A Secular Solstice or Truly “Pagan-ish”?

I saw this sign last Friday at the public library in Pueblo, Colorado, and I liked it for a bunch of reasons.

Sometimes I get tired of the “jolly old elf” and would not mind seeing a more dignified winter monarch(s). For all its other problems, I thought that the Soviet Union’s promotion of (non-religious) “Grandfather Frost” was a pretty good idea. (Here is more about him, with regional variations.)

So has he infiltrated  the public library system? And has the Snow Maiden come along as well?

If she has, I am for it. But then I was the little boy who read Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Snow Queen” and came away thinking that the Snow Queen was in fact admirable, not the villainess from whom the little boy had to be “saved.”

Meanwhile, our Pueblo Winter King can aspire to equal that Sakut “Khan of Winter” (photo at left).

I have not heard how the metro Denver “solstice war” is playing out this year — here was the 2015 version — but this year’s astronomical solstice is at 1628 GMT, so 0928 Mountain Time, Thursday the 21st. Perfect for drumming-up.


The Complicated History of Santa Claus and American Christmas

Ah, Christmas traditions. So complicated, so misunderstood.

Take Santa Claus, American version. Not a survival of colonial New Amsterdam except in a literary sense, he was pretty well invented by the prolific writer Washington Irving in the early 19th century. And he was connected with Dec. 6th, St. Nicholas’ Day, not Christmas. Let history blogger Patrick Browne take it from here: “Santa Claus was Made by Washington Irving”:

The quote that forms the title of this article is taken from a paper by historian Charles W. Jones, “Knickerbocker Santa Claus,” published in the New York Historical Society Quarterly, in October 1954. Jones challenged the long-standing traditional view that Santa Claus owes his tremendous presence in our culture to Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam (New York). In fact, his research into early colonial New York newspapers, books, diaries and letters turned up no mention at all of St. Nicholas until the time of the Revolution. . . . .

So, by satirically inventing a false tradition of Dutch settlers venerating St. Nicholas, Irving inadvertently gave rise to a very real tradition of Americans venerating St. Nick. This was certainly not the last time in Irving’s career that he would invent folklore which he ascribed to old Dutch settlers.

In New England, meanwhile,  there had been a long tradition of non-Christmas revelry, based on the Puritans’ belief that traditional celebrations were impious:

For centuries, the holiday has served as a flashpoint between competing religious ideas. When the Puritans of New England famously made Christmas illegal during their first decades on this side of the Atlantic, it was not because they were killjoys—or at least, not only because they were killjoys. Christmas was an existential threat to orderly society, a shorthand for the spiritual risks they encountered every day in the New World. The era’s leading preacher, Cotton Mather, even continued to rail against the “heathen feast” after the laws prohibiting Christmas were repealed.

“Can you in your Conscience think, that our Holy Savior is honoured,” he wrote, “by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Revelling; by a Mass fit for none but a Saturn, or a Bacchus, or the Night of a Mahometan Ramadam?”

From “Christmas’s War on America: The persistence and power of the December Holiday over Generations of Americans—Whether They Liked it or Not,” in The Atlantic.

Mather was born in Boston of English parents, who probably told him about the “traditional English Christmas” of the early 17th century. Think of Hallowe’en with an edge: seasonally unemployed young agricultural workers, as drunk as they can manage, working the Yuletide version of “trick or treat” on their better-off neighbors:  We will sing at your door, and if you don’t hand over some food and more ale, we might break something.
Or the urban version as it continued:

Rowdy men in colorful rags gather outside the city’s nicer homes, demanding to be let in. Some have disguised themselves with mock-fancy outfits that ridicule their less-than-willing hosts, while others have blackened their faces or dressed up as animals. If you try to keep them out, they will shatter your windows, break down your door, and help themselves to food and drink. If instead you grant the rabble access, your costumed guests will drink your best booze and demand a cash “tip” for slurring a noisy song at your family.

That comes from “Is Capitalism the Reason for the Season?” from B. K. Marcus, who is evidently shocked to discover that there are tensions and contradictions between the marketplace and the family gathered around the tree. He goes on:

In a commercial age, where mom and dad head off to separate jobs while the kids are sent to school, it means spending the holiday together in leisure, practicing a form of mutual generosity that is ritualized to obscure its capitalist origins.

He seems to think, however, that evil capitalist lever-pullers are obscuring this contradiction from us, whereas I think that everyone is aware of it and that people deal with it in their own ways, some by being self-consciously anti-commercial and others by just shrugging their shoulders. Yeah, presents and booze cost money. Even if you make your own, you still need to acquire the materials.

Irving had lived in England for a time, and he wrote of the Yuletide season,

Our thoughts are more concentrated; our friendly sympathies more aroused, we feel more sensibly the charm of each other’s society, and are brought more closely together by dependence on each other for enjoyment. Heart calleth unto heart; and we draw our pleasures from the deep wells of living kindness, which lie in the quiet recesses of our bosoms…Christmas is still a period of delightful excitement in England.

