It looked like a family reunion Sunday at a park at Falcon Field — kids swinging at a piñata, potluck dishes covering picnic tables, adults mingling. Until the sun went down.
About 50 adults — some wearing hooded capes — gathered in a circle with their children.
For the first time, the pagans said, they would celebrate the winter solstice publicly in the East Valley.
"Tonight, we celebrate the holy night of the winter solstice," Rosemary Szymanski of Apache Junction said during the ritual. "The winter solstice promises new dreams, new hopes, new light. Be not afraid."
Four people positioned at the north, south, east and west took turns reading passages that addressed the four major elements: Earth, fire, air and water.
They chanted, "Holy shining wheel of radiance, radiant sun god come to us," three times, passing a flame around the circle to light one another’s tea candles.
They shared hopes for the new year, which included laughter in people’s lives, goodwill and peace on earth.
They ended the ceremony by joining hands and spiraling in a circle around a table. On that table were representations of the elements: Sea salt, candles, incense and water.
The winter solstice occurs in the Valley at 11:35 a.m. today, when the sun will reach its southernmost point of the year. This group celebrated on Sunday because it was more convenient for the families to gather.
Pagans, who worship pre-Christian gods, began celebrating the winter solstice in 500 B.C. in the Persian kingdom, according to Ron Woodworth, professor of major world religions at Mesa Community College.
"The pagan festival was based upon the worship of the god of agriculture . . . and to articulate the faith on the basis of nature that it would replenish itself and die . . . leading to a new birth," he said. They also exchanged gifts.
Szymanski said the rituals stem from ancient people beckoning the sun to reemerge in long, cold winters.
"Then it translated into the Greek culture and the Roman culture, and then it was outlawed in the fourth century by the emerging dominating Christian empire," he said. That outlawing has kept such practices hidden.
But recently, Woodworth and practicing pagans say their rituals and existence are slowly becoming more public.
"Paganism hasn’t really been popular in the western culture of Christianity," he said. "You’ve always had traces and pockets and resistance of religious and philosophical and mythological (beliefs). In secular cultures, you have more of a seed bed for the eclectic kind of new age paganism to kind of reemerge, and it has been doing so gradually in the American conscious."
"It’s not people hiding in their backyard and doing this because they don’t know who else shares the beliefs that they do," Szymanski said. "There was a time when I had to drive to another side of Phoenix to practice. People I think are more accepting, now. There are so many misconceptions. I want people to know we are just like everybody else."