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The Longest Night
Sure, December is a big month for Christians but it’s a big month for Witches too—after all, Pagans started this Yuletide tradition. It’s well-documented that Christmas finds its origins in the Pagan winter solstice celebrations—“Yule” in pre-Christian Celtic culture and “Saturnalia” in pre-Christian Roman culture—honoring the rebirth of the Sun King after the longest night of the year. So many of the Christmas traditions and symbols that Christmas-celebrators love and uphold are originally Pagan, some of which include mistletoe, the evergreen tree, wreaths, lights, rebirth, the feast, wassail, even gift-giving!
Ancient history, enduring controversy
The term “Pagan” has been bandied about for centuries and often Christians use it to refer to anyone who isn’t Christian. However, Paganism refers specifically to pre-Christian earth-based religions and spirituality, often polytheistic and/or pantheistic and sometimes described as monotheistic in the sense that the many gods, goddesses, and spirits are aspects of one Great Spirit. It has nothing whatsoever to do with Satanism or evil-doing. Wicca, Neo-Druidism, Neo-Paganism, and etc., all fall under the umbrella of Paganism—think of them as ‘denominations’ of Paganism with their own specific practices, traditions, and beliefs. Not all Pagans identify as Wiccans, Neo-Pagans, or Druids, and so on. Pagans range from traditional (such as Strega, Norse, Egyptian…) to eclectic and practice in a coven (as a group) or as solitary practitioners, and I’ve studied all along that spectrum.*
There are a lot of different perspectives on the Christian appropriations of Pagan holidays and traditions, especially considering that many (not all) Christians vehemently denounce Pagans as immoral, evil-doers responsible for the world’s ills. JSK, poet and eclectic Pagan, sees the humor in this. “Whenever I see signs that say ‘Jesus Is the Reason for the Season,’ I get a little giggle building up. But he has, in a sense, become the reason for the way people celebrate today even though many of the rituals and traditions that we think of as being about Christmas were actually associated with other festivals first. So it just doesn’t really seem like a fight worth having, in my opinion. I know though that my sister-in-law, a fundamental Baptist, would probably disagree with me on this. But we already disagree on so many things that I’m okay adding another to the list.”
Zina Slade, a horse-trainer and eclectic Pagan, finds the appropriation a little disturbing, “It angers me a little what Christianity has done to Paganism, but I don’t dwell on it. I do wish that people were more aware of the true history of Paganism and Christianity though. When I took a class on Ancient History in college, it was an enormous eye-opener and such a valuable experience.”
Zina is referring to the early days of Christianity, when the religion spread mainly by force. Wherever Christians arrived to convert the indigenous Pagans, the local gods and goddesses were appropriated, along with the Pagan holidays, by the new religion. For example, in Ireland, Brigid the goddess of fire, metalwork, and poetry became Saint Birgit, who is still honored on her Pagan holiday, Imbolc, with bonfires lit by nuns. The historical transition from Paganism to Christianity was not a smooth one: some Pagans willingly converted after bets, battles, answered prayers, visions, and dreams, for political reasons, and for love; many were converted by force; some converted with the compromise that the beloved Pagan deities and holidays found their way into the new Christian religion; and others refused to give up the Old Ways and were met with a bloody struggle, including but not limited to the witch hunts of Europe. And others still appeared to convert but in reality they kept the Old Ways a secret and passed down the knowledge generation by generation. When Pagans have mixed-feelings about religious appropriation, it’s because of this violent history of conversion, oppression, and persecution.
It shouldn’t surprise you that Pagans face suspicion, intolerance, and discrimination, or even just a barrage of stupid/annoying questions, so most stay “in the broom closet.” Consistent misrepresentations of the religion in popular culture and in the news media don’t help matters. It makes perfect sense then that a Pagan wouldn’t want to sit down with dear, Baptist Grandpa on Christmas day and tell him all about Yule rituals if it would only result in terror and disinheritance. Naturally, balancing your Pagan holiday with your friends' or family’s separate holidays can be tricky.
JSK doesn’t feel so fraught about the Christmas/Yule balance: “What I’m about to say will probably piss a few people off, some Christians and Pagans alike I think, but I don’t get too hung up on the difference between Christmas and Yule. They’re both celebrating the birth of something that brings promise and hope. Whether that thing is the sun or the Son of God, seems to be immaterial to me in terms of the spirit of the season….Sometimes I’ll get on a kick where I just call everything Yule and people think I’m being old-timey and really mean Christmas. Which, in a way, I suppose I do.” At the same time, she’s aware of the stigma attached to Paganism where she lives. “There are certain aspects of my local community that don’t seem particularly Pagan-friendly though. I have friends in town who won’t even practice yoga or go to a therapist because the traditions they were raised in believe that those things are Satanic. In that kind of environment I tend to keep things even more private than I normally would.”
