YOU ARE A PAGAN!
Part One: frolicking, fertility, fecundity
When I was growing up, I always felt a bit sorry for the Jehovah’s Witness kids I went to school with. It may have been this way only in my small town, but the ones I knew were kind of odd — booger eaters, hillbillyesqe, either painfully shy and sullen or bouncing off the walls — and this oddness was amplified by the fact that they’d be the only ones in the class sitting during the Pledge of Allegiance, ignoring birthday cake or refusing to cobble together a cookbook for Mother’s Day.
I’m not sure about where the eccentricities came from, but the lack of overt patriotism and holiday cheer was due to the fact that their religion — one of ten billion sects of Christianity/Judaism/Islam that insists it knows something nobody else does — thinks that God, a.k.a. “Jehovah”, does not like sharing his heavenly stage or the attentions of his chosen people with governments, as represented by the Pledge of Allegiance, or false idols, as symbolized by everything from the Tooth Fairy to the Easter Bunny and beyond. Indeed, to a devout Jah Witness, the very existence of these holidays is proof that the devil himself runs the show here on Earth right now, for all of them, Christmas included — Christmas especially — are nothing less than the spiritually toxic remnant of ancient pagan rituals, a.k.a. DEVIL WORSHIP.
It’s easy to laugh at all this, for it sounds as farfetched and paranoid as terrorists hiding behind the couch or back-to-back La Niña winters, but believe it or not, those Jehovah’s Witnesses aren’t just crying wolf. Although most of us aren’t consciously aware of it, our calendar — one of the pillars of any civilization — is a litany of pagan rulers and deities, as most of the months and all seven of the days of the week take their names from icons of olde: July and August named for Roman Emperors; March named for Mars, the Roman god of war; Monday is the Moon’s Day; Thursday is Thor’s Day, the Nordic god of war and thunder; Saturday is Saturn’s day, the Roman god of agriculture and civilization, and on and on, right up to Sunday, a traditional day of Christian worship that falls on the day dedicated to the Sun, that heavenly ball of fire usually personified as The Father or some variation thereof, a myth that predates the Bible story by uncountable centuries.
So it should come as no surprise that a calendar as demonic as ours is riddled with heathen celebrations, many of them rooted in pre-Christian fertility or sacrificial rituals originally designed/evolved to ensure The People did their part to keep the cosmic dramas — rain, sunshine, planting and harvest — rolling along smoothly. We may not sacrifice goats or virgins anymore, but, like it or not, and notice it or not, we collectively continue these ancient traditions everytime we string up the xmas lights, send the kids out on the town dressed as zombies or consult the groundhog to see what the second half of winter has in store for us.
All of which is, of course, fantastic, especially if you’re a Pagan Parent, for every holiday offers up a double punch of fun: the holy day itself and all its symbolic and joyous trappings, accompanied by the unique time of year in which it occurs — a perfect chance to teach the kiddos about our connection to this swell planet we live on via the pageant of the seasons as seen through the prism of celebrations big and small.
With that in mind, let us examine the next few months worth of traditional American holidays big and small: five bang-up heathen jam sessions parading as innocuous Hallmark holidays, their origins and deeper meanings hidden in plain sight and intuitively understood by anyone willing to spend some time out of doors.
As a new year begins, denizens of the northern hemisphere — birthplace of the Eurocentric culture most of us adhere to here in the USA — are duking it out with Old Man Winter. The darkest time has passed and the days are gradually getting longer, but the snow continues to pile up and the vast majority of North Americans lacking palm trees in their yards (Gore-Tex-clad Mountain Gazette readers notwithstanding) are sick of winter and all that it entails: ice storms, snow shoveling, windshield scraping and/or day after day of melancholy gray skies. How much longer will this dreary cold rain and snow last? On February 2nd, roughly the halfway point between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox, we arise, stoke the woodstove/crank up the thermostat and watch with bated breath as a furry rodent awakens briefly from hibernation and crawls out of his hole to check the weather. If he sees his shadow, then winter is going to last at least six more weeks, but, if he doesn’t, then we might be in for an early thaw, and sweet release from the cruel grip of Jack Frost.
