ST. LOUIS, July 25 (RNS)--Jeffery and Dixie Gausling strolled through the park with their baby, Kameron. All three were dressed in Celtic finery. While the couple were both raised Catholics in this city known for its Catholic heritage, the Gauslings are now more interested in ancient rituals.

The Gauslings practice Wicca and Gaelic religions. On Saturday they donned clothes they feel represent their adopted heritage to stroll Tower Grove Park here, along with 2,000 other pagans from around the Midwest who came to the annual Pagan Picnic.

"We come every year. Everybody's nice," Jeffery Gausling said. "It's good for awareness, but it's just nice for everybody to get together and get in touch," he added.

"It's nice to come somewhere public where you can be yourself," Dixie Gausling added.

"We did have to remind someone to wear clothes today."

Many attending the eighth annual St. Louis Pagan Picnic, sponsored by the Council for Alternative Spiritual Traditions, or CAST, compared it to a church picnic. But instead of "Kumbayah" there's lots of drumming, and the version of "Sunday best" that's acceptable here may include a bone through the nose.

"Hey, I'm probably one of the friendliest people you'll ever meet with a bone through his face," smiled Keith Rodgers as he checked out a small crystal skull for sale at a vendor's booth. A long, pointed bone pierced the septum between his nostrils. Rodgers practices a variety of Native American and Celtic rituals, and there is little he hasn't pierced.

"The significance of the piercing is it feels good and they make me feel beautiful," he said. He explained that while piercings vary in meaning from ancient tribe to tribe, he considers them all a test of what he can handle.

The annual Pagan Picnic is an eclectic affair, to say the least.

"We did have to remind someone to wear clothes today," said picnic coordinator Kris Dolgos. Pagans representing a variety of earth-based practices wandered from booth to booth, shopping for herbs, art, books, crystals, and candles. More than 50 vendors from around the country came to sell their wares. People dressed in capes, fairy wings, long skirts, tie-dyed clothes, or head scarves attended workshops held in informal circles throughout the park on topics ranging from a "Teen Chat on Paganism" to the "Pros and Cons of Coming out of the Broom Closet."

"To me it's an economic decision not to wear a pentacle," one man reported in the Broom Closet workshop. He's a carpet cleaner, and one of his clients told him he did an excellent job. She also told him she'd never recommend him to her friends because he was wearing a small five-pointed star around his neck the day he cleaned her carpeting.

Several in the workshop commiserated that their co-workers could wear large crosses and yet they did not feel safe wearing their religious jewelry. Others complained of e-mails circulating their workplaces encouraging people to attend Bible studies.

"It's like the boss saying, 'You can work overtime if you want,' when you know it's not an option to not work the overtime," said one workshop participant.

Despite the difficulties, paganism appears to be growing. There are no recent official numbers. Based on 1980s data, religious academics have estimated the number of pagans in the United States at about 300,000. But several recent surveys done on book sales and internet use estimate the number to be anywhere from 1.3 million to almost 4.8 million.

Most evidence of growth is anecdotal. But certainly attendance at the St. Louis Pagan Picnic, one of the few free pagan festivals open to the public in the country, has grown by leaps and bounds since its inception eight years ago. In 1992, 40 pagans attended. By its fifth year attendance was over 1,000. This year more than 2,200 attended one or both days of the gathering.

Some point to the growth of the internet as a reason for the resurgence of ancient religions like Wicca, whose participants may worship nature spirits, or Asatru, those devoted to the Nordic, Germanic, or Icelandic deities. Advertising on the web is an easy way for those who practice paganism to find each other while protecting their public identity. It's also an anonymous way for those interested in the ancient practices to learn more.

While it is nice for pagan practitioners to feel at home and get together, CAST reports that is not the goal of their annual gathering.

"We want to educate the public about who we are," Dolgos said. "We know there are a lot of people seeking information about alternative religions. Since we don't believe in proselytizing, this is a friendly way to make information available."

CAST also believes the picnic is an opportunity to show the general public that pagans are not to be feared. "I think if more people were aware of what goes on in our rituals, they'd be less afraid or against them," Dolgos said.

What goes on is a lot of drumming, chanting, and praying in a circle.

"It's important people realize we're not a bunch of child-eating murderers who chant at Satan," said Murv R. Sellars, novelist and second-generation pagan.

As non-pagans walked the park or rode their bikes by the event, they didn't seem frightened. "If I was threatened I wouldn't be walking through the middle of it," said Josh Alemonde, a non-practicing Catholic. "It looks like a bunch of hippies partying in the park."

Dolgos also attributes increased picnic attendance to the attention Hollywood is giving to witchcraft, magic, and mysticism. Television shows like "Charmed" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" are popular hits. "It's definitely led to more and more inquiries, people who find our website, people who find our event," Dolgos said.

"I think everyone is seeking a path and seeking approval," Sellars said. "The thing about pagans is we're very accepting. We don't pass judgment."

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