When I was 16-17 years old, I lived part of each year in Mandeville, Jamaica, up in the hills, during breaks from school in the US.
One Christmas break I was getting a haircut at a second-floor establishment in the center of town when one of the staff glanced out a window and shouted, “John Canoe! John Canoe!”
Immediately everyone rushed to the windows and looked down on the street, where no more than half-a-dozen maskers were dancing down the street. Their appearance must not have been announced in advance, for no one seemed to be waiting to see them.
The parade and festivities probably arrived with African slaves. Although Jamaica is credited with the longest running tradition of Jonkanoo, today these mysterious bands with their gigantic costumes appear more as entertainment at cultural events than at random along the streets. Not as popular in the cities as it was 30 years ago, Jonkanoo is still a tradition in rural Jamaica.
This was certainly “at random along the streets.” There did not seem to be any organized civic or touristic organization behind it all. In a way, that was more cool.
When things get organized and promoted for touristic purposes, the rough edges are smoothed off. Watching the history of the May Day hobby horse processions in Padstow, Cornwall, you can see how the local antagonisms and occasional violence mixed in with the parade are pushed down as it becomes more of a tourist event.
Since these Krampus parades occur in ski resort towns, I wonder how much of them is controlled by the maskers themselves and how much by the ski-tourism industry. Re-created or not, at least they speak to archaic understanding of the solstice season not just as fun and feasting but as cold, dark, hunger, and “cabin fever.” Among other things.
• “How the Lawyers Stole Winter” — are we raising kids who can’t cope? No, it’s not Yule-related, directly. Indirectly, yes, I would argue. You have to embrace all of the wheel.
• No matter how “imagistic” it may be, Iraqi Christians are afraid to celebrate Midnight Mass. The current bunch of Islamists may succeed after 1,400 years of effort in chasing the last Arab Christians out of the Middle East. Expect them all in North America soon. (I have already met Egyptian Christians in a tiny town near me.)
• I was watching a re-run show hosted by travel writer Burt Wolf in which he reported that Christmas trees were promoted by 16th-century German Protestants who considered images of the Virgin Mary, Jesus, and the saints to be idolatrous and who wanted to replace them with something else. That is counter-intuitive enough that it might be right, and it matches what was going on elsewhere, such as England in the time of the boy king Edward VI. In that case, the Christmas tree does not qualify as a “Pagan survival,” at least not directly.
So here it is, two days before Christmas, birthday of Christ the Savior, etc., and I am feeling sorry for the Christian clergy, at least some of them.
Along with Easter, this is their big religious holiday. The Incarnation of God—in their theology. And they have to beg people to put down the presents and turn off the flat-screen television and come to church.
Forget the “War on Christmas,” that is a big concession right there. White flag, don’t shoot! We know the prezzies are more important, but can’t you just tie your bathrobe and come to church for a little while?
True, some of the Anglicans and Catholics and those Orthodox who observe December 25 try a little harder. And a good Midnight Mass on December 24th appeals to the “imagistic” rather than the “doctrinal” mode of religiosity. You remember it with your body, with all your senses—the darkness, the candles, the music, the physical presence of other worshipers.
(But the talky-talk Protestants and the “we don’t really commit to anything” Unitarians can’t go there.)
We have a 4:00 p.m. Pajama Mass on Christmas Eve. It’s a service dedicated to and directed by children from the congregation and from the community. We have a very cool combination of the very elderly, who don’t like to be out late, and the very young.
Because church is mainly for the very young and the very old?
What I did not tell him was this: Your whole ritual calendar is a mess. If we contemporary Pagans know anything, it’s calendars.
Consider that if Jesus was born when shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night, he was born during lambing season—in the spring. His execution and resurrection also occur in the spring, during and after the Jewish festival of Passover (Pesach)—and its history includes the Jews in Egypt daubing lambs’ blood on their doors. There is this whole sheep thing going on.
So to avoid the spring-spring clash, the birthday is moved to the winter solstice—and I don’t care if the Christians copied Pagans or the other way around, really.
Mapping Jesus’ life on the annual cycle makes for an odd calendrical cycle. He is anticipated during Advent (late November-December), born at Christmas, shown forth at Epiphany (Jan. 6 in the West), killed on Good Friday, and resurrected on Easter Sunday. Then he hangs around for forty days, only to vanish on Ascension. After that, his disciples experience mystical illumination on Pentecost—celebrated a few days later.