It’s Groundhog Day of course, immortalized in the truly epic movie of the same name — a perfect Buddhist primer if there ever was one. At a glance, it seems like a silly holiday with no purpose other than to distract us from the roof that needs shoveled off and the frozen pipes that are bursting, but the holiday is quite old and is at least partially rooted in the ancient Celtic celebration of Imbolc, a celebration of the lengthening days and — at least at the lower elevations, where the holiday originated — the fact that winter is showing the first faint signs of fading. Fires were lit in the hearth, buttery foods were eaten and the weather was watched closely, for this was the day when the old hag Cailleach, the Queen of Winter, gathered her firewood for the rest of her season. If she planned on a long winter, the day would be bright and sunny, so she could easily find and carry the wood, but, if the day was dark and stormy, folks knew that she had blown off the search for firewood and decided to stay in bed, which meant that winter would be over soon.
Originally, in Ireland and Scotland anyway, the day was dedicated to the deity Brigid, or Bride — virgin goddess of the hearth fire, livestock, renewal and abundance, among other things — who was revered by poets, blacksmiths, midwives and beer brewers. In some traditions, she was the younger version of the old wood-gathering crone of winter, or was actually held prisoner by the hag during the dark months, an Irish echo of the Greek tale of Persephone and her annual six-month exile in the underworld. Her sacred day of Imbolc was later Christianized as Candlemas — a celebration of the Virgin Mary and a time to bless the candles — and she herself was canonized as St. Brigid (known as the “Bride of Christ”), a saint who, as it happens, gave away her family’s store of butter to the poor when she was a girl, founded a school of metal work and miraculously changed water into ale, deeds that echo those of her previous heathen incarnation.
If you’re a Pagan Parent, then stuff the kids in their snowsuits, strap on the snowshoes and head outside in search of animal tracks or other signs of life. Check for cracks in the ice of Old Man/Old Hag Winter. Are the icicles dripping? Birds chirping? Anything crawling out of its den or slithering out a hole in the ground? While you’re wandering, gather some (depending on your locale) dried grasses, willow branches, broken spruce twigs or last year’s dead flowers — woody strips of some kind a foot or so long. When you’re done, head inside for some hot milk chocolate (hot buttered rum or home brew for the parents) then kindle a fire in the woodstove (or light some candles), break out the craft box and use the goods you gathered to make a small cross — wheel of fire actually — to your liking. Hang it on your front porch or near the oven or hearth for protection or just as a reminder that winter will be over soon.
Valentine was a Christian saint cruelly martyred for refusing to renounce his faith in Jesus and convert to Roman paganism. He was clubbed and beaten, and, when that didn’t work, was finally beheaded, and today we celebrate this horrific torture and state-sponsored murder by scheduling the biggest date night of the year with our sweetheart, complete with candy, sweet nothings and a romantic comedy starring Meg Ryan.
Which — except for the having to watch Meg Ryan/horrific torture connection — makes no sense at all. More likely, our modern day Valentine’s extravaganza is rooted in Lupercalia, an older Roman holiday celebrating the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus (two feral baby boys suckled by a she-wolf) that took place each year from February 13th to the 15th and involved the sacrifice of a goat (fertility) and a dog (purification). The goat hide was then cut into strips and soaked with the blood, after which priests dressed as wolves would prowl the city and whip the (often) naked female citizenry with the bloody straps in hopes that they would be blessed with fertility. Towards the end of the shindig, the unmarried women of the village would put their names in an urn, the bachelors would draw a name, and the two would be coupled for the rest of the holiday, and perhaps for the next year, or longer if they chose to marry.
