While many of us were in church on Easter, or commemorating the Passover meal with our families, many thousand Americans, adherents of pagan denominations, were preparing to mark a festival you may never have heard of: Beltane.

A celebration of fertility, the union of male and female, growth, and sexuality, Beltane is one of the most sacred days in the pagan/Wiccan calendar.

More on Beltane, and its roots in pre-Christian faiths, in a moment.

But first, as we launch a new series on the New Age and pagan (two distinct groups) faiths that shape the lives of millions of Americans, a word about American religion and the wider picture.

As usual, the statistics kept by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life provide as useful a snapshot of the constantly evolving face of American faith as one can get.

Roughly 1.2 percent of the American population tells pollsters that they practice a faith the surveys call "other." This category includes Unitarians and other liberal denominations, as well as pagans, New Age practitioners and Wiccans.

Sounds like a tiny sliver of a tiny sliver, does it not?

But take a look at the way many practitioners of more mainstream faiths answer various questions, and the picture gets much more complex.

Twenty-five percent of the public assert they believe in astrology. Twenty-four percent tell pollsters they believe in reincarnation (including 22 percent of Christians). Three in 10 say they have felt that they were "in touch" with a person who had died, 15 percent have spoken to psychics and one in five said they had been in the presence of ghosts.

It is apparent that, for many of us, either our traditional religious practice isn't completely answering the questions we have, or that we are taking in, as by osmosis, the heterodox "popular religion" that is an element of our national conversation about faith.

But American religious history has always included those who marched to the beat of different drummers, and those who tried to shoo them back into line (happily, they no longer cut off their heads or subject them to torture).

American religious practices reflect the diversity of our history, our democracy and our culture, confounding those who believe in "pure" heritage passed on from one generation to another.

In the weeks to come, we'll step back and take a look at the wider context of American religious life, and where New Age and pagan denominations fit in.

We are going to discuss paganism and its pre-Christian roots, dispelling some of the stereotypes prevalent in what pagan journalist Jason Pitzl-Waters calls the "folkloric" presentation of witches and of witchcraft.

We'll hear the story of Katie, a pagan practitioner, and of her journey from Catholicism to Wicca.

Why do some New Age books rocket to the top of the best-seller list? And how do some Americans reconcile their "orthodox" religious beliefs with their less orthodox practices?

All of that in further commentaries.

But, for a moment, back to Beltane, a holiday of new life that parallels the equally ancient fall sabbat festival of Samhain (which occurs on Halloween).

The festival, one of the "high holy days" on the pagan calendar, occurs on a liminal point on the calendar, when the veil between this world and what is perceived as the other is very thin, said Pitzl-Waters, who started the "go-to" blog for lots of pagans, The Wild Hunt.

A celebration of the union of the god and the goddess (sometimes acted out by people representing the Young Maiden and the Horned God), Beltane began as a Celtic fire ritual. In its modern manifestation, it includes jumping over a bonfire, invoking the elements of air, water, fire and earth, a ritual involving the sharing of wine and cakes, and weaving ribbons in a fast-paced dance around a maypole.

Those who participate in the dance focus on the plans and goals they want to "fertilize" for the new year, said pagan practitioner Katie, a Philadelphia-area resident. At that moment, she said, "I'm hyper-focused on how I can grow, and how I can work together (with others). Like rosary beads, each weave of the maypole is another prayer, another moment."

Summing up the meaning of Beltane for her, Katie added: "It's about men and women cooperating, and working together to create good things."

While she appreciates the emphasis on action and the slightly "randy" atmosphere, it is the idea that men and women can grow and create together, she says, that gives even greater meaning to the celebration.

In my next column, we'll explore the historical and theological roots of pagan and New Age faiths in the United States, looking at similarities, and, more importantly, at differences.


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