Minutes before midnight and the prayers begin. First to San Lazaro, or Saint Lazarus, considered a healer of physical and spiritual pain. Then an "Our Father" and a "Hail Mary," all in Spanish.

One by one, crowded shoulder-to-shoulder, the devotees light the 51 yellow candles on the altar to celebrate the Feast Day of Saint Lazarus, or Babalu-Aye. They take a small burlap bag of grains and seeds. Later, they will sweep it over their bodies to draw out any bad spirits. This is a simple but important moment, the high priest says. They have asked Saint Lazarus to grant one wish: "That next year, we have the health to light another candle."

The clock strikes 12, and the brick row houses along this quiet Columbia Heights street go dark in the bitterly cold December night. But here at the home of 72-year-old Eloy Hernandez, the day has just begun. His house is ablaze with lights and drumming and singing. For the 50 or so gathered in a room off the living room, this night's ceremony will last three hours, shorter than usual because tomorrow is a workday.

Hernandez is one of about a dozen high priests, or babalawos, in the Washington area who practice Santeria, an Afro-Cuban faith with roots in the Yoruba region of Nigeria. The religion originated with West African slaves who were shipped to the New World and forced by Spanish colonials to worship as Catholics. The slaves eventually adopted the same Catholic saints because they were able to identify characteristics in them reminiscent of their own African gods.

The religion, once largely unknown in the metropolitan area, venerates saints and incorporates a belief in divination, spirit possession and the sacrifice of animals to appease the gods. It has become more visible in the 20 years since the Mariel boat lift brought Cubans such as Hernandez to the District.

Santeria now attracts several thousand adherents in the region who cross ethnic, racial, professional and religious lines. There are at least half a dozen botanicas throughout the area that sell the wares that santeros use: from herbs and animal parts used for potions to candles to ceremonial pots.

Although many practitioners consider themselves Roman Catholic, Santeria is not recognized as a religion by the Catholic Church. The Vatican warns the faithful against all forms of "divination," which is defined broadly and includes many of the rites inherent to Santeria. "It is difficult for a Catholic to practice Santeria because of some of the elements it contains," said Susan Gibbs, spokeswoman for the Archdiocese of Washington.

Santeria is also controversial because of its use of animals for sacrifices. Practitioners gained significant protection from the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in 1993 that such rituals are protected by the Constitution. "Inside these four walls," Hernandez says, "no one can tell me what I can do with an animal."

But this is not a night for sacrificial ceremony. It is a festive celebration for Babalu-Aye, a saint, or orisha, honored for his reputed power to induce miraculous cures and for his compassion toward human suffering.

Amid the statues of Catholic saints and in a house bedecked with a Christmas tree and red stockings, Hernandez readies the room for the sequence of songs that will be played to invoke the major saints of the Yoruba pantheon. He pours white wine into a gourd and sprinkles it on the floor of his makeshift temple.

"To sweeten the tongue and the words" that will be sung, he says. The conga drummer and guiro players are in place. A wiry dark-skinned Cuban begins the opening chant. Those assembled sing to Elegua, the fierce Yoruba warrior who guards the paths of communication to the spirit world and acts as the intermediary between these human beings and Saint Lazarus and the other saints.

"Do you see that lady?" asks Fanny Hernandez, the babalawo's wife. "She was in a coma at Washington Hospital Center, and the doctors didn't give any hope. She didn't open her eyes. Nothing. I cried and I prayed to San Lazaro. Thanks to God, she's alive and with her children."

Although most followers of Santeria are of Caribbean and Latin American descent, whites and African Americans are exploring the religion.

"Personally, everything I knew about Santeria seemed so dark, a little scary," said Karen Emmons, a Buddhist and registered nurse who drove from Warfordsburg, Pa., to attend the ceremony. "I come from a Christian background and anything that's not of the light is not necessarily good. So I had to move beyond that."

But Emmons said she doesn't see much difference among religions. "Everybody's looking for happiness, peace and joy in their life," she said. "I think there is one God with many different faces and people need to see that."

An initiation ceremony takes three days, requires three or four high priests and costs several hundred dollars. Becoming a high priest is even more arduous. Hernandez said he has participated in ceremonies that have elevated several area devotees, including two African Americans and one non-Hispanic white. The seven-day rite requires 16 babalawos and costs thousands of dollars for sacrificial animals, special clothes, herbs and other required materials.

Hernandez receives payment--he said the devoted give what they can. People also pay for the initiation rites, with most of the cost going to pay for the accoutrements. Yet, the time and expense has not deterred people from becoming Santeria followers.

"These are confusing times. People are looking for answers everywhere, and religion is one of those ways," said Carlos Gimenez, of the Latin American Folk Institute in the District. "And for young African Americans, it is a way for them to get in touch with their roots."

In Santeria, the major saints have human characteristics and histories that evoke the mythology of the Greek gods. The names of the Catholic and African saints also are used interchangeably.

Chango, the warrior god of lightning and storms, is found in Saint Barbara, the patron saint of artillery. Oshun, the goddess of rivers, is much like Our Lady of Charity, Cuba's patron saint, who appeared to three young sailors on a storm-tossed sea. And Babalu-Aye, the god of health and leg ailments, resembles Saint Lazarus.

Nowhere is the interchangeability more evident than in Hernandez's home. For 25 years, the house belonged to his sister, Caridad Salome, a Catholic and strong believer in the healing power of Saint Lazarus. She came to Washington from Cuba in 1954 and built the saint a large altar. Then she placed the other Catholic saints around the room.

Every December, she hosted a San Lazaro feast day celebration. Salome died in 1990, and her husband, the musician Luis Salome, died five years later. Hernandez and his wife now live in the house. His sister's display of Catholic saints remains intact, and he has added all the Santeria symbols that correspond to the saints.

Hundreds of people visit Hernandez each year to attend ceremonies or to have him interpret special coconut rinds and cowrie shells. And now, on the Feast Day of Saint Lazarus, Babalu-Aye is honored with ritual African drumming, special offertory foods and other items.

"If you see anything on this in TV or the movies, it's a demonic, satanic force that moves thunder and lightning and gets people killed and there's crazy people doing animal sacrifices," says Luis Rumbaut, an assistant corporation counsel in the District, who does not consider himself a member of the religion but attends the celebration each year in homage to his Cuban heritage.

But for Hernandez, who was initiated into Santeria in Cuba as a child, it is all about religion. Before he dies, he said, he wants to establish a temple for people to gather and worship the saints and to be used for special ceremonies. He noted the proliferation of storefront churches. "Why is it impossible for us? Is it because of the type of religion it is or the color of our skin?" It should not be, Hernandez said. "These," he said, pointing to the men and women gathered to honor San Lazaro, "are normal people."

CAPTION: Above, percussionists at a Santeria ceremony celebrating the Feast Day of Saint Lazarus entertain with high-energy rhythms. Below, Juanita Garcia and others holding monetary offerings sing and dance in a circle near an altar containing a likeness of Saint Lazarus, considered a healer of physical and spiritual pain.

CAPTION: Juanita Garcia kneels at the base of an altar containing a likeness of Saint Lazarus. The ceremony was held at a private residence in Northwest Washington.

CAPTION: Participants place offerings such as money, fruit, candy, grains and flowers in bowls. Santeria attracts several thousand adherents in the region.