Thursday, December 3, 2009

A Ha'penny Will Do: A Pagan Perspective on Christmas

The noise of the internet is in my head today as I sit down to my computer. Already afternoon — where did the morning go? All fog and rain here in the hilly Steel City, and no snow yet this year except for that brief slushy mix drifting from the sky on Black Friday, as if in response to some pre-planned Xmas Shopping marketing ploy. December already, and the full moon, a full Fire Friend moon last night. Fire Friend, high cloud-webbed shining rock in the sky on the drive home, echoing the tasteful evergreen wreaths wrapped with strings of tiny star-like lights and topped with red bows on the windows of the house next door. I joked with Jeff about putting one of those cheap plastic candelabras in the downstairs window of his apartment. In a Jewish neighborhood that decks itself out in huge wooden lawn menorahs and fills the grocery store aisles with blue and silver Hanukkah decorations every year, would anybody even second guess which holy day we were celebrating?

Christmas is coming. Amidst the noise in my brain this afternoon, that song wends its way through. "Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat...." It's strange, but Christmas is one of those holidays that make me feel the most Pagan. Maybe it's all the greenery brought in from outside, the whole-hearted unabashed singing and celebrating and decorating, especially with the simple old-fashioned trimmings of ribbon and candles and holly and bits of shining tinsel. During the Christmas season, my parents' house itself becomes a kind of walk-in shrine to Yuletide Cheer, and I've inherited my fair share of holiday decorations that find themselves strewn about my apartment each year, a simple nativity scene still taking a privileged place atop the armoire in the living room. The green and red and ribbon and fire and shiny things, all this raging against the dying of the light, is all very Christmas-y to me, though. Alban Arthan, the solstice, remains distinctly quiet, reflective and dark, the new-born sun like a small, cold seed of potential light still to be planted, hidden away, unripe and unready. Yet it seems more obvious than ever that both of these are necessary, both moods relevant and revelatory each in their own ways.

This year, my decorations will be migrating over to Jeff's place where, for the first time, I will be sharing Christmas with children as a kind of parent-figure in my own right. Children who still don't know Santa Claus isn't real (despite the oldest being eleven and having only just found out the Tooth Fairy has been mommy all along). The "story" we're sticking to, in case this is the year they ask, is that Santa is real, because he is the spirit of generosity and gift-giving that we invite into our lives and into our hearts, to help guide us in choosing the perfect gift for our loved ones. It's the same story my parents explained to me the year I playfully, but knowingly, asked my father for Santa's phone number because I needed to call him and update my wish list, and my father in turn dutifully dictated our own home phone number as I dialed, a mischievous look on his face. And if this weren't also a bit of a lie — if we weren't more carefully guided by marketing and game-theory parenting — it would be a very nice story, a lot nicer than just acknowledging that we lie to our children every year. But I find that I can't be all too concerned with whether or not the kids believe in Santa Claus (though I worry sometimes that the longer their disillusionment takes, the more fundamentally disturbing it will be for them in the end). Instead, I have found myself ruminating on Christianity and the story of Christ, and how to share this with the children in a meaningful way as a Pagan "parent."

Honestly, I find that I'm having a bit of an identity crisis over the Christmas holiday this year. Not so much the kind that leaves me wondering who I am — I know who I am — but the kind where I find myself asking, "Who the f' are all of you, anyway?" Christmas is still the one time a year when I attend church with my family, though I no longer participate in the sacrament of Communion out of respect for the Catholic Church's own sense of community-identity boundaries and sacred mysteries. Every year, midnight on Christmas Eve (or, I guess technically, Christmas morning) finds me sitting meditatively in one of the long, polished-wooden pews of my old church, smiling familiarly at the faces I recognize, noting the muted creams, greens and golds of the church's Christmas decorations, neither gaudy nor solstice-seasonal, that always seemed so oddly out of touch with everything except the building's own particular sense of style.

