Taking the Christmas out of Solstice

Thanks to a post on The Wild Hunt, I was alerted to a great post by T. Thorn Coyle recently. She wonders why so many pagans (and other non-Christians) elect to feed into the beast that Christmas has become, especially the consumerist aspects, when they have their own winter holidays to celebrate. She goes on to say:

Yes, Pagans have celebrated their Winter holidays for millenia, and with good reason. Yes, evergreen trees and special cakes were part of this. Yes, the birth of a baby God enters into some versions of the celebratory rituals. So separate it out again. Throw a party for your friends to ward off the cold. Honor Yule, or Winternights, or Solstice. Make gifts if you wish to. Cook food and kindle lights. But leave Christmas alone. Perhaps if enough of us cease to feed the monster, it will lose power, and Christmas can return to being a small celebration by a sect who believes that the Child of Promise so many Pagans speak of – the Bright One born from the cold – was named Jesus and came to work the magic of healing the sick and feeding the poor.

I couldn’t agree more, in fact this is what I’ve been thinking all month, and what I’m usually noticing this time of year. It’s bad enough watching the culture at large go crazy around Christmas time, gorge on spending money for mass-produced garbage, etc., but it’s much worse when I see pagans do it. Not just because I keep expecting a little more environmental awareness than I find, or because it always disappoints me to see people taken in by our cultural bullshit, but because this isn’t even our holiday! Not only that, we have perfectly good holiday traditions of our own around this time we could be focusing on, if we really cared more about our religious beliefs, our gods, and our history than we do about participating in whatever stupid thing the rest of the culture is doing.

Some pagans seem to think they’re “re-claiming” the various Christmas traditions that were originally stolen from paganism, such as erecting fir trees inside or lighting candles to ward off the longest darkness of the year. But they still put cheesy snowman ornaments on the tree, or light candles in angel-shaped holders, or any number of things that make their celebrations almost indistinguishable from Christmas. Among other things, I celebrate Yule, and I do bring in a small tree, but I decorate it as Yggdrasil, and my Yule vigil candle is wrapped in birch bark. This year, under my tree you’ll find a representation of amanita muscaria and a deer skull (both related to Work I’m doing this time of year), not shiny-wrapped Walmart merchandise. I brew mead instead of making eggnog, and I set up images of Odin instead of Santa Claus (yes, Santa owes a lot to Odin, but why not just go right to the source?). And I did trade a few gifts with friends, but they were largely handmade.

Then there are the people who are so desperate to find some “pagan” way to essentially celebrate Giftmas that they will attempt to force historical, unrelated holidays into the mold (or create new holidays just to have something to celebrate at that time). I’ll admit, I was guilty of this myself to some degree many years ago, when as a solitary Hellenic pagan I focused on the Rural Dionysia (perfectly valid, as it did happen around the end of December), but then added totally foreign elements to it just to make it feel more like what everyone else was doing. That was not a real expression of religious devotion, that was an attempt to mimic the prevailing cultural paradigm, and I don’t think the latter should be a guide to religious celebrations.

So I’m with Thorn – let’s separate it out again. Have a wonderful wintertime religious tradition? Celebrate it, authentically, not as a pale shadow of another religion’s holiday (especially one that at this point has more to do with buying than with worshipping). Respect your spiritual traditions enough to let them stand on their own. If you really want to have some of the trappings of Xmas, due to nostalgia or family pressure, then go ahead – but don’t try to shove them into a pagan framework, just keep them as a separate, secular celebration, much like Thanksgiving.

Tonight, when most people – many of them non-Christian – are gathering around the tree with their families, we will be out making a raucous noise while mumming with the Wild Hunt. Because in *my* tradition, this is a time when spirits are abroad and magic is strong, not a time of babies in mangers or red-nosed reindeer.

~ by Dver on December 24, 2010.

25 Responses to “Taking the Christmas out of Solstice”

  1. […] But Dver beat me to it, and did it a hell of a lot better than I would have been able to. So just go read what she wrote. […]

  2. I have no problem with what you say, but there is still the larger cultural context. For example, most Pagans of any stripe have kin who celebrate Christmas (or “Giftmas”–I like that) in a big way.

    So you can have your meaningful Yule celebration and still do the other in the name of family and nation, while still trying to keep a lid on the craziness. No Pagan should ever be trampled in a Walmart stampede!

    • Absolutely, as I said, if one must celebrate it, just do it separately and don’t try to claim that it’s somehow a pagan thing just because they come from similar roots or you slap a thin coat of pagan veneer on it. If I lived near my family, I’d certainly attend the annual Xmas get together, but it would be entirely separate from my religious celebrations that season.

  3. I totally understand. But I guess it’s “hard” for people in the sense it requires time and energy to change habits. They’re lazy.

    Today, the 24th, has no meaning for me. Yule’s apex was on 21. Now I’m more in the middle of the traditional twelve days. Yule is here, has been for days. In my head it’s pretty clear. And each year I do work to distanciate myself from the gift factor. This year was pretty simple and I felt almost relieved. It’s much more being together with my family. And aside it’s the huge, long festival of Yule, with Light, Love, and Healing (the most part). And Belenos is there, he’s been there for days too. I pray him a lot, and “send him” to people in need.