And that is it—nothing for the next six months except various saints’ days, etc.—if you are in a liturgical church. For the talky-talk Protestants, there is not even that—in fact, not much after Easter.
Even in my Christian boyhood this arrangement struck me as poor planning. Why cram all the good stuff into less than half of the year?
Evangelical Christians are always swiping slogans and memes from media or popular culture and Christ-fying them. On the Baptist Church signboard that I pass on the way into Pueblo, I have seen “Got Jesus?”—an obvious steal from the dairy industry’s “Got milk?” campaign.
Since “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” is a commercial song and not religious, why not (aside from copyright issues) turn it into the catchy “Faunus the Roman Goat God“? And the production values are pretty good.
But I keep going back to “Got Jesus?” on the Baptist church sign.
Are we not creative enough to come up with our own songs? Isn’t there something intrinsically second-rate about taking a song from the dominant culture and turning it into “We Three Witches,” even when the adaption is well-done?
The third characteristic of midwinter is charity, based on the humane impulse to assist those who not could afford to make merry (and coupled with the more practical reality that the poor might slit their wealthier neighbours’ throats unless their resentments were tempered). Collecting and giving to the poor was known in variant local English terms as Thomasing, Gooding, Mumping, Hoggling or Hognelling. Able-bodied working men could earn the food and money for their household feasts by performing songs, dances or plays to please the better off – such as the Mummers’ Play, Sword Dances and, of course, carols.
Down the Forest Service road from my house is the hobby ranch of a rich doctor whom we call “the squire,” not entirely in fun. Maybe M. and I should recruit friends to carol at his house and see what he’d give us. Or not.
Taken several years ago with tribal permission, this Taos News photo shows the dancers led by former pueblo governor Ruben Romero.
You hear different languages. There are French tourists, German tourists, and some guy in a Rasta tam. Another man looks like he came straight from the nearby Overland Sheepskin Co. store, pausing only to snip the tags off his coat.
I am not the only one in the artsy Anglo uniform of broad-brimmed hat, colorful muffler or scarf, and sunglasses. M. wears her leather jacket and dangling Hopi earrings—another Southwestern look. Scattered piles of ash from the bonfires of Christmas Eve, when they process the Virgin with fireworks and rifle shots.
The air smells of piñon pine smoke mixed with coal smoke. The Indian crafts shops on the ground floor of the old Taos Pueblo are doing a modest business. (Tribal members are required to spend part of each year in the old 13th-century buildings, sans indoor plumbing.)
Old Tony Reyna, a former Taos Pueblo governor, crosses the open ground, a red blanket around his shoulders, leaning on an ornate staff, and his elbow held by a younger man. He is a Bataan Death March survivor—so many of them were New Mexicans. (Jeez, he survived that.) But his appearance is not the signal.
Eventually, you see the phalanx of dancers pass by way up at the east end of the plaza. They pass behind the North House and . . . nothing happens.
Half an hour or so goes by. Then they appear between some houses and the church, and somehow people know to follow them to a little side area. There is a string band, El Abuelo and La Abuela, the little girl (La Malinche in some versions), El Monarca (the king, sometimes Moctezuma.)
No Cortés. El Toro (the bull) is a bison. This is Taos, after all.
The masked dancers wear veils—a curtain of black cords—and thin scarves wrapped to hide their lower faces, tied behind their heads. They carry small canister rattles wrapped in flowing scarves in one hand and a sort of small, decorated wooden trident in the other. Multicolor shawls cover their shoulders and streamers flow down their backs.
The dancers take direction from El Abuelo, the Grandfather. He wears an old man’s mask with a long beard and is dressed like an old-fashioned Hispano rancher: blue jeans, shirt and leather vest, straw hat, and bullwhip, which he snaps for punctuation. He shouts in Spanish His partner is La Abuela, Grandmother, definitely a man, in a head scarf and long skirt, carrying a capacious handbag, who takes special care of the little girl in the princess costume who might be La Malinche. Or maybe not.
El Toro and La Abuela bring out a pole, like a Maypole but with woven sashes tied end to end descending instead of ribbons. The musicians play, the Bull and and the Grandfather hold up the pole—I could go all structuralist here: Bull, Axis Mundi.
Everything means many things, I am sure, and the important thing is just to be there in your body, not to worry about “what it means.”
