In many ways, the celebrations that Amber K and other pagans undertake this time of year are similar to those associated with Christmas.
There are trees with decorations, gift exchanges and time spent with family and friends.
It’s the differences that drew Amber K – that’s her full name – to the spiritual practice she estimates could have 7,000 members in the state.
“Most mainstream churches don’t have a big emphasis on the sacredness of nature,” she said. “If I’m sitting indoors on a church pew, I feel bored. If I’m out walking through the mountains, I feel like I’m in touch with all that is sacred. That was very important to me.”
While many New Mexicans celebrate Christmas today, those who share Amber K’s beliefs celebrate Yule, a pagan holiday falling on or around Dec. 21 that marks the winter solstice and the beginning of the year.
It’s one of eight annual holidays celebrated by a religion that reveres nature, recognizes numerous deities and has much to offer yet is misunderstood by many, Amber K says.
“Most people don’t know any more about Buddhism or Hinduism or Shinto than they do about paganism,” she said. “The most valuable thing paganism has to teach is that the Earth is sacred and worth cherishing and worth preserving.”
Amber K came to paganism from the Unitarian Church about 30 years ago. Prior to that, she practiced the religions of her parents, Roman Catholicism and Episcopalianism.
Now she’s a priestess in the Wiccan faith, which she describes as a type of paganism. She’s also executive director of Ardantane, an educational center for pagans in the Jemez Mountains. About 125 students enrolled in classes this year, she said, and 175 students are expected in the upcoming year.
People drawn to paganism tend to be “spiritual mavericks” because it’s a religion that is open to incorporating many beliefs, she said.
“The fact is, if anything seems useful or true or good to us as individuals, we’ll incorporate that into our spiritual practice,” she said. “There are also pagans who don’t do that, who swallow a very set sort of beliefs and practices that are pretty rigid, but I would have to say the majority are pretty much wide open to spiritual truth wherever you find it.”
That flexibility is one reason Kim Pennington-Dozier, a Jemez Springs resident, says she was drawn to paganism.
She is publicity director with Ardantane and has been practicing shamanistic witchcraft, a type of paganism, for about 25 years. She was raised Baptist but felt constrained by that set of beliefs, she said.
“You just have the Bible, the word of God, and you have to believe it,” Pennington-Dozier said. “I just always had questions that couldn’t be answered.”
She’s celebrating this Yule by attending a drum circle. Last year, she took part in a toasting ceremony that involved announcing your accomplishments and hopes for the new year.
Many misconceptions surround paganism, Pennington-Dozier says.
“That we worship the devil is the big one,” she said. “We don’t even believe in the devil. How can you worship something you don’t believe in?”
Amber K said some people mistakenly consider paganism as anti-religious or nonreligious, or consider its practitioners hedonistic and self-involved.
“That’s not it at all,” she said. “It’s just a lack of education” that leads people to those beliefs, she added.
Pennington-Dozier said some pagans fear making their beliefs public due to concerns over misunderstandings of the religion and keeping their jobs.
However, she has found New Mexico to be very open, she said.
“It’s just the people,” she said. “They’re more accepting.”