Midnight Mass is presided over every year by a priest now well into his eighties, who is one of the wiser and kinder spiritual leaders I've known in my life, and who speaks gently and deliberately each prayer and blessing. Whereas once I thought his long pauses and slow pacing were signs of senility finally setting in, work with regular meditation in my private life has in recent years opened up these moments of quiet, in the darkest hour of the longest night, to reveal the spaciousness of absence and Mystery. From the warm lights and bustling family noises of a cheery home edged with expectation and excitement, each year we venture out into the windy darkness of winter midnight, starlight scattered across shorn-down fields rolling out to the horizon in all directions, to sit for a time in dimly-lit tranquility, singing old, familiar songs in keys nobody can comfortably reach. And when the wizened priest stands at the altar and recites the Proclamation of Christmas — "Today, the twenty-fifth day of the month of December, countless ages after the creation of the world..." — to the building crescendo of the organ piling chord upon chord, culminating in the announcement that Jesus is born, today, this day, in the present tense, while the organ shakes the building to its rafters, every year I feel that strange and knowing thrill. The thrill of mystery, where garish light-filled celebration collides with darkness and fragility and the silence of the rumbling, trembling pipes of music suddenly cutting out.

And I find myself wondering, this year especially, what does all this have to do with Christianity?

Now, I think many Christians would themselves say that this is it, this is really the heart of Christianity when all's said and done. This moment of creation and beauty and light within the gently howling darkness. Yet so many things get tacked on, added and amended, huge socio-political institutions growing up around simple, powerful truths, institutions that expect assent to certain formulae and doctrines, that draw conclusions about heaven, hell, salvation and revelation. I no longer believe the story of Jesus as exclusive spiritual truth, let alone as literal historical fact. Yet I believe in the story in a way that anchors it deeply in my bones, regardless of what religious community I belong to; I believe in the truths this story tells. I have not left those truths behind; they were in many ways the very thing that led me to Druidry, that left me dissatisfied with Christianity as an organized religion. These truths have never disappeared from my life, and yet I am as sure of them today — as sure of their mystery and power and gentleness and goodness — as I am sure that in every way that counts, I'm no longer a Christian. Not really.

But that leaves me with a question. Because the solstice season is a season of noisy celebration and fire-lighting and gift-giving, as much as it is a time of death and darkness and the suffering struggle of rebirth in the biting, barren cold. And the story of Christ being born is, all theology and doctrine aside, the story of the birth of the world, weak and squirming and covered in glop, the on-going singing of the World Song, ever-new and always renewing, today, this very day, in the present tense. So the question I'm left with is: how do I share this aspect of the solstice, Alban Arthan, with children never raised with a theology of god-become-man, not even familiar with the story, with the bizarre notion that Utter Godness is within each of us? And how do I tell them the story without getting bogged down with the language of doctrine and interfaith politics? Never mind that Santa Claus isn't real, how do I teach them the things that are?

Because one thing you can certainly say for Christians is, they've got focus. The birth of a sun-child on the winter solstice is all the more powerful when that babe of light is the unique Revelation of Spirit, the whole Divine shebang condensed down into this singular, fragile form. This is, in some ways, poetry heightened to the nth degree: not only the use of particulars to speak of universals, but the exclusive worshipful focus on a single Particular as the whole of the Universe. The Hindu bhakti yogic discipline of love and devotion to one particular deity has nothing on this. And the mild Pagan focus on Mabon, or Sol Invictus, or whatever other solar deity... well, feels a bit lacking in comparison, just another god among a whole slew of gods and goddesses to choose from, if you please. Besides which, the gods of Pagan polytheism sometimes feel so heroic and larger-than-life that the utter mystery of vulnerability and weakness gets left in the mythic-metaphorical dust.