Back to Santa Claus — Isn’t that sequence familiar? Some genuine folk tradition exists but then dies out. A literary type revives it for his own purposes. It catches on to the point that its revived origins are forgotten and people run around talking about this “old tradition” that connects them with the past.

Apparently that is the recipe for success!

Invoking the Birds and Hunting in the Woods at Yule

Built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the lodge invokes both Heorot and a parish church.
Built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, the mountain park lodge invokes both Heorot [1]Hrothgar’s famous mead hall in “Beowulf” and a parish church.

We Pagans may think that we “own” Hallowe’en, but we are own some ground at Christmas time — or Yuletide, if you prefer. Today M. and I drove 15 miles over twisty mountain gravel roads to a little town that celebrates a Yule log hunt.

This tradition dates to 1952, so it is about as old as Wicca. And it was passed on through a lineage: people here were given a splinter of another Colorado town’s Yule log in order to inaugurate their own. That town, in turn, received its splinter in 1933 from the Adirondacks resort town of Lake Placid, New York, where a Yule log ceremony was created afresh in 1911.

Recreating ancient tradition: it is all right out of Ronald Hutton’s Stations of the Sun.

A local Protestant minister, an old man with a booming preaching voice, invoked a father god whose radiance shines down. “Ave Sol Invictus,” I thought, considering that the minister stood in front of a wreath-decorated blazing fireplace, no Christian symbolism in sight.

Maybe this was his non-sectarian mode of public speaking, but he talked about this “sacred valley” and the “sacred season” and invoked the ancestors. I felt right at home.

And then our friend, the director of a nearby raptor rehabilitation center, brought in a peregrine falcon while her associate carried a barred owl — and they invoked the birds!

“Owl . . . give us your secret knowledge . . . .” and so on.

“This is getting better,” I thought.

And the little choir sang the Boar’s Head Carol while an admittedly faux boar’s head was carried through the hall. (Memories of my undergraduate years!)

Then we moved outside, and things became a little more primal. The huntsmen in their short green capes gathered around . . .

The huntsmen (green capes) address the crowd before a trumpet sounds the Call.
The huntsmen (green capes) address the crowd before a trumpet sounds the Call.

Is there something sinister about that rope?
Is there something sinister about that rope?

The hunt for the Yule log takes place in a mountain park; the huntsmen describe the general area, and then the crowd takes off.

“They haven’t found the log yet,” says a man into his cellphone half a mile from the lodge, while three boys of 14 years or so dispute with one another: “It was over here last year.” “No, it was across the road.”

“You guys don’t know it,” I think, “but you are making memories that very few of your contemporaries will share.”

The ancient sequence is repeated. People (kids in the lead) spread out into the woods.

Then there is yelling in the distance. It becomes more organized: a ritual cry.

And that is followed by the processing of the prize back to the lodge.


The hunters move out into the woods.
The hunters move out into the woods.

kids on log-sm
That rope? It pulls the Yule log, and the little kids ride.

sawing the log sm
The girl who found the log must suddenly master a whippy old-style crosscut saw as it is cut into two pieces: one to burn and one to save.

interviewing taylor sm
And she must pass another ordeal — an interview from a TV reporter. “How did it feel?”i

And there is more caroling, cookies and hot drinks, and a closing prayer which M. and I slipped away from, thinking of the miles of snowy road and the dog left at home.

It’s truly Yuletide now. And I am bringing down my own logs, but they are to be split and burned as winter closes in.


1 Hrothgar’s famous mead hall in “Beowulf”

On the Sidelines in the Solstice Wars

Winter king, Sakha Republic, Siberia

Oh wait, it is Christmas that has (news media-generated) “wars.” How the winter solstice should be observed, however, has become the subject of almost rabbinical discussion on one of the Colorado Pagan listservs, again.

There are always two core factions, the calendrical and the astronomical. The event at stake is the annual Drumming Up the Sun (DUTS), which takes place at Red Rocks Amphitheatre (actually a Denver city park), whose site looks out over that prairie’s-edge city toward the eastern horizon.

DUTS, as one person wrote, is “organic” — it just happens with minimal organizing. And it’s a cool event (pun intended). If I lived up there, I would go. As one Colorado Pagan recently noted in a different context, “trance drumming has become rarer, drum circles are fading, and there just aren’t as many chances for people to drum themselves into trance and call forth the goddesses and gods into our primal beating hearts.” But this one still goes on — it draws hundreds of people sometimes.

But the question is, which morning?

The calendrical faction says, in effect, “Do it on the 21st because that is the solstice date on the calendar.” One of the “calendrists” writes, “Most of the drummers have opted for Monday since some people have to work Tuesday.”

Linking to this website, a member of the astrononomical faction posts, “[The site] is pretty clear that the night of the 21st-22nd is the shortest night, and what I didn’t mention before but what is also visible there is that the 22nd is also the shortest day, not the 21st. That is another reason why the 22nd is solstice day, despite the moment of the event happening two hours and eleven minutes into the day before. In other words, the 22nd is the shortest day of the year, another way to define Winter Solstice. . . . If people want to drum up the morning of Solstice Eve I think that’s awesome . . . .  I am not trying to pressure anyone to do anything, but rather to state what I’m doing with my group and to provide accurate scientific information.”