When I was growing up, I’d have a Yule celebration with my aunt (Zina Slade), my parents, my grandmother, our Pagan friends, and friends who weren’t Pagan but just liked the holiday. We’d have the decorated evergreen tree, the red and green candles, a yule log, mistletoe, wassail (mulled cider and mulled wine), a feast, a roaring fire, intentions to stay up all night and greet the sun…it’s great fun, really. For years though, I’ve been moving around the country, sometimes the world, and haven’t always been able to make it home, so it’s become more of an introspective holiday that we all celebrate quietly and personally, but somehow united by our intentions even over the distance. Zina agrees that now “Yule is more personal for me. It’s a time to think about and meditate on the solstice and its symbolism. That then flows into Christmas, which is a time for family and friends. I don’t necessarily talk about Yule with anyone else. I think about growth, renewal, and cleansing, and that the new beginning is coming.”
JSK describes her Yule celebration, “This year to celebrate Yule we were supposed to go to a friend’s house for a bonfire, but my husband wasn’t feeling well so we stayed home. Of course, even though he wasn’t feeling well, he still ended up putting in a raised bed for me for Yule. So I spent a lot of the day breaking dirt clumps apart and putting in onion and garlic bulbs, which is a ritual in and of itself really. And I took some time to journal and meditate outside and to let gratitude flow through me as I sat in the sun. Since moving to a warmer climate my rituals have become rather fluid. I feel a different connection with the land and seasons than I did up home. Where I grew up was pretty much in line with the seasons as you traditionally think of them, but where I am now in North Florida, man, that throws a new spin on everything because I was used to the winter holidays being all about ‘Thank you Sun, I know I can totally make it through this freezing rain and slush, so let’s be thankful we’re still alive’ to more like ‘Hey Sun, still here? Cool, let’s party. I got some onion and garlic bulbs and a brand new raised bed.’”
I was lucky enough to spend a few years living in Ireland with my husband’s wonderful family, and was delighted to learn that many of the old Irish Yule traditions, like Wren Day, have hung onto Christmas tightly. Lora O’Brien, Irish author of Irish Witchcraft from an Irish Witch and A Practical Guide to Irish Spirituality, prefers to identify as “Bean Draoi…a ‘female user of magic.’” Her typical Yule consists of a party with her friends and family that goes 'til the wee hours.
“This is the time of year,” she explains, “[that] we acknowledge the deepest and longest darkness, and make a point of balancing it with the lights of food and fire and feasting, family and friends. And every year, I take a personal vigil through the longest night, to greet the sun the following morning. It's a mark of respect, a point of sacrifice, and a time for quiet reflection on the balance of dark and light in my life, in my spirit.”
The holidays are hard for all of us
Even Pagans feel the holiday craziness. JSK writes, “I think one of my least favorite things about being a Pagan at this time of the year is that when I visit my brother and his family or my husband’s family, I hear some talk of ‘Jesus Is the Reason for the Season’ and just hold my tongue and resist saying things like ‘Let’s put the SOL back in solstice.’ I think another thing that’s starting to get to me is seeing Yule become as commercialized as Christmas in terms of products and special sales. Which is not to say that I didn’t buy a bunch of stuff from Isis Books when they were having some lovely discounts, but I did think for a minute ‘Hmm….is this a good direction?’ before plugging in my credit card number.”
The traditional coven structure or community-worship approach doesn’t fit for everyone, and though I enjoyed my experience as part of Foxrose Temple, I also enjoy practicing with family and close friends, or on my own. It’s difficult to predict how group dynamics will affect something as personal as spiritual practice. JSK explains her reservations, “I’ve never celebrated Yule with a spiritual community because I’m very protective of my spiritual life and a bit cantankerous when it comes to other people telling me how to do things. When you get together with a group there’s just no way around the fact that there will be some sort of structure to the ritual regardless of how free flowing the group might think that it is. So I tend to celebrate on my own. Also being in a new community these last few years I haven’t really made many connections with other Pagan folks (also note, I haven’t tried very hard).”
