I was literally shocked when I opened our box of holiday decor this year.
Living in a tiny barn means uber intentionality around how and where we spruce up the house for holiday celebrations. A large shelf underneath our kitchen window has become the default altar for seasonal festivities. Starting in september there were little pumpkins and pretty red leaves, a badger skull, vases of goldenrod and calendula. We have The Banner Hooks from which we stretch brown twine from one side of the main room to the other, and this past weekend I took off the felt leaves of brown, gold and orange, in preparation for the incoming red and green of the holidays. I thought perhaps I could hang bits of toyon berries, a few windfallen branches of evergreen, interspersed with the ornaments that are too heavy for our tiny tree.
And then I opened the box with all the Xmas bits and bobs I enjoy each year, some as old as myself…but I was surprised at how discombobulated I felt as I took out the vintage plastic Rudolph and Mr. and Mrs. Claus…after so many years of intentional bioregional immersion (with our recent move making it all much more literal), suddenly busting out with siberian reindeer and european saints with norwegian dress was a big ol’ dose of What the Fuck?
Dolly, who is my friend (and ally in Bucking the Norm) recently asked me this:
I want to create a deep and textured experience for my family, celebrating the earth and the seasons, and nurturing their excitement and wonder. How do you blend pagan aspects with contemporary celebrations? What are some fun rituals/traditions that you and your family enjoys?
If you’ve been with me for a while, you may remember my angst a few years back around that very same question. Just what, exactly, would my family be celebrating? Both Jeff and I were raised Christian, but no longer subscribe to the religion. While we both have deep appreciation for the teachings of Jesus Christ, we don’t have stomach for the dogma, and he turned to Zen Buddhism, while my spiritual leanings are an eclectic mix of Shambhala Buddhism, nouveau witchcraft and animism. There are many traditions from my childhood that I still love, even if I broke up with Jesus. Once we figured out what the holidays would mean for us as a family, what exactly would we be imparting to our children? And how would we do it?
I actually became quite stressed around it all, and although I had dropped the dogma from the enforced religion of my upbringing, unconsciously I thought I had to somehow get legit about whatever we were doing and believing.
And there’s the rub, because one of the main components of my personal spiritual foundation is, well…the lack of foundation. One of the tenants of my belief system is I Don’t Know. In buddhism it’s called groundlessness. It looks like not shoring yourself up with a bunch of rigid decisions around how you, or the world, works. Also, celebrating the birth of a savior is pretty silly when you don’t believe you need to be saved. Because another tenant of my foundation is a sense of the basic goodness of myself and others, so forget about original sin. Other than that, the jury is out on Who We Are, What We Are Doing Here, Where Do We Come From and Where Do We Go When We Die.
But you know what I do firmly believe in, unequivocally? This Good Green Earth. So, like a proper pagan, that’s where I began.
The symbol of the evergreen Christmas Tree is an ancient one, extending farther back into our collective past than the birth of Christ. It is a symbol of life in the dead of winter, especially in areas where the snow lies deep, the plants die and the deciduous drop their clothes. It is also representative of The World Tree, a symbol universal in many cultures. But it is still a tradition from a bioregion that does not include California. If I look to the land around me, I might choose native reps…the toyon, bay laurel, cedar and redwood.
I have another belief, one that feels more like a knowing, which is the sentience of all living things. Given this, the idea of a cut and dying tree in my home is pretty antithetical. We used to decorate my norfolk pine that I had for years. But it’s now too big for our tiny home, plus it’s not doing well. So we decided to buy a little living tree that our landlord is thrilled to have us plant on her property after the holidays. We also make pinecone birdfeeders, string popcorn and berries, and decorate outdoor trees for feathered friends.
As a forager, I choose to forgo the figgy pudding. Our temperate climate offers many once a year treats that offer their deliciousness in December. Shaggy Mane mushrooms pop up, miner’s lettuce is abundant and the rose hips are ready for picking. Elderberries harvested in the fall are dry and ready for tea, particularly delicious with the fresh mint that has revived after the late summer drought. Persimmon trees all over West County are loaded and ready to be pulped into cookies. Sprigs of rosemary and eucalyptus leaves simmer on the stove, a local potpourri for that Christmasy smell.