    Merry Yule to you.

  4. I don’t think Coyle’s piece was particularly good, so, you know, this doesn’t much ring true for me, either. I don’t see Christmas as being especially Christian. And, you know, neither have many sects of Christians over the years. And, there has *never* when quiet home based Christian Christmases were the cultural norm. People were complaining about the commercialization 150 years ago–presumably the Golden Era of the Quiet Christian Christmas, with the handmade gifts for PaPa and God blessing us everyone, etc. The norm has been Overdoing It–drinking too much, buying too much, causing too much trouble, making too much noise, crowning the Lord of Misrule, etc, for a very, very long time. That is, it’s always been a might unruly when the celebrating hasn’t been banned outright by Christians for being too raucous and too pagan.

    So… I think Christmas fails the Religious Purity Test all around–it’s a cultural celebration. And, like it or not, you’re still a part of Western culture. It’s one thing to ethically refuse to buy Wal-Mart stuff–that’s totally legit. But, Coyle’s acting like he’s standing up for some weird “real” quiet version of Christmas that never existed, on behalf of Christians, and really… it makes no sense.

    Christmas has always been a little monstrous and questionable to those with a Puritanical streak.

    And, honestly, it read just a teensy bit like a Teen Wiccan that wants to be different for the sake of being different.

    • I don’t want to be different for the sake of being different. I want to be different because the norm is *awful*. If it’s a religious holiday, I’m not that religion, in fact that religion considers mine completely invalid. If it’s a cultural holiday, it is one that is celebrated largely in a fashion that I detest, and that does not reflect my values (and the consumerism part, at least, should not reflect the values of anyone who honors the natural world as sacred).

      Yes, it’s mostly become a cultural holiday, and I think that was the whole point of her piece – to say Enough, it’s time it went back to being a religious holiday for Christians, and the rest of us went back to focusing on our wonderful, rich traditions, that seem to get eclipsed by the cultural aspects of Christmas at this time of year.

      I also don’t think you can equate the older “over-doing it” traditions of the Lord of Misrule and drinking wassail all night to people getting trampled trying to score a good deal on plasma screen tv’s. Not the same thing in my book at all. Might appear so on the surface, but there’s something *missing* beneath the consumerist frenzy of modern Xmas.

      We pagans have the keys to what is missing. We hold the ancient (and even not-so-long-ago) traditions, traditions that are just as much a part of Western cultural heritage. We know the real “reason for the season”. And yet we neglect these things in favor of participating in a cultural mass hysteria. That’s just sad.

      • I was not clear. I meant that Coyle seemed a bit hellbent on being different for difference’s sake.

        And, yes, I really do think I can compare the two. There’s a history of riots on Christmas. Of drunkards storming the gates when they feel they didn’t get their due. Of inconsiderate misbehavior. And, the gift-giving portion of the program IS one of the pagan parts of the whole shebang. That didn’t start with the church.

        There is no “small celebration” to “return” to. As someone over at The Wild Hunt astutely observed, “If you were to celebrate an authentically old-fashioned Christmas today you would get arrested.”

        Wal-Mart sucks. I’m surely not arguing that it doesn’t. I am all for reducing the sheer volume of garbage on the planet, but that’s the sort of thing we should do no matter WHAT season it is, no matter what our religion is. I think it’s wildly weird, and an illogical appeal to emotion, to throw it out there that any pagan that celebrates on the 24th or 25th (you know… when they actually have a freaking day off) using frankly pagan symbology is doing so because they worship at the altar of The Local Mall, and in doing so imply that Pagans are even in some sort of *position* to “give Christmas back” to… anyone.

        • I wasn’t just talking about pagans celebrating on the 25th because they happen to have that day off – although I could argue quite easily that it’s important to take a stand about one’s religion being a valid reason for time off, and to not miss important dates like the solstice if at all possible. I’m talking about pagans who mostly celebrate Xmas customs but call it “solstice” or “Yule” to feel more pagan about it, without really examining why they’re doing any of it, and if it really fits with their overall beliefs and practices, and how. And while we may not be able to “give Christmas back”, we can certainly let go of it and return to actual pagan customs – which go much further back than any real or imagined “quiet Christmas of yore”.

  5. I really agree with you and Coyle, and I also think people are getting the wrong message from her post. She is specifically talking about not celebrating Christmas if you are undeniably non-Christian, and not feeding into the mass consumerism monster that rears its ugly head at this time of year if you really care about the well-being of this planet (and I’m talking about buying countless presents, “stocking stuffers”, and other things people probably won’t use, as well as the supplies to make them and the stuff to wrap them in).

