In December (yeah, this is late) I was tapped by a public library in Oregon to give an hour’s Zoom lecture on the “Pagan origins of Christmas.”
I did it, but that format is still pretty weird. How many people are watching? Three? Thirty? Three hundred? And are they awake? No post-lecture Q&A or chat was scheduled by the organizers, so I will never know. On the other hand, they sent the check promptly.
While I agree there is some swapping of symbols back and forth, I will just say that Yule and Christmas are still fundamentally different.And Santa is not a flying shaman; he never flew before about 1823, and his red and white suit commemorates Coca-Cola, not Amanita muscaria. Old-time Santa Claus/Father Christmas figures wore various … Continue reading The Christmas Story is just that, a linear narrative, while the Pagan Yule is cyclical and performative. We used a few minutes of video from the Denver winter solstice custom of Drumming Up the Sun at Red Rocks Amphitheatre to introduce my talk.
Another thing — it’s been drilled into me since my twenties that the “veil between the worlds” is thin at Samhain, so it was a jerk back into someone else’s story to be reminded, while doing my research, that there is a whole parallel tradition of the “veil being thin” and the dead walking on Christmas Eve. (Also domestic animals talking and other nonordinary stuff.)
In fact, M. and I always do that, hang a candle lantern at Christmas Eve, Pagans that we are. For the Holy Family? For the dead? Is is just one of those customs that you follow, while the rationale changes from generation to generation? It has always seemed like the right thing to do.
Over in the sidebar of the blog — if you are looking at the main page — is a list of magickal and paranormal podcasts. One of my favorites is Timothy Renner’s Strange Familiars. For the last two Decembers, Renner, who sometimes calls himself a “Marian animist,” has invited on Br. Richard Hendrick, an Irish Franciscan monk with a deep interest in paranormal matters, albeit seen through a Roman Catholic lens.
For the 2020 show, “The Three Magi, Mary Magalene, and More,” he wrote, “We discuss the pagan [sic] origins of Christmas, the Three Magi, Mary Magdalene, the Holy Grail, the teachings of Saint Francis, Christmas legends and rituals, and much more. Brother Richard also relates some stories of his encounters with The Other.”
In my talk, I did not have time to get into “thinning of the Veil” stuff, and I did not know if was appropriate for my invisible audience, but listen to this episode if you want to hear more.
And Santa is not a flying shaman; he never flew before about 1823, and his red and white suit commemorates Coca-Cola, not Amanita muscaria. Old-time Santa Claus/Father Christmas figures wore various colors — often green — frequently with fur trim.
In what is thought to be the first research body of its type in the world, the unit, based in Keble College, will bring together experts in radiocarbon dating, genetics, osteology —the study of bones — chemistry, geography and archaeology with leading authorities in ancient Greek and Hebrew, Byzantine studies, ecclesiastical history and theology.
I am not sure what tone to take with this — not my saints after all — and it really does not matter to me if the skull of St. Cuthbert or whatever turns out to be someone else. One on level, this is interesting archaeology. On another, it feels like a re-run of the 16th century — the “stripping of the altars” and all that — but with “functional” science (instead of Protestantism) taking on “superstitious” religion (instead of Catholicism).
So why now? Is there a culture war motive, with “leading authorities in . . . . theology” participating in the disenchantment of the world? On the other hand, they hint that they may have found John the Baptist.
Halloween is the holiday when we face fear and get right in the face of the supernatural. Children wear costumes and adults seek out opportunities to confront the unknown or, some would say, the misunderstood. In that spirit, we offer four places you can go to laugh at your deepest anxieties. Or scream.
But why would you scream? Read it and find out.
Paganism at the Public Library
If I had time to drive over to Pueblo, Colo., today, I could view the winners of the public library’s Día de los muertos altar contest. Unfortunately, they were supposed to be set up at 1 p.m., so set-up is in progress as I write, with winners announced at 3:30 p.m.—and everything dismantled by 4:30.
The entry form states,”Altars judged on overall appearance, originality, and creativity reference [sic] to traditions of Día de los Muertos.” Battery-operated candles only, please.
The instructions are quite specific as to how you are supposed to represent Earth, Wind, Water, and Fire, and of course copal incense (not burning, though) is recommended. (I like copal too.)
So I regret that I cannot see these altars, but I appreciate that the library is teaching an effectively Pagan tradition. My gardening priestess, however, wants me to haul a big round of bale of spoiled hay from a neighbor’s ranch for winter mulch this afternoon, however. That’s another Samhain ritual.
And while some speakers, including folklorist Jenny Butler, do discuss the ancient festival of Samhain, you will see that the Derry festival was not so much a self-conscious bit of Celtic revival as it was a way for people to step out of “the Troubles” (as the Irish euphemize the 1960s–1980s in Ulster) for one night of the year and be someone else.
You may also note a brief mention of pumpkins — the North American influence is there too.
There is an Anglo-American couple (her from the UK, him from right here) down the road who always have a Bonfire Night party.
M. and I bumped into the American half recently, and he said that this year’s “Guy” would be a certain wealthy local hobby-rancher.
Having earned his money elsewhere, this guy is busy buying up every piece of vacant land he can find, erecting pretentious ranch gates, quarreling with the Forest Service, and possibly interfering with water rights (still unproved, but if so, it’s a hanging offense).
Unlike the actual largest landowner in this end of the county — who might be found on a mechanic’s creeper underneath one of the engines at the volunteer fire department, fixing something — he holds himself aloof from all community activities.
He has a bad case of “Texas Vertigo”—he thinks the world revolves around him. And, says the woman who waited tables down at the little steakhouse while working on her nursing degree, “He’s a two-dollar tipper.”
“All right,” I thought, on hearing my neighbor’s announcement, “it’s a real Aradiamoment. Di legare il spirito del oppresore and all that.
But when M. and I walked up the neighbors’ driveway, dish in hand, to where everyone gathered around the fire pit, beer kegs, and tables of food, the “Guy” was someone else—a certain cable television political pundit.
Not nearly as interesting from a folk-magic perspective, if you ask me.
The altar to Marilyn Monroe shown above was the only one that broke the mold a little, sharing the “anyone can participate” feeling from previous years.
I drank some cups of colada morada with my Ecuadorian professor friend and nibbled some guaguas de pan. Eating babies—that’s a little edgy, but remember, it’s cultural. (Some pisco would have helped the colada.)
Not really that big in the overall holiday picture, though.
Halloween’s haul was the smallest, accounting for a mere 2.6% of holiday spending.
But for a few industries, October 31 is the night to shine. According to the National Confectioners Association, sweets-makers reap 8% of their annual sales during Halloween, making it candy’s biggest holiday. Costumes, cards and decorations account for the rest.
M. and I bought one bag of mini-Hershey bars—that was our contribution to the Halloween economy. We had one group (two kids) of trick-or-treaters, which is more than we have had for about the last four years.
Our rural road used to have some kids. They all grew up, or their parents moved them into town so they would be more easily able to attend “activities. Or someone got a transfer, and the house is still on the market two years later.
There is one family left with four little kids, but I think that they are Mennonites, and it is probably against their religion. But I more respect for that position than for those Christians who turn Halloween into non-alcoholic tailgating.
So the party is over, and now it is time for real Samhain.