And a third small DUTS faction — call them “let’s do it all” — wants both mornings, maybe even 24+ hours of non-stop drumming. “Since we already have people who feel inspired to drum on the mornings of the 21st and the 22nd,” one asks,  “could we connect them together as parts of a longer vigil?”

As of this morning, the online opinion-soliciting continues.

If I must take sides, I lean toward the astronomical faction. I have always felt that if you are timing any working to planetary motion, then starting just after the peak moment of whatever is better than starting before it. “Catch the wave,” so to speak. But others may think differently.

As for the solstice, being a self-employed foothills dweller, I will likely roll out of bed on the 22nd, take a bodhran, dress warmly, call the dog (just the one dog now), and climb up the ridge east of the house.

Thanks to the shape of the land, even if I sleep a bit late, I can pick one of several clearings in which to stand as the sun clears the ridge to the southeast. My drumbeats can float out over the little valley, the neighbors’ scattered houses and pastures, and the sun-lit mountain to the west.

Unless, of course, it’s snowing hard, in which case I will have to improvise.

Saturnalia with the Romans


We are in the midst of Saturnalia, so consider this article by Classics scholar Mary Beard on “Five Things the Romans Did at Christmas.”

The headline was just to grab you, because she begins, “OK, the Romans didn’t actually have Christmas. And even Christian Romans didn’t celebrate Jesus’ birthday on 25 December until at least the fourth century AD. ”

Another sample:

A few Roman writers enter into the spirit of the occasion. Catullus, for example, called it “the best of days”. But mostly they were supercilious lot, complaining about the forced jollity and the forced shut-down (just like me . . .!). The philosopher Seneca tut-tuts about all the dissipation and fact that you can’t get any public business done.

I don’t put myself in the same class as Seneca (or Mary Beard), but I will probably be thinking on Thursday that I should go pick up the mail at our little post office . . .

Read the rest. And also what happens when she “takes the show on the road,” so to speak.

Trees, Animism, and Yuletide

Christmas tree discarded on public land in southern Colorado. (Photo: Royal Gorge Field Office, Bureau of Land Management)
Christmas tree discarded on public land in southern Colorado. (Photo: Royal Gorge Field Office, Bureau of Land Management)

I wanted to use the photo of the dumped Christmas tree with two different posts. Then I decided to combine them, so keep reading.

1. “Trees” is the theme of this month’s Animist Blog Carnival, hosted by Australian blogger Jay at naturebum. Tree totems, forest fires, Indo-European cosmology, and more!

2. Is there anything grosser than building up to the orgy of gift-unwrapping on December 25 and then declaring the whole holiday season over?A couple of days after that, and the local newspapers are telling you where you can “recycle” your Christmas tree.

But a book review in the British weekly The Spectator notes that at one time, decorations were left up until Candlemas.

‘The season of Christmastide has, in other words,’ [author Nick Grooms] observes, ‘shifted forward, as if it now expresses an impatient and premature desire for gratification. The result is that there are two cold months of winter following Christmas.’

At the very least, tonight is not quite Twelfth Night, unless like one Wiccan friend of mine, you count your twelve days from the winter solstice. So the colored lights will stay on a bit longer.

Revising the Story of Christmas

It is an article of faith (an appropriate word here) for contemporary Pagans that Christianity stole holidays left and right from our spiritual ancestors, particularly Christmas.

Here Mollie Ziegler at Get Religion, a blog about the critical examination of religion-writing in the (mostly) American media, gets into some of the nuances in the process of critiquing a typically breezy seasonal piece from the Washington Post.

Yeah, well, it’s certainly true that when the calendar was standardized, there was a push for Dec. 25 as the date to mark Jesus’ birth. But was this because it was a co-opting of Saturnalia? It’s certainly a theory. But Dec. 25 was one of the many dates being used by Christians to mark Christ’s birth and maybe not for the reasons you hear.

Some historians argue — read her piece for details — that Jesus’ birth was placed on December 25th centuries before “Christmas” was celebrated. In the early church, Easter was much more important.

Now before somebody says “Yeah, and ‘Eostre’ was a Germanic goddess,” we are not talking about Germans but about the eastern Mediterranean region (and Rome) when we say “the early church.” The Germanic tribes were mostly unaware of Christianity until some converted in the fourth century, right? And complete conversion took another six hundred years.

It is the news media, not the Pagans, that keeps the “Christmas started out as a ‘pagan’ holiday” meme alive. Maybe that is more of a secularist position — taking organized religion down a notch — that provides a convenient bit of cover for the modern Pagans?

And let’s not forget another group that contributed to the Christmas-is-pagan meme — the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Just today at the laundromat I saw a one of their Awake booklets, which made that very same argument, one that they have been making for many decades.