The Darkening Days and the Return of the Light
As a young Wiccan, I believed the widely accepted new age belief that Christmas was held close to the Winter Solstice to conflict with the pagan celebration of Yule, as a means of converting the heathens. But, like most new agey things, this theory was loosely cobbled together with poor research. There’s a lot of stories out there and they all disagree…Christ Mass means the birth of Christ, it means the death, it means a celebration of the light, the Yule Log is pagan, the Yule Log represents the burning of the world tree and is anti-pagan, Christmas is/is not based on the Roman feast of Saturnalia, Christ was born in the winter, Christ was born in the spring, Christ was a real person, Christ is a reinvention of the god Horus, Santa is Saint Nick, Santa was a siberian shaman who drank reindeer piss to get high off the red and white amanita mushrooms, which is why he wears those colors…
I shit you not. Google it.
My theory of I Don’t Know applies to historical context, but what does this time of year mean to me? What is happening to the earth under my feet, to the sky above my head?
The days are shorter, the nights long. The full moon takes on more presence, like the summer sun. I am tired earlier, and don’t care how uncool I am if I go to bed at 8:30. My animal friends are harder to find, the jackrabbit stays underground, the coyotes are quiet, but the gophers are enjoying the fresh roots of wintry greens.
At dinner we light a candle and afterwards turn off all the lights except for the ones on the tree. We stay home more, we drink a lot of tea, we begin long craft projects. We don’t have to impress Fern with it all, and she remarks upon it of her own accord. We go for walks in the dark to listen to the frogs who have crawled out of the dry mud to greet the rains. We count down the days on an advent calendar, which goes all the way to Xmas, but which has a special stopping point on the 21st for the solstice.
We speak of the darkening days and the light in our hearts. Of the importance of family, hearth and home. Of the importance of rest, and it’s place in the cycle of growth. We think about the garlic bulbs and fava beans we planted in our gardens and wonder what they’re up to. The kids get it.
Jolly Old Saint Nicholas
But what about Santa Claus? What do we do about the Big Guy?
A couple years ago I learned about Saint Nicholas Day. We began celebrating it last year on December 5th, and the kids LOVE it. They love the stories about St. Nicks generosity, the connection with goodies in your shoes or stockings, and how he became Santa Claus. We read books, we do coloring pages and make shoes out of felt for St. Nick to fill. Fern especially has a huge affection for him, and it feels right to have a special day to really focus on Santa, so that Solstice and Christmas are freed up for a deeper meaning. When I was a kid, I didn’t understand that Christmas wasn’t really about Santa. I was so confused when the Jesus piece was brought in, as if Santa and Jesus were going to have to duke it out to be number one.
What about the Great Deception? Do I want to lie to my kid and say Santa is real?
Well, yes, actually. Except I don’t lie. We’ve been very clear from the beginning that Santa is, and is not, real. We talk about how the spirit of Santa lives in our hearts, about how good it feels to give and share with others. The kids talk about Santa coming down the chimney and in the next breath mention how some mommies and daddies dress up as Santa. It’s a paradox, but children’s minds are more malleable than ours and they can hold the contradiction. One of the best stories for sharing this idea is the classic book Yes, Virginia. We also enjoy The Night Before Christmas. Ultimately, Santa is a myth, and like all great mythic figures, he is part of our collective unconscious.
The Winter Solstice
I took a page out of Heather’s book last year and began a tradition of giving Fern new pajamas for the longest night of the year. We have one special present we open on this longest night. As for a ritual, one that includes children instead of late night bonfires and mead drinking, this is one area we are still developing as a family. I’ll report back after this year.
The Nativity Story
It’s a story, and a beautiful one. I began telling it to Fern the other night, and she grew quiet and attentive. What child doesn’t like a story about a special babe that people travel far distances to welcome and honor into the world? It feels as all birthdays should, and she can relate to that sense of being loved and cherished. Having a solid sense of her own worth is the best thing I know for enabling her to extend kindness and love to others. And isn’t that the whole point?
Love thy neighbor as thyself.
It might seem all a little mish mashy, and perhaps it is. I think some of that firmness I was hoping for may come with the passing of years, a natural result of the repetition. I am perfectly okay with our celebrations being in flux and evolving. How it feels is what’s most important to me, and it feels good. Joyous, playful, anticipatory, intimate, sweet and full of love.
How about you? What are your untraditional traditions? Any thoughts about it all?
I hope your season is Merry and Bright.