THE BOOMING interest in Paganism which is sweeping Scotland is driving a revival in ancient Winter Solstice celebrations and fire ceremonies.

With increasing numbers of people turning to Wicca, Druidism and other 'heathen' practices, alternative Christmas celebrations are now on the rise.

The Winter Solstice, which falls this Wednesday on December 21, marks the shortest day of the year. It was once celebrated by everyone across pre-Christian Europe and had particular relevance in northern countries like Scotland, where food shortages were common in winter months.

But with Paganism now the fourth largest religion in Scotland, according to the most recent census, an increasing number of Wiccans, witches, Druids, Heathens and others influenced by Pagan spirituality, will mark Winter Solstice at organised events or by holding personal rituals at stone circles, or in woodland and green spaces.

Tour guide and Pagan Helen Woodsford-Dean, who runs Spiritual Orkney – an organisation offering Pagan wedding, funeral and naming ceremonies – is also organising an open ritual at the Standing Stones of Stenness on the island. Attendees will be asked to bring offerings for the fire and be served honey cake, symbolising the importance of the sun.

"Winter Solstice is an incredibly important time and one that you are very aware of living here," she said. "In Orkney at this time of year the sun doesn't rise until 9.30am and it's dark again by 3pm. I come from Hampshire where we don't suffer such extremes and it's been quite a shock. For me it's an important sign of hope that the days will now start getting longer and the light will return."

For Woodsford-Dean the Solstice this year will be particularly poignant. "It's been a very tough year for a lot of people across the world," she said. "We are asking people to bring a piece of black string or rope, which we will later burn. That will symbolise everything that they want to leave behind from the previous year, and allows people to heal and move on."

In Glasgow Siusaidh Ceanadach, a Druid High Priestess who laughingly describe herself as a Dru-itch, due to her interest in both Wiccan beliefs – or witchcraft – and Druidism, will be holding an equivalent ritual in the Old Barn on the edge of the city's Pollok Park.

"We'll be celebrating the fact that after the shortest day the rebirth of the sun begins which will warm the earth, grow the crops and feed the people," she said. "People are looking for spirituality but without the formality. Instead of going to church and being someone who sits and listens, Pagans are on a voyage of self-discovery. The dark days give you lots of time to be quiet and meditate and look inside yourself. But solstice also symbolises a fresh start."

Jenny Blain, a heathen with an interest in Shamanic rituals will be marking "Mother's Night", a heathen tradition on the eve of the Solstice, celebrating 'the maternal'. Guests will bring offerings for their maternal ancestors and she will leave candles burning over night in their honour. "The sun is always considered female so this is an appropriate time to think about our mothers," she said. "I will also be celebrating Christmas in a secular way. Really it is an adaptation of the heathen festival of Yule."

According to Professor Ronald Hutton a historian from of the University of Bristol, while many will celebrating the Winter Solstice in well-known sacred sites including Stonehenge and Glastonbury, thousands of others across the UK will mark it at private gatherings. There are now over100,000 Pagans in the UK.

"It was celebrated right across ancient Europe because it was such a significant season in four different ways," he said. "The first is merry-making to help get through the long dark days, the second is charity and giving to others, the third is through blessing to make people feel good and the fourth is misrule – it's a season when it's good to lighten up and have fun. In many ways that has never changed.

"Almost all cultures have a festival of light in the darkest season and the birth of Christ was deliberately moved to fit with this. Really this festival is very ancient."