These are just some of our favorite things…
“One of my favorite things [about Yule] is that my Facebook feed exploded with both Solstice posts and Christmas updates. This last week there have been great pictures of people burning Yule logs and letting off wish lanterns as well as Christmas trees and families dressed up for Midnight Mass. There’s just so much joy and love my heart about explodes.” –JSK
“My favorite thing is everything around me. I’m thankful for everything. In winter, everything is covered and protected by snow, and everything below the snow is part of the earth preparing for the spring’s rebirth. It gives me a feeling of being settled in and quiet and the darkness and quiet is necessary for that to happen. It’s a time to think deeply into the self and prepare for the new challenges of spring.” –Zina
“I think the lights are my favorite tradition that’s been kept on through Christmas and then along with that the decorating. Our Christmas tree is a pretty gaudy old mess for sure. We have a cranberry garland and also a lot of home-strung beads that catch the light in a wonderful way. It’s just so bright and cheery. And a tradition that I hadn’t given much thought about until this year is that of the wreath. I recently read Annie Finch’s piece on Huffington Post about them and she emphasizes their celebratory nature. We have one my mother made for us out of jingle a few years ago which hangs on our door during the winter holidays. I’m considering keeping it out all year now to remind me of the music and joy we bring whenever we enter each other’s lives. I don’t see why that should be limited to just December.” –JSK
“The pine tree, or evergreen, is my favorite Pagan custom that lives on in Christmas. Every morning I get up early and light the tree and sit quietly with it as I have my coffee. It gives me a lot of strength and comforts me. This is like my ‘Miss America Peace Answer.’ I love to sit with the tree and meditate on the peace within and world peace.” –Zina
Keeping an altar is an important part of honoring the Pagan traditions, deities and ancestors, and many Pagans decorate their altars for each holiday. The altar should be regularly cleaned, and cleaning the altar is, in itself, is a meditative act of worship. Zina says, “I love to decorate my altar around Yule. It’s very important to me to decorate it for each holiday and season and to clean it and dust it and take everything down and put it back up at least once a month. For Yule, I decorate with pinecones, poinsettias, and evergreen boughs to brighten it and be thankful for the season. It makes me feel like I’m really giving gratitude and respect for my gifts.” Because Zina has advanced M.S. it’s become important to her that she has her altar where she can see it when she’s ill. “I am drawn to having my altar in the [Feng Shui] love corner of my home and near my bed. I look at it a lot and it gives me strength. The dogs seem to like it too—they lie really close to it, so I always have to vacuum it!”
Zina also enjoys regularly burning white sage to purify and bless her house, as do many Pagans, especially around each holiday. “When I feel the energy in the house is low and needs comfort or warmth, like when I’ve been sick, then I sage the house for the animals and everyone to feel that safety, warmth, and comfort. People comment on it when they walk in and I really like that. When I can’t walk around the house to bless it, I burn sage in the fireplace instead and it feels really wonderful and powerful. The last time I did it the smoke blew into my face and I felt a rush of energy. The animals also let me know when I need to bless the house by being restless and more protective. They have better insight and they’re more intuitive. Sometimes I shut myself off, and they remind me to be present and to let myself feel things.”
My favorite thing about the Solstice-Christmas connection hearkens back to the great, fifth-generation witch Lady Circe of Toledo, Ohio. In the 1970s, she opened up her family tradition to students and began “The Sisterhood and Brotherhood of The Old Religion,” a Pagan ‘church’ or temple where people could learn and honor the Old Ways, which in Lady Circe’s family were a mix of Strega (Italian witchcraft), Alexandrian, and Celtic Traditional Paganism. Lady Circe has since passed, but her family teachings live on in her students, the temple, and the sister temples she inspired, such as Ravenwood, Foxwood, and Foxrose.
After practicing as an eclectic Pagan since I was a child, I decided to give traditional Paganism a try. I studied under Lady Willow-Duir Foxrose of Roxrose Temple while living in Roanoke, Virginia for my undergraduate degree at Hollins University, and I loved the experience. We held Esbat rituals for the full moon and celebrated the Wheel of the Year (holidays that designate the changes in season and astronomical events), and one of my favorite Yule traditions from Foxrose is the pomander meditation. Though I’ve since moved away, I continue this practice every Yule with my family. A pomander is a piece of citrus fruit, oranges and tangerines work best, punctured with whole cloves, much like pins in a pin cushion. It’s a popular Christmas craft or homemade Christmas gift, and unsurprisingly, the citrus represents the renewing sun, a symbol of Yule’s reborn solar king. Solar energy is about action, manifestation, and movement, and so the pomander ritual is meant to set your intention for the New Year.
