A Pagan Christmas in a Yuletide Way
by Peg Aloi, guest contributor
When I was little, and like many kids before me, Christmas was special for many reasons that had very little to do with the birthday of baby Jesus. I loved the twinkling lights, decorating cookies, eating the savory dishes my Italian grandparents served on Christmas Eve, cutting down our tree in the forest, and singing Christmas carols accompanied by Mom on her Hammond organ. I was raised Catholic, but my parents weren’t terribly strict, and so for me Christmas was always a fairly secular experience.
Many years later, when I decided I wanted to be a witch and that Paganism was closer to my heart than Catholicism, I realized I wouldn’t really have to give up what I loved about the Yuletide season. The solstice celebrates the return of the sun; the rebirth of the sun is not far removed from the birth of the son, is it? Christ is a solar god, honored with gifts sacred to solar gods throughout history: gold, frankincense, myrrh. To some, he’s the light of the world, and so welcoming the return of longer, warmer days is a way to honor the Christian mythology and acknowledge our celestial connection to the cosmos. Many Pagans celebrate aspects of Christmas from their childhood or family traditions, combining them with an observance of Yule as the solar solstice festival.
My father was an avid hunter, and deer hunting was a favorite pastime from Thanksgiving onward in upstate New York. One year, instead of stringing Christmas lights up on our porch, Dad decided to take a mounted deer head, an eight-point buck he had named “Percy,” and tie a huge red and white striped bow interspersed with pine boughs around his neck and hang him on the front porch. I was mortified: what teenager wouldn’t be? Normal people hang lights, not taxidermy!
But I now understand Dad was a true pagan at heart, and his humor and love of nature are two personality traits I’m glad to have inherited. I now have Percy hanging on the wall in my living room, and he has holly boughs hanging in his antlers. I always cut fresh greenery from my yard or the woods for this time of year: holly, juniper, cedar, pine, spruce. The image of deer in the snow is my favorite visual theme for the holidays, and I celebrate it by choosing cards with this image, and making dioramas with toy deer and evergreen trees. When performing Yule rituals that tell the story of the Holly King and the Oak King, vying for dominance, until the Holly King finally surrenders to the Oak King until the summer solstice, I like to think my Dad would appreciate the woodsy, manly imagery.
Since becoming a Pagan, I’ve celebrated Yule in many memorable and beautiful ways. One year, I stayed with friends in the Berskshires, and we stayed up all night as a vigil. Those who eventually wanted to sleep would light a candle to keep their vigil, while the rest of us sang songs, read poems or stories, or played games. In the morning, before breakfast, we brought a bowl of home-made wassail outside to “toast” (this expression comes from the slices of bread floating in the wassail) and bless the apple trees in their orchard.
I’ve attended Yule rites with bonfires reflecting their golden flames on the snow. I’ve rolled in the snow after climbing out of an outdoor hot dub, beneath a solstice full moon. One year I was house-sitting in a remote village in England, and spent the day alone, walking to a Neolithic site in the fading daylight, and cooking banger stew for my holiday meal. In other years I’ve performed with Pagan musical groups, staging the Abbots Bromley horn dance, singing songs in Gaelic and Welsh, and chanting about fire, trees, and snow. There is a rich tradition of music full of rustic nature imagery that lends a wonderful spirit to the traditional canon of Christmas carols and popular songs.
My Boston-based coven celebrates Yule as a ritual ending the old year and beginning the new. In 2001 I decorated the temple for our Yule rite and decided I wanted the western altar to be a festival of light: no statues of gods or goddesses, just dozens of candles of all shapes and sizes in colored glass holders. It wasn’t until we were halfway through the rite that I realized the altar resembled one of the impromptu street memorials that appeared in many neighborhoods after 9/11.
In our Yule ritual, the author (our coven founder, who died in 1997) includes a poem by Charles Mackay which is spoken three times through as everyone, singly or with a chosen partner, walks beneath a holly bough suspended from the ceiling in the center of the circle. It is a renewal of the trust and strength of our relationships with others, a reminder to forgive others, to stop dwelling on misfortune and move forward with hope. It seems more and more pertinent with every year that passes.
Ye who have scorn’d each other
Or injured friend or brother,
In this fast fading year;
Ye who, by word or deed,
Hath made a kind heart bleed,
Come gather here.
Let sinn’d against and sinning,
Forget their strife’s beginning;
Be links no longer broken,
Be sweet forgiveness spoken,
Under the holly bough.
Ye who have lov’d each other,
Sister and friend and brother,
In this fast fading year:
Mother, and sire, and child,
Young man and maiden mild,
Come gather here;
And let your hearts grow fonder,
As memory shall ponder
Each past unbroken vow.
Old loves and younger wooing,
Are sweet in the renewing,
Under the holly bough.
Ye who have nourished sadness,
Estranged from hope and gladness,
In this fast fading year.
Ye with o’er-burdened mind
Made aliens from your kind,
Come gather here.
Let not the useless sorrow
Pursue you night and morrow,
If e’er you hoped—hope now—
Take heart: uncloud your faces,
And join in our embraces
Under the holly bough.
This year, the full moon brings not only a blue moon, but a full lunar eclipse, a rare event at winter solstice. The prospects for magic, for a culmination of focus, energy and intention, have rarely been as strong as they are tonight.
At this time, one so layered with traditions and memories, I enjoy thinking of Yuletides past, honoring and reinventing my family traditions. I spent the day baking, writing, and walking in the chilly sun. This evening, we’ve lit candles throughout the house. Tomorrow I’ll fill the house with music, and light a fire in our fire dish out in the backyard. And in between, in the wee hours of the morning, I will hope to glimpse a rose-colored moon through the clouds, bright, then dark, then bright again.
Peg Aloi is an adjunct professor at The College of Saint Rose and film critic living in Albany, New York. She’s a practicing witch who regularly writes on media for The Witching Hour and Orchards Forever.
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