Whereas, take Mary, whose only superpower was having not had sex yet. As the story goes, this young woman, living in poverty, sustained in her livelihood largely by family and community ties and betrothed to a man she loved deeply, is confronted by God — friggin' God, you guys — and given the choice to bear a holy son destined, after only a few short years on the planet, for degradation, suffering and death. Aside from the destiny of the child, to be an unmarried woman and pregnant at this time risked personal shame and community rejection, jeopardizing the future of her marriage and permanent ostracism from the social ties on which she depended. And the Universe itself basically asked her permission, this nobody, this fragile little human thing, and in full knowledge, knowing what risk she faced and the suffering it would bring, confronting the overwhelming injustice of it, and her own smallness and impotence in stopping it... she said yes. No goddess with nothing really to lose. Just an ordinary woman, who gave birth to a god as wrinkled and spongy and smelly as any infant.

There is something important in this, something that I wonder sometimes might be missing from today's Paganism still deepening and finding its sea-legs. There is, in the Christmas story, something about confronting the reality of darkness and suffering, not with shouting and singing and leaping bonfires in defiance, nor with acquiescence, silent obedience or willful denial... but with quiet, unflinching affirmation, the affirmation of empowerment, courage and strength, the life-giving, meaning-making affirmation of creation. A recent comment from a reader of this blog spoke of the "gentle respect" for suffering and difficulty that lurks sometimes in my writings here. For me, sorrow, loneliness and grief go hand-in-hand with joy, connection and love in this life we live together, in this song we all are singing. In a very real way, I could not devalue or deny these things without sacrificing the fullness and complexity of beauty and life, without substituting a shallower, simpler version of mere contentedness and safety in their place. This is a truth of my Druidry, my Paganism — the balance, the intricate interweaving of darkness and suffering with illumination and ecstasy. The liminal space between, within which nothing is precisely delineated and separate.

And so, this is the space I find myself in again as Christmas approaches. Wondering, wandering in a liminal space that is not precisely Pagan, nor exactly Christian. Asking myself how to teach children that realizing their own inner Santa Claus is infinitely more challenging than believing in some unlikely literal jolly-old-elf, and infinitely more rewarding. Asking myself where I belong, where we all belong, and how we belong to each other. Asking myself how I can tell the stories of my ancestors, pagan and Christian alike, to the children of my partner, who do not really share those ancestors with me, at least not by blood. What can I say that will be meaningful and relevant for them, that will share with them the "spirit of the season" that I have come to know and love and value? What will I say when they come singing, a penny for my thoughts?

Well, like the song says, if you haven't got a penny, maybe a ha'penny will do. And if you haven't got a ha'penny... may the gods bless you.


  1. Ali, I'm certain that whatever you and Jeff come up with to tell the children will be a far cry better than anything I did for my own - if only I had it all to do over again but alas that is not possible. You are both very capable, sensitive (from what I gather in each of your writings), and compassionate people able to balance yourselves and presumably one another. And perhaps what you tell them isn't nearly as important as how you show them to live...

    I wish you a blessed Alban Arthan and may the winter be gentle for you.

  2. You are so right. It is all about truths, not truth. Truths always come in plural. Sometimes they may seen contradictory to us, but they tend to hold hands... It is like the dots that form a line, or the lines that form an image, eventually.

    What you have written here is most beautiful and profound. There is no need to worry about what to tell your partner or his children. Your heart is wide open, and it speaks beautifully...

  3. Ali,
    Beautiful posting! My children attend a catholic school, our family attends a Unitarian Universalist church and I myself am lean towards the Goddess and pagan, when all is said and done what comes out is the repeated archetypes and mthology stories retold throughout generations. I like your summary of explaining how the "son" of God's birth story in a christian context but really it's just another story of us humans seeking the light at this time of year.