    Now, I still celebrate the secular part of Christmas because the large portion of my family (as in.. all of them) do. I get gifts, we get together for a huge family meal (and in my case, this happens three times with both sides of the family, and then my boyfriend’s family [one side]), and generally spend time together. I take part I guess because its a family tradition. However I’ve consciously either not bought presents, or only bought things that I know will be loved and used by the receiving party. I don’t, however, celebrate Christmas much beyond that. I live at home, so I don’t have a lot of control over how the house, tree, etc is decorated beyond my room. I do believe I should be making my holidays, since I consider them as such, more distinct, but I’m still working on that.

    And you will have to pry my eggnog from my cold, dead hands.😉 I’ve been making it myself this year.

    • “And you will have to pry my eggnog from my cold, dead hands.”

      LOL. Okay, okay, I probably should back off the eggnog comment (it was probably influenced by my personal distaste for it, anyway). How about mead *and* eggnog?🙂

      • And rum and beer and wine and every other alcohol under the sun. Drunkenness is the reason for every season.😀

      • Mead in eggnog?😮 Or just both separately? x) In which case then we have a deal! (The Wild Hunt got their share from me on the Longest Night. It just felt right. Kind of like “Have some mead! Please don’t eat me!”🙂 ) We have such shitty mead here though. Perhaps when I get my own place I can finally try my hand at making some of my own.

        • I meant separately. Don’t think they’d go very well together.

          Most mead you buy in the store isn’t very good, for some reason. I’ve always preferred home-brewed. It’s really easy, and doesn’t take much space. I make two different gallons at a time and just store them in a cupboard.

  6. Last night, on Sigillaria, it was the first time that it has been celebrated “properly” in my life. The gifts I was given by my dad were store-bought, but small, and though he also gave me Visa gift cards (from a place I don’t approve of patronizing at all), I can use them anywhere. I gave him an ornament that I made of fused glass, that can be used year-round, which was a “true” sigillum, but anyway…And, I also had wassail for the first time. I’m not much of a drinker, except for religious purposes, and this was good!

    I certainly agree with you, and with Thorn–though, I have to admit I do have a very large soft-spot for snowmen. Even though they’re associated with Christmas to some extent, they’re still appropriate if it snows after Christmas as well, and don’t have a specific connection to the holiday…plus, there is something magical about a temporary personality/personification of the natural world and its weather/elements, at least to me. (They’re part of the “solstice mumming” I’ve created–when the small group of fénnidi goes off into the otherworld to fight to bring the light back, they need assistance against the massive hordes of fomoiri, and so they build snowmen as their auxiliary army…a total innovation, but there we are. Those who are on the side of nature will be able to have nature assist them is the “moral” of that part of the story, at least to me.)

    • I have no issue with snowmen, I don’t consider that Christmas-y really, just wintery. I think your idea of using them in the mumming is great (and I like that you do the more dramatic type, even though I mostly don’t these days). If it ever snowed enough here, I’d totally make some snowmen. but alas…

  7. Totally agreed.

  8. […] pagans want to celebrate the season, but want Christ taken out of it […]

  9. Bah, humbug.

    Seriously, the gift-giving this year was way down. But the rest of my family celebrates Christmas and I needed family this year in the midst of the divorce. Did I do other things? As much as I could. But our entire Midwinter holiday tradition in this country is shifting. Folks will get where you’re going in many ways, but others won’t. We live in interesting times, it would be fascinating to see where we are in 200 years.

  10. […] it has always seemed so–to me. I was talking about this recently with Dver in a response to a post she made on one of her blogs about the overculture’s winter holiday excesses. I had this to […]

  11. If you will check the Christian you will find that Jesus was born in March! The only reason the Catholics changed it to Winter Solstice was to chum pagans to think it was an acceptable thing to fit in with their lives. The whole thing is a sham and even Native Americans have been duped! An example- The schools on the reservations are all run by the Catholic way. We weren’t even allowed to speak our own language in the schools. What does that tell you?

  12. I have just written to my parish vicar in response to his condemnation of Samhain and called for some harmony and integration, and toleration of harmless fun .I do not limit myself to labels but am closely affiliated to Paganism ,however I have just embraced Divali by lighting candles and bringing light and good fortune into my home ,and at Christmas I will celebrate Yuletide and attune to the winter but if having cute snowmen ,jolly Santas, giving and receiving presents even tacky ones creates a warm fuzzy feeling ,then surely that’s a good thing ?

  13. Whew, are you ever one confused pagan! You happily mix totally different religions and their traditions in your own lifestyle yet condemn others for doing the same. Well, as an atheist Englishwoman, I celebrate the Solstice, which is a physical event anyway, and then I go to Christmas feasts – the date of which is because it’s the first day after the Solstice when the daylight becomes noticeably longer without clocks, anyway – because I know how deep and multifarious my roots and I honour them.

    • Noo I never said I was a pagan , I said I see labels as limiting ,I object in these dangerous times to people saying their beleif is the ONLY way and embrace anything that brings joy ,love ,peace etc .I don’t feel confused but happily will spend my life exploring ,learning and not claiming to have all the answers , Happy Christmas Solstice Yuletide Im now flying off on my broomstick to do some shopping ,environmentally friendly option to balance my consumerism 😉

  14. […] Source: Taking the Christmas out of Solstice […]

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