A few days before Purim, I read a blog post describing the holiday as “Jewish Carnival.” I hate describing Jewish holidays as “Jewish [NAME OF CHRISTIAN OR SECULAR HOLIDAY HERE].” Purim celebrates a specific event where Persian Jews turned the tables on their persecutors. It’s not “Jewish anything” except Purim. Still, the comparison to Carnival made me notice something that is similar between the two, and I’ve been thinking about that ever since: both are holidays of excess leading into periods of limitation.
Carnival, a holiday of drunkenness, gluttony, and general costumed debauchery, rolls directly into Lent, a period when many Christians up something dear to (and possibly bad for) them for forty days1, and Catholics in particular have periods of complete fasting and abstaining from meat. A month after Purim, a holiday of drunkenness, gluttony, and general costumed debauchery, comes Pesach, when Jews are commanded to give up leavened goods for eight days.
Paganism – at least my branch of it – doesn’t have anything like that. We move from Imbolc, celebrating the early-season fecundity of domesticated animals (depending on who you ask, the source of the word means either “in the belly,” referring to pregnant farm animals, or “ewe’s milk”), to Spring Equinox, celebrating the balance between darkness and light and the arrival of Spring (the eventual arrival of Spring, in our neck of the woods). Pagans are not, by and large, people of privations, especially not at a time of year when the natural world is waking up and bursting forth with new life. And yet for me, at least, a sort of “shaking off” does happen at this time of year.
I’m essentially a hermit from mid-December through mid-February. I might attend a couple holiday dos in the Winter Solstice/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa holiday constellation, but otherwise, if something’s not necessary to my life or livelihood, I don’t leave the house for it.
I make no apologies for this. This period of rest is essential to keep me going the rest of the year. But when spring comes (or at least looks like it’s thinking about coming), it’s time to release not just my hermitude but the complacency that can come with it.
In the middle of writing this post, I actually left my house, voluntarily, on a Thursday night, to attend a rally for the celebration and protection of trans lives organized in response to the brutal attack of a trans woman not two miles from my house. Overcoming Winter Hermit inertia took a lot of pep talks. But it’s essential to me that I show up for my communities when and how I can, and I knew it was time to shake off sleep and complacency and get ready to re-engage in the fight.
So as we move from Purim to Pesach, Imbolc to Equinox, Carnival to Lent, or whatever we observe at this time of year, let’s celebrate waking up and giving up something that holds us back from full participation in life and community. Although we acknowledge the discomfort the sacrifice brings, let’s stay focused on what we gain – and what the world can gain – in return.
1 One year while I was in college, one of my Catholic friends wanted to do a big community service project during Lent – “taking on” rather than “giving up.” Her priest said no; to “count” for Lent, she had to give something up. At the time it seemed ridiculous, but these days I have a better appreciation for the importance of sacrifice in this context. (My friend still did the project. She said she was giving up a certain amount of time with her friends, which she just happened to fill with a community service project.)
Image description: a white banner reading “DEFEND TRANS LIVES.” “Defend” and “lives” in black; “trans” in blue, pink, and white. The backs of some people’s heads are visible beyond the banner. It’s snowing, and everyone is dressed for winter weather. Photo by the author.