Sometime around the 5th century AD, Pope Gelasius I created a holy day for St. Valentine and scheduled it to fall during Lupercalia, probably in hopes that it might shift the Romans’ attention toward the Holy Trinity and end their lingering fascination with the pagan holiday and its unholy trappings: blood, sex, wolves and whips. Despite the Pope’s efforts, and an outright ban on so-called “lottery” couplings, the spirit of Lupercalia lingered for centuries in folk tales and low-key celebrations and was eventually resurrected centuries later by the writings of Chaucer and Shakespeare, both of whom focused on the more romantic elements of the day. Soon, folks were composing their own romantic verse, or eventually, paying others to do it for them, and, by 1800, Valentines cards were popular enough to require that they be mechanically printed in factories.
During the daylight hours, Pagan Parents might want to stick with the modern-day version of the holiday by baking cookies, trading candy hearts and making handmade Valentine cards for family and friends. Later on, after the kids are asleep and the romantic comedy is rolling the credits, Mom and Dad can raid the kids’ chocolate stash, crack open a bottle of blood-red wine and come up with their own creative way to celebrate the day — perhaps even involving licorice whips and the wolf suit hidden in the back of the closet.
ST. PATRICK’S DAY
1980, second grade, and David Hartford is being chased around the classroom by a trio of girls dressed head to toe in green. David’s wearing no green, so the girls are doing their best to pinch him. They corner him, no escape, but, at the last second, he pulls up his pant leg and there they are: emerald stripes on the tube socks.
That’s one of the few vivid St. Patrick’s Day memories I have, probably because, like any good Swedish-American, I’ve spent many a hazy March 17th drinking too much beer and stuffing myself on corned beef and cabbage in celebration of something vaguely Irish … the invention of Guinness stout? Gold at the end of a midget’s rainbow? The best most of us can come up with is something about Patrick driving the snakes out of Ireland, which is actually code for Christianizing the natives and (spiritually) exterminating the pagans and their beliefs, as actual snakes never have existed in Ireland, at least not since the end of the Pleistocene. So puking up green beer after hitting on chicks with “Kiss me, I’m Irish” pins is nothing less than a sacred ritual honoring the efforts of Christian missionaries circa A.D. 500.
Sounds like something any good monotheist should be able to rally around: destruction of the heathens and the spread of the Good News, even if it was in the form of Catholicism. But like Valentine’s Day — a Catholic Saint Day scheduled by the early church to supplant a preexisting pagan ceremony — St. Patrick’s holy day was draped over a Roman fertility holiday: according to legend, St. Patrick died on March 17th, which, according to historical fact, also marks the date of the annual pre-Jesus Roman festival of Liberalia honoring Liber Pater (“Free Father”), an Etruscan god of fertility and vegetation, especially the grape and the wine that is made from it. On this day, devotees would drink copiously and march through the countryside carrying a huge phallus, which would later be crowned with a vagina-like wreath of flowers, the whole shebang intended to bring fertility to the land and protection to the crops, many which would already be planted and growing well in the temperate Mediterranean climate.
As the Roman Empire spread throughout Europe, holidays like Lupercalia took root in the farthest-flung reaches of the empire, albeit in forms tailored to local conditions and preexisting beliefs and rituals — a common occurrence religious scholars refer to as “syncretism.” Viewed through the stereoscopic lenses of changing seasons and the vital importance of agriculture, St. Patrick’s Day is likely a remnant of a holiday commemorating the end of winter (the Equinox falls a few days later) and the return of spring, this time for good, as well as the beginning of planting season. Viewed through the ancient worldview of sympathetic magic — that a person can effect a change by imitating it — the wearing of green was a way to honor the changing season as well as to help the process along, particularly in the chillier and grayer areas of the sprawling empire, such as Brittania and Gaul.
But, what about the corned beef and cabbage? The leprechauns and the drunkenness? The corned beef and cabbage reflects the realities of the late, late winter season: down to the dregs of food stash, with nothing left to eat but last year’s salted (“corned”) meat and a few cabbages and potatoes beginning to rot in the root cellar. The leprechauns are probably relics of the once-widespread belief in a variety of faerie folk who once held — in uniquely place-specific forms — spiritual sway across all of Europe and beyond. In this case, they’re foul-mouthed cobblers known for hoarding treasure and occasionally getting drunk and causing trouble. Which brings us to the drunkenness, which may stem from the fact that Liberalia was a holiday especially popular with the Roman plebeians — working-class stiffs and other riffraff — and evolved (some might say devolved) into a drunken festival of free speech and self-expression, as well as the breaking of social and sexual boundaries, and what better way to fuel that sort of revelry than getting wasted?