At the end, El Abuelo shouts, “Le gustan?” (“You like it?”). Everyone applauds, and the dancers go into a house. The crowd disperses, but some people in the know are walking towards the adobe church of San Geronimo.
Half a dozen old ladies, some in blankets, are lined up on the postage-stamp size stone-paved courtyard, surrounded by a low adobe wall. It is a good principle that where the old ladies are is where something will happen—and it will happen when they all get there.
Gradually people assemble around the outside of the wall. Half a dozen straight-backed chairs are brought out of the adobe church. Two at the church end of the court yard, two opposite, just inside the gate. A couple off to one side.
Waiting. My feet hurt. What about the feet of the old women standing on sandstone slabs? Our Taos friends leave to go tend to their dogs. We will see them later.
And then the dancers arrive again, processing through the courtyard gate. The fiddler and guitarist sit in the two chairs at the church end and resume their tune, while the dancers form two files and dance various twirling figures, cowboy boots clomping on the slabs, while El Abuelo snaps his bullwhip and shouts, “Vámanos” (“Let’s go!”), etc.
La Abuela guides the little girl, and at one point the she and the king sit in chairs at the gateway end. A middle aged blanket-wrapped Indian man occasionally calls instructions in a loud whisper: “She’s got to be behind him!” and so on. He must be the real master of ceremonies.
Low, weak sun. It is chilly in the shade. Lucky people with pueblo connections stand on flat roofs looking down into the courtyard. Occasionally a woman will step up to the line of dancers to straighten the streams on (her son’s?) headdress.
We are spiraling past the solstice, and the dancers keep turning and turning. Most headdresses are decorated with squash blossom necklaces and other tribal jewelry, but one displays two Bronze Stars and a Purple Heart, and when he turns I see that the ribbons down his back are green-gold-red like the Vietnam War service ribbon. Since the dancers appear to be young men, they must have been earned by his relatives?
The sun has well-passed its low zenith, and the dancers keep flowing as in a Virginia reel. At one point El Toro dances down between the two lines and makes a “pass” with each dancer individually. Then Abuelo and Abuela wrestle him comically to the ground and wave his (detachable) balls, which are offered to a woman standing in the church doorway, who smiles and hands them back. La Abuela puts them in her handbag.
Suddenly it’s over with a final series of weaving movements. M. has grown chilly standing in the shade of the church. We will drive back to our rented lodgings in town, pick up food and gifts, and drive a short way north of El Prado to our friends’ house for Christmas dinner. All is right.
There are two of them actually: The UPG, it’s-personal version …
“It’s a ritual of transformation from darkness into light,” says Nicole Cooper, a high priestess at Toronto’s Wiccan Church of Canada. “It’s the idea that when things seem really bleak, (it) is often our biggest opportunity for personal transformation.
“The idea that the sun and the moon are almost at their darkest at this point in time really only further goes to hammer that home.”
Cooper said Wiccans also see great significance in the unique coupling of the masculine energy of the sun and the feminine energy of the moon — transformative energies that she plans to incorporate into the church’s winter-solstice rituals.
Since the last time an eclipse and the winter solstice happened simultaneously was just under five centuries years ago, Cooper said she wasn’t familiar with any superstitions or mythologies associated with it.
… and the old-time communal Pagan version.
The winter solstice also played an important role in Greco-Roman rituals.
“It’s seen as a time of rebirth or renewal because, astrologically, it’s a time where the light comes back,” said Shane Hawkins, a professor of Greek and Roman studies at Carleton University in Ottawa.
For the ancient Romans, it was also a time of great feasting and debauchery.
“If (the eclipse) happened on the 21st, they might well have been drunk,” he said.
For conservatives involved in the West’s predominant religions, these are unwelcome developments. Progressives may ridicule those who claim that there is now a cultural “War on Christmas” but Christian conservatives do have reason to worry. They know that their cultural influence has been waning, and that those with evolutionary and ecological worldviews are growing in number and influence. A DVD series released by a group of conservative Christians entitled “Resisting the Green Dragon,” provides one recent example of such fears. These fears are based on an accurate perception that there is a religious dimension to much environmentalism. Those expressing such fears understand, accurately, that those engaged in nature-based spiritualities, both overtly and in subtle ways, are converting many to an evolutionary worldview and an environmentalist spirituality and ethics. They know that this is one reason they are having trouble even keeping their own children in the fold.