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Pagan weddings attract more than a cult following

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Lamira Martin leads one couple through a pagan handfasting ritual (Courtesy of Lamira Martin)

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A sand ceremony is a popular pagan tradition that symbolizes the couple's union (Courtesy of Lamira Martin)

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The Handfasting Ring has become one of Gryphon Moon's most popular items (Courtesy of Bill Tuttle)

On the morning of Anna-Jeannine Kemper’s wedding she, like many brides, will fasten the corset of her lace and taffeta ballroom gown, pick up her silk pink orchid and rose bouquet, and re-count her Champagne flute favors.

But while some brides pace nervously before the ceremony, Kemper, 25,will be busy blessing the four corners of the courtyard where she and fiancé Justin Herman will exchange vows with items that symbolize the four elements of nature: air, fire, water and earth. Later, the couple will bind their hands together with a cord, light unity candles, and jump over a broom. The latter gesture is also a tradition in some African-American weddings, but in pagan weddings it is embraced as a symbol of sweeping away the old and welcoming the new.

Supporters and critics of pagan weddings--like Kemper’s--often describe the ceremonies as beautiful, mystical, bizarre and even evil, all descriptions Kemper has heard. But, according to some experts, there is one word they can no longer use: uncommon.

A 2001 survey by the Graduate Center of the City University of New York found that the number of followers of Wicca, one of the many religions that fall beneath the pagan umbrella, increased from 8,000 in 1990 to 134,000 in 2001, making it the fastest-growing religion in America in terms of percentage increase.

Dr. Marty Laubach, a sociology professor at Marshall University, says the number followers of pagan religions is even higher now, citing a 2008 U.S. Religious Landscape Survey that put the estimate at 1.2 million.

“My suspicion is that the first number was way too low due to people not responding,” Laubach said. “The 1990 study was conducted at the height of the ‘satanic panic,’ which kept many neopagans in the closet.”

There are many varieties of paganism, such as Druidism, Shamanism and Wicca. While some subsets don’t believe in gods, others, like Wiccans, worship many gods and goddesses. Women, in fact, are revered as the bearers of life in Wicca. Most pagans share in the belief that people should develop their personal and spiritual potential and respect the environment.

The combination of a greater environmental awareness and the higher status of women has created a very attractive spiritual experience for many people today and could explain the dramatic growth in the Wiccan movement, experts say. Wiccans emphasize through their rituals and practices the moral autonomy of women and their spiritual empowerment, according to Dr. Lloyd Steffen, a religion professor at Lehigh University.

“Wiccans take a stand against patriarchy and misogyny,” said Steffen. “What I find powerful in their position is their ethic, which affirms that people should take responsibility for who they are and what they do.”

As a follower of Wicca, Kemper, a graphic designer who lives in Akron, Ohio, was adamant about incorporating her beliefs into the ceremony, despite disapproval she encountered from several members of her fiancé’s conservative Christian family.

Some of the Wicca rituals they will observe include handfasting, in which the officiant ties the couple’s hands together with a cord and helps them create a knot that they’ll keep as a memento of the day. Kemper and Herman have also written a “declaration of intent,” similar to wedding vows but with an emphasis placed on the promise that both individuals have united in free will. Like most pagans, Kemper feels a strong spiritual bond with nature and will marry in the herb garden of Quail Hollow State Park in Hartville, Ohio.

“I feel a powerful connection to something tangible when I’m outdoors,” Kemper said. That desire for a substantial beginning extends to their vows. “Sometimes things don’t work out, so the vow Wiccans use isn’t ‘till death do us part.’ It’s ‘as long as our love endures.’”

The pragmatic approach to marriage espoused by pagan weddings is one reason they have become so popular, according to Raven Kaldera, a Massachusetts officiant and co-author of the book “Handfasting & Wedding Rituals: Welcoming Hera’s Blessing.” She’s performed about 100 pagan weddings in her lifetime and says the number has increased over the years, especially among gay and lesbian couples.

“Pagans believe people should love who they love,” Kaldera said. Pagan weddings are in general legally binding. Despite the legal conflicts that same-sex couples may encounter in cities where their unions are not recognized by the state, Kaldera instructs her fellow clergy to take gay and lesbian weddings especially seriously. “For many gay and lesbian couples, this is the only celebration they will get to have.”

Lamira Martin is a celebrant from St. Louis, Mo., who trained with the Celebrant USA Foundation, an institute that teaches people to officiate at weddings, funerals and other personalized ceremonies. She has been performing pagan and non-denominational weddings for only a year and a half but has already wed 60 couples of all ages and backgrounds. Her most popular requests include handfasting, unity candle lighting and sand ceremonies—a ritual in which two jars are filled with different colored sand are poured into one jar, symbolizing a union.

“Most of the couples I meet are in their 20s, and want something beautiful and spiritual, but not religious,” Martin said, stressing that she performs nondenominational wedding services that are often, but not always, pagan. “A lot of people have lost the connection to their churches, but they still want a ritual and to write their own ceremony.”

In her short time as a celebrant, Martin has married people in hotels, parks, backyards and Unitarian chapels. Last year, when Sean O’Connor and Annette Fox approached Martin about officiating their pirate-themed wedding, the couple was delighted to discover a pagan tradition they could incorporate into their unique, nondenominational wedding, complete with authentic pirate costumes and a dock setting.

“Lamira asked us if we wanted to include a handfasting ritual, and it sounded perfect,” said Fox, now known as Fox O’Connor, a real estate broker in Lake Ozark, Mo. This was the bride’s second marriage and she wanted to deviate from the traditional Catholic Church wedding that had honored her ex-husband’s faith. “We really loved what a handfasting symbolized,’’ she said. “It was just completely different for us.”

As some vendors of pagan items can attest, there is no shortage of customers for popular Wiccan and Celtic wedding items like costumes, Renaissance gowns, handfasting ropes and candles. Kimberly and Bill Tuttle, the owners of Gryphon’s Moon, started their company 13 years ago, unaware that their moonstone pendants and incense would attract so many pagan clients. The most popular item on their Web site, gryphonsmoon.com, is their Handfasting Ring, which features the inscription “Hearts as one,” in Runic, an early Germanic alphabet.

When she weds this June, Kemper will embrace several unorthodox practices, including wearing a gown that she describes as, “Oh my God, pink!” But one tradition that she has not rejected is the inclusion of a flower girl. Wiccans believe the flower girl symbolizes a connection to earth. Although she’s been told her fiancé’s sister, who is 9, is too old to fill the position, Kemper is determined.

“I’ll call her a junior bridesmaid if that makes it more acceptable,” she joked. “But she’s still a flower girl to me.”

E-mail: lc2444@columbia.edu