Pagan Parents can take this one easy. Encourage the kids to dress in green in celebration of the coming of spring, and point out the buds starting to pop out on neighborhood trees, or, if you’re in the High Country, the sphagnum moss hanging from the spruce and fir trees, all of which signify the fact that life holds fast even during the long winter. Feasting on corned beef and cabbage is a good idea as well, especially if you point out the fact that both are traditionally eaten at the end of winter, and that we should be grateful for the abundance of foods now available to us, as well as the fact that spring is finally here. Then, as on Valentine’s Day, once the kids are asleep, Mom and Dad can celebrate the phallus/vagina/fertility motif however they see fit.
Easter is ostensibly a Christian holiday celebrating the resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ after his death by crucifixion, a story everybody who hasn’t been raised in the most-inaccessible corners of the Amazon jungle or on another planet knows by heart. Due to the fact that Jesus was a Hebrew — folks who relied on a lunar calendar rather than one tied to the sun — and his crucifixion took place during Passover, a Jewish holiday, Easter (the earliest and holiest of all Christian holidays) originally shifted around according to the cycles of the moon, and does to this day, although no longer in conjunction with Passover. For a western Christian, Easter is a joyous occasion filled with prayer, sunrise church services, sacraments and feasting, a medley that brings more of the (sometimes lapsed) faithful into the fold, at least for this one day, than any other Christian holiday, including Christmas. Suffering, death, rebirth … the ultimate and permanent new beginning for those who believe in redemption and forgiveness via this miraculous moment in human history; a moment that happened ONE TIME ONLY and will not be repeated.
But, really, the resurrection occurs every year. It’s called SPRING — Easter falls on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the Spring Equinox — a time when the smothering white blanket of winter gives way to green shoots and pink blossoms. Robins arrive from down south. Warm chinook winds blow down from the High Country. The snow in the yard finally melts, revealing the first blades of grass and many months worth of frozen dogshit now on the thaw. By now, most everybody has a bit of cabin fever and is ready to go outside, maybe don a nice pretty dress or your Sunday best, carry a basket and search out the colored eggs that a magical bunny rabbit has hidden beneath last year’s dead grasses.
Eggs and bunnies have little to do with the story of Jesus and everything to do with the changing season. The very name of the holiday comes from the Old English “Eostre,” a long-lost Germanic goddess of dawn, springtime, and, of course, fertility. Eggs are a global symbol of fertility as well, for obvious reasons, and while Christians may have adapted the motif to symbolize the rebirth of their savior, the custom of coloring eggs to honor the Spring Equinox was practiced at least 2,500 years ago in places as far flung as China, India and Persia. The egg hunt itself resembles a search for the first flowers blooming here and there in the damp earth — think crocuses and daffodils in your front yard, or pasque flowers and glacial lilies in the mountains — while the bunny and her ability to give birth to as many as 130 precious fuzzy babies per year is a powerful symbol of procreation and regeneration: just say the words “hump like bunnies” and see what comes to mind.
If you’re a Pagan Parent, this one is a piece of cake: go with the flow. Attend a sunrise Easter ceremony if you wish, or just get up early enough to watch the sunrise and hide the eggs before the kids wake up. Feed the youngsters some chocolate bunnies for breakfast, then send them out in search of the hidden eggs (outside if possible — rarely possible during my own frozen mountain childhood), then take a drive and point out the newborn calves in the meadows and the baby chicks in the window at the feed store, or better, take a hike and watch for early-season wildflowers and new plant shoots down by the creek. Finally, return home for a feast, for, as with St. Patrick’s Day, the traditional Easter dinner offers a chance to discuss the seasonal aspects of the food on the table, i.e., this spring’s freshly slaughtered lamb, or last autumn’s cured ham, not to mention the eggs themselves, which, in the days before factory farms and 24-hour forced lighting, were hard to come by in the winter but were laid and gathered in earnest as the days began to lengthen and warm.
