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.