Not *My* Ancient Pagan Survival

All right, you have put away the skulls, bats, and dishes for your ancestors, all the while humming, “It’s the Most Magickal Time of the Year.”

It’s time to think about Yule! And to ponder, is this custom an ancient Pagan survival? (Slightly NSFW.)

As for your pre-Christian traditional Yule tree, Obama wants to tax it.  Suddenly embarrassed, the White House has “delayed” the tax.

Los Matachines at Yule

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.

‘A Ritual of Transformation’

Preparing for last night’s solstice-eclipse, the Montreal Gazette went looking for the Pagan perspective.

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.

(Hat tip: Roberta X, who is most unimpressed.)

A reporter in Ohio left me an email about wanting to do a telephone interview, but she never called. Sigh. She must have found a more accessible expert.

The ‘War on Solstice’

At Huffington Post, Bron Taylor celebrates winning the “war on solstice.”

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.

• Gus diZerega has a poem that “puts the Sol back in solstice,” but does not know who wrote it.

• Star Foster has “13 Songs  for Yule” with videos.

Cocktails for Pagans

Bohemian Spritz

Bohemian Spritz (New York Times photo)

Who says that today’s Pagans are not influencing the larger culture?

The New York Times’ Style section offers the “right drink” for every winter holiday party, including the Bohemian Spritz for “dilettante Pagans” celebrating the solstice. (If that link is problematic, try this one.)

For those slightly weary of the familiar fa-la-la, or for those who are opposed to even the slightest whisper of organized religion, a solstice party provides a refreshing diversion. While actual hard-core pagans [sic] are probably drinking something murky and ancient, a more streamlined beverage might be better for dabblers. The Bohemian Spritz (another creation of Vandaag’s Katie Stipe) is a light, fizzy wine drink with compellingly arboreal undercurrents, provided by pine and elderflower cordials. It is ideal for welcoming the long nights, for putting the Krampus back in Christmas.

One question, where do you get pine liqueur?

UPDATE: Apparently one looks for Zirbenschnapps or Un Sapin, described as “very hard to find—even in France.”

What You Know about Christmas Might Be Wrong

The idea that Christmas celebrations are largely lifted from earlier Paganisms is pretty well embedded in the culture, even among people who don’t have a dog in that fight.

So let Biblical Archaeology Review stir things up a little with the idea that the Dec. 25 (or Jan. 6 for the Orthodox) date was not necessarily chosen to ride piggyback on Sol Invictus or Mithras but is based on Jewish tradition instead, one carried on by early Christians:

Around 200 C.E. Tertullian of Carthage reported the calculation that the 14th of Nisan (the day of the crucifixion according to the Gospel of John) in the year Jesus died was equivalent to March 25 in the Roman (solar) calendar. March 25 is, of course, nine months before December 25; it was later recognized as the Feast of the Annunciation—the commemoration of Jesus’ conception. Thus, Jesus was believed to have been conceived and crucified on the same day of the year. Exactly nine months later, Jesus was born, on December 25.

Read the whole thing.

Finally, Hank Stuever is the author of Tinsel: A Search for America’s Christmas Present. You can read an excerpt here in the Washington Post “Style” section.

I know that I am in the same country as those “gated-community supermoms who [have]  volleyball schedules, tutor times and carpool arrangements abuzz in the BlackBerry that is [their] brain,” because I have sat in the Dallas-Fort Worth airport and watched them clatter by.

This fact struck me though: Amid all the crafts-making and bazaar-holding and home-decorating, they don’t know how to sew?

“It’s the sparkle, spirit, and style of American Girls, yesterday and today!” intones a recorded narration as the lights go down. A Junior League member and a teenage beauty pageant winner emcee. While each young model, carrying a doll, takes her little turn on the catwalk, we learn her American Girl back story. Here’s Josefina, who lived on a ranch in northern New Mexico in the 1820s. She had to sew her own clothes.

“Who here knows how to sew their own clothes?” the emcee asks. “Raise your hands.”

In a room of several hundred families, nobody raises a hand.

“Moms? Anyone here ever sew? Anyone have a sewing machine?”

No hands.

“Well then, you can just imagine how hard life was.”

Weird, eh? Even I have an old sewing machine for repair jobs. It makes life easier, just as my chainsaw and power screwdriver do.

UPDATE: If you have read this far and are not still muttering about Druids, take Stuever’s Christmas-shopping survey.

DUTS: Everyone Is Doing It

A blog of a nearby nature center just reported on how they drummed down (!) the Sun this year.

Nothing Pagan there, no, sir. (No snickering, please.) Their timing was a little strange, but their hearts were in the right place.

Here is last year’s Denver-area drumming (YouTube video.)

As mentioned, the dogs and I did our own.

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Up the Hill to Yule

One advantage to living in the hills is that by taking different routes, you can pick the moment of observed solstice sunrise. I could sleep in until nine o’clock and still “drum up the sun” if I took the trail we call “the loop.”

But the dogs want, need, and demand their morning run, so we go “up the hill” on the Forest Service road, into a sunrise that is already happening.

At the top I take a little side trail to a suitable boulder, unzip the case, and take out the frame drum. It booms out over the valley, past the black trunks of ponderosa pines killed four years ago in the Mason Gulch fire, past resurgent Gambel oak, past living pines that the fire missed.

In the south, that is where the fire started when lightning struck. In the west, that is Holt Mountain guarding its maze of overgrown skid roads. In the north, a steep brushy slope surmounted by rimrock. In the east, a glare of light.

Uh-oh, what does Fisher have in his mouth? It’s the spare drumstick, and he is settling down to chew it. No! Come here! No serious damage, just dog slobber.

So much for drumming. The calendrical ritual is done. It is perhaps that calendar that unites us Pagans more than theology–to be doing something at these times.

Happy solstice to all!

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