To make a pomander, first ask yourself what you would like to manifest in your life: love, wealth, health, peace….? If you are making it as a gift, ask the person you are making it for what s/he would like to manifest. Try to whittle the wish down to a word or two, or a (short) positive phrase at the very most—something suitable for a mantra. So if you want to live without fear, you could say “courage” or “bravery.” I landed on creative abundance. Once you know what you want, find a place to work without distraction (so, not in front of the TV) and get your many whole cloves ready, and a thimble in case your thumb gets sore. I use my great-great Romani grandmother Mathilde’s thimble and I feel like I’m honoring my ancestors this way. You may like to light a red or green candle or cast a sacred space before you get to work. Once you are settled with your materials, take a moment to quiet your mind and set your intention. Then, push the cloves one-by-one into the fruit, repeating your mantra with each clove, until the fruit is more or less full. You can close the meditation with “an’ it harm none” or whichever prayer/meditation/ritual ending you’d like (amen, om, jai…). Then, you can tie a ribbon around the pomander and hang it somewhere where you will see it every day or place it on your altar. It will smell beautiful while it lasts, but as soon as it starts to turn, can bury it outside. You don’t want your intentions rotting from the ceiling.
What I like about this tradition is that it’s simple, positive, and you don’t have to be Pagan to do it…sort of like Christmas.
*Note: My own religious state is… complicated. Sometimes I want to call it ‘academic’ because I enjoy studying religions and I take a lot of inspiration from all the paths I study. I’m a yoga teacher and I study Hindu, Buddhist, and Taoist texts and meditation techniques. I talk with my Christian friends about what they enjoy about their religions and I like to find connections with my own traditions. I study Romanipen, the Romani religion/spirituality. Because the Romani people find their origin in ancient India, Romani spirituality, or Romanipen, finds its origin in Hinduism. Romani spirituality share quite a bit with Paganism, such as Shaktism (Goddess-worship), animism (the belief that animals, plants and other non-human entities have a spirits), belief in mule (ghosts) and ancestral spirits, herbalism, the supernatural, and energetic healing, and as such Romani academics often describe it as a Pagan religion. It is not, however, associated with Wicca or Neo-Paganism. There are countless articles and websites dedicated to Gypsy Wicca and Witchcraft, and it is my duty as a teacher, (part) Romani lady, and all-purpose pedant to tell you that they are bullshit. There is no such thing as Gypsy Wicca—not among Romani people anyway! Most of this information on “Gypsy witchcraft and magic” is based on the work of Charles Godfrey Leland and George Borrow, both of whom claimed to be “Gypsy scholars” and famously made up A LOT of things about Romani traditions, culture and beliefs to suit their own exotic fantasies about Romani people. The perpetuation of these time-honored fallacies enforces the harmful, dehumanizing stereotype of Romani people as magical creatures, spell casters and tricksters.
I’ve written about my mixed-Romani heritage with respect to fashion and discrimination, I feel cagey writing about it with respect to my religion since my family, through assimilation and marrying outside of the culture, has fallen away from parts of Romanipen. On the other hand, we’ve also kept quite a bit of it alive, so whatever caginess I feel is fear that I’m ‘not Romani enough’ to write about it, but the compromise between assimilation and tradition is an age-old spiritual balancing act. Historically, Romani people have adopted the major religions of the countries they resided in to avoid persecution, so Romani people can identify as Orthodox or Roman Catholic, Mormon, Muslim Bahá’í, or Zoroastrian...really any faith, and yet still rigorously practice Romanipen alongside the adopted religion. My Romani ancestors adopted Roman Catholicism but were much more invested in Romanipen’s shaktism, one of the most important goddesses being the goddess Sati Sara, also called Sara la Kali, Sati Kali and Sara Kali. She is the goddess of Fate, a Divine Mother, sometimes called a Dark Mother, and likely finds her roots in the Hindu goddesses Kali/Durga/Sara/Parvati. When the Romani people arrived in Europe, to continue worshipping Sati Sara and avoid accusations of witchcraft, the goddess became Saint Sarah, or the Black Madonna, an uncanonized saint still worshipped in the yearly pilgrimage to Maries de la Mar, France every May 24th. My mother, aunt, grandmother and I made the unusual conversion to eclectic Paganism, and we easily include Sati Sara in our pantheon. Aspects of Romanipen overlap with our eclectic Paganism but my family’s conversion was a personal choice, not a cultural one.