  4. Mendoza Limited12/09/2009 4:41 PM

    So, not to press buttons, but I find it very interesting that you speak about the "story" of Santa Claus in an almost hesitant way, yet the "story" of your religion (or any other religion) is not entirely acknowledged. I mean, as long as we are talking about facing hard truths, we might as well admit that a large portion of the stories involved in religions are essentially equivalent to the "story" of Santa. And this isn't me just reducing the ideas or what not to stories in a lowering way (I'm not saying stories are bad), but I'm saying that we shouldn't overlook that religions in general are wrapped very tightly in these types of stories. To single out Santa is one thing for the purpose of discussion and musing about how it might affect children and all that parental hogwash, but I think if we are going to do that with "stories" like Santa, than we had better be prepared to do so with the stories that might be a little more difficult to accept as stories. By that I mean stories like anthropomorphic "gods," creation myths, fairies, demons, angels, saints, mystical powers, etc. And while I'm not saying any of these things are "untrue," I am saying that just as in the case of Santa and the Tooth Fairy, we need to treat them as "stories" until we have reason to believe that they transcend the story boundary into reality. Not to mention, stories are an endangered species these days thanks to psuedo-rationalism replacing "God" on the throne of idolatry. Reason and logic have now become the new ways to save your soul, so to speak, and perhaps a little imaginative intervention from time to time is just what this culture needs. That is, as long as we don't start manipulating our stories and using them to ensure a heirarchal power setup to keep the power in the hands of the few while the many struggle to live up the standards dictated by that few. But that's just my sixteen cents.

  5. Hi there, Mendoza. Thanks for your comment.

    I invite you to read this post again; you'll notice that not only do I not ignore that religions are also stories, but that I explicitly use the Santa story as a parallel to the Christ story. My question is: how do we teach children (and ourselves, because let's face it, adults need this kind of education, too) to appreciate the truth of story without making the mistake of "believing" a story as literal reality?

    The story of Santa is a good illustration to use in contemplating this point, because almost everyone has had the experience of once believing in Santa as real and then being disillusioned. Some folk's get over the disillusionment easily because the truth of the story--the value and celebration of generosity and kindness--has already sunk in. Others go right from discovering that there is no Santa Claus to deciding that then there must not be any God. And in a way, they're right. There is no literal bearded-old-man god. But we don't tell the story of Santa Claus for the sake of belief in Santa Claus, and we don't tell stories about the gods for the sake of our belief in the gods. We tell these stories because they have truth in them. Not facts, mind you. Truth.

  6. Mendoza Limited12/10/2009 8:13 AM

    Well upon a second read I'm still standing in the same place as before (well, fifteen minutes later in time that is) because despite your assertion that stories about "gods" have "Truth," there is still a lot to question about what kind of "Truth" is provided. For one, do you mean "Truth" about "gods" or "God" in general, as in the existence of some being, or do you mean that "god"/"God" stand for something other than a thing separated from the individual contemplating the question? And why the need for the words "god" and/or "God" to tell the story? Can't a person find a way of telling stories with "Truth" without having to refer to or rely on a situation where "gods" or "God" exist? I'll definitely agree that any story told contains some bit of "Truth," albeit I think we probably have a very different idea of what "Truth" means, but that is highly dependent on the person reading the story. For example, I'm clearly not a religious person, but even I can find "Truth" in a religious story even with the additional struggle to get past some of the more annoying factors (particularly the language used). And so one has to question whether or not the story actually contains the "Truth" you speak of or if the story acts more as a trigger for the individual to find a "Truth" that is useful to themselves based on their own experience in the world. Not to mention, many of the stories told NOW are told with the added weight of trying to convince people that there is some "Truth" in the story, and perhaps that is the problem because people are desparately seeking the "Truth" in the story instead of allowing the "Truth" to bubble up a little more slowly. Perhaps that is why so many people, particularly the shallow believers, so strongly believe that most of the stories that they are told through their religion are true to a much larger extent than the story actually is. I think Christianity is a great example of this because you have a number of pretty interesting stories that could definitely be interpreted many different ways, but at the end of the day you still have boat loads of people who still believe that the most important thing that ever happened on this planet was when some guy got put to death on a few pieces of wood. Not only do they put so much emphasis on that story, but they believe the "mystical" aspects of it as well acting as though this man "dying for our sins" actually meant that he cleared a slate somewhere because his "Father" (who is actually himself) was keeping score for folks up until that point. Perhaps some stories, then, despite being interesting and containing great things to trigger us to think about, should actually be told a little more carefully and with a little more stress on the "this is not meant to be taken literally" factor. And perhaps even more importantly, we should stop a minute to explain to people that "Truth" is not something that just "is," and maybe even, that "Truth" is much more of an individualized idea and way of life than it is a collective representation of what "is" and what "is not." Then maybe people wouldn't be concerned with forcing their mangled version of "Truth" upon the rest of the world one step at a time. And yes, I think that adults, more so than children, need to learn that "Truth" says very little in the way of their being "one" or "few" ways to be one's self.