Assuming you don’t live above timberline, by the time the month of May rolls around, the crusty snow banks and/or April showers have morphed into a proliferation of flowers and greenery, and signs of life are everywhere: creeks flowing freely, birds nesting, cottonwoods leafing out along the rivers and beautiful Yoga Milfs strolling the sidewalks in short dresses and sandals.
The first day of May is also the holiday known as May Day, which was coopted by commies a century ago and twisted into a celebration of workers across the world — an admirable goal, but one that has little to do with the original intent of the day, which was, of course, a celebration of all things sexy, nubile and full of life and lust, for, by now, Spring has sprung in earnest and the sap is rising, or as my Uncle Dragon used to say: “Hooray, hooray for the first of May, the outdoor fucking starts today!”
So, unless you’re a dedicated International Workers of the World activist, chances are that you associate May Day with springtime and flowers, and for good reason, for the holiday is based upon a number of ancient holidays that fell on the same day, including the ancient Roman celebration of Floralia, a festival dedicated to Flora, goddess of flowers, and Beltane, a Celtic/Irish/Scottish festival celebrating the hope inherent in full-blown spring. Bonfires were lit and livestock were driven through the flames in ritual purification before being shepherded out of the village pastures and into the fresh grass of surrounding hills and mountains. Sometimes naked folks jumped over the fires as well, or danced around the tall, stiff May Pole in celebration of the recurring spring themes of fertility and new beginnings.
As we’ve seen, all the spring holidays unabashedly celebrate aspects of fertility and the sexuality necessary to bring it about. Beltane was the last of these festivals, a big party celebrating the literal and metaphorical flowering of life, and it tended to be the most important, as well as the most brazenly sexual, complete with frolicking that would bring a smile to the face of wise Uncle Dragon: young women would spend the night in the woods to be visited by young men, and, in the morning, both would return to the village with twigs in their hair and garlands of flowers around their heads, the whole thing a reflection of the larger union of the powers (cosmic penis, heavenly vagina) necessary to keep life going.
Pagan parents can take the family on an outing in the woods for picnicking and gathering flowers for the hearth and home, decorating and dancing around a May Pole in the yard (lop the branches off of last year’s Christmas tree and save the trunk), and, of course, kindling a raging evening bonfire and inviting over friends and family for a celebration of springtime and fire jumping — clothing optional once the kids are in bed.
Maybe it’s due to our agricultural heritage, or our penchant for meat/potatoes/alcohol-centric feasts, or perhaps we’re just a horny nation, but whatever the reason, it seems as that Americans are particularly enthralled by these late-winter and early-spring celebrations and their associated foods and rituals: five good ones in just four months, making the February-’til-May stretch of our calendar the most-heathenish of the year. Much of Europe and even Canada celebrate ancient summer holidays, but our forebears in the Lower 48 must have been too busy with their hot-season chores (such as clearing the land of primordial forest and red-skinned pagans) to bother with mirth, for, while summer offers a handful of purely secular holidays — Father’s Day, Flag Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day — our Earth-bound shindigs fall away after May Day and don’t return for another six months. But that next one is a doozy: Halloween, perhaps the most paganesqe of all our modern holidays, and an easy one for Pagan Parents.
Until then, remember that the Jehovah’s Witness folks are correct: our holidays lean toward the demonic end of the spectrum, or if you prefer, they stem from traditions that predate our current dominant religion and its insistence on One God and a strict good/evil duality by centuries, if not millennia. None of which matters much in the grand scheme of things, for humans have been creatively marking the passage of time/plugging into the Big Picture for tens of thousands of years, and will continue to do so long after our current civilization collapses and we’re forced to return to our roots as hunters, gatherers and subsistence farmers. Besides, it’s not the particulars of the celebrations that matter so much as the fact that we’re paying attention to the cycles of life upon which all of us are utterly dependent.