSantis can be reached at 850-1150 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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