    And a little side note, I wasn't concerned with your exploration of the Christ story in comparison with Santa Claus, I was more concerned that their seems to be an inherent bias in how you treat the two sets of stories. But again, that's just my opinion.

  7. Ali, I find that the Arthurian mythos makes a fairly nice bridge between the Pagan world and the Biblical one. Not surprising, given the culture in which those myths were embroidered and written down... but also surprising to me, personally, since until recent years, I knew nothing, really about the Biblical accounts of anything.

    You are right--there is a motif that runs through all of the Bible (not just the Christ story, though of course it is there also) of the weak, the poor, the unthought-of as the vehicle for the miraculous in the world. And I find it running through the Arthurian stories as well. (For instance, until recently, I had no idea how close the story of Arthur's ascent to kingship was to the story of David doing the same thing. I was really surprised to notice it for the first time.)

    Now, all that is a bit academic, perhaps, but this thread meets for me in the story of Gawain and the Green Knight. Gawain is a model of a _human_ knight... and he fails in some important ways, because he is human.

    The Green Knight? I don't care what anyone says, it is just impossible to see him as anything but a representation of the natural world--at least as a modern. I'm quite willing to believe he was also that to a medieval, though the implications would have been different, in a culture that held nature to be fallen.

    But it's so easy to see past that. Nature and the gods of nature test us, and though we fall short, they ultimately encourage us and deepen us. We find ourselves through our partnership with them.

    Is there a more potent symbol of this than the annual cutting of a Yule tree? In our family, we offer the spirit of the tree a libation, and only cut it after "asking" its permission. Is it time? Is this tree ready to die? This year, particularly, I really felt the resonances with the Green Knight and the beheading game, for a variety of reasons (off topic here).

    We take the life of the Green Knight, again and again. Again and again, he rises up anyway... but he can always hold us to our promise: we are not apart from this exchange, but within it. One day, it will be our turn...

    And the Green Knight is the Holly King, is the Old Man of the Forest, is Father Yule... Is Santa Claus.

    We have an icon of Santa on our altar year round. Not because we're so fond of the annual extravaganza of wrapping paper and muzak, but because we recognize in Him echoes of other darker, older, deeper selves, gods whose names have long gone unspoken.

    (I know you know all this. Hogfather both is and is not humor and parody, after all.)

  8. Thank you for the wonderful comment, Cat! You make me feel the lack of my familiarity with Arthurian legends. :) In a good way! In the past, I've found it difficult to connect to many of those stories, but your approach puts them in a new light that I'm very curious to explore. (Add yet another hunk of reading and exploration to the never-ending list. Yay! ;)

  9. Yule/Christmas is the time of year when I feel most fully Christian and most fully Pagan and the tension doesn't bother me. I think, maybe, that because so much of the spiritual information is communicated to me through song, imagery, and even through scent, I am less concerned with the verbal and with the rational. When we go out into the snowy woods and sing together around a candlelit manger scene, the actual words don't seem to matter. I know what we mean.