One thing I don’t hear talked about much in Pagan circles is that sometimes you can plan the best ritual, and then it just… falls flat, either for you or for others attending. It’s seldom your fault (or at least, it’s seldom entirely your fault), but it still sucks.
And it’s okay anyway.
I’d been looking forward to Leora and my Winter Solstice ritual for weeks. The concept was simple: for 24 hours (from just before sunset Sunday to just after sunset Monday), we would have a ritual retreat day of rest and reflection. It called back to the spiritual retreat days that Leora and I used to do several times a year back in the day, and gave us a time to honor the quiet contemplativeness of the longest night of the year.
The Winter Solstice is tomorrow! Yay! Leora and I will be celebrating in epic fashion, which I’ll be writing about here later. In the meantime, here’s a song!
By next year, I hope to have learned a real Winter Solstice song. For now, we’ll make do with “The Holly and the Ivy,” the most Pagan Christmas carol I know how to play. I mean, have you looked at the opening lyrics?
The holly and the ivy When they are both full grown Of all trees that are in the wood The holly bears the crown
O, the rising of the sun And the running of the deer The playing of the merry organ Sweet singing in the choir
Yeah, sure, there’s bits after that about Mary bearing sweet Jesus Christ. But… “the rising of the sun and the running of the deer”? “The holly bears the crown”? That’s feels like straight-up nature reverence, y’all. Like, yes, yes, we love Mary and Jesus – but have you seen that holly berry, as red as any blood?
“The Holly and the Ivy” puts me in mind of those quaint, remote English villages someone’s often stumbling across in cozy mysteries, where Paganism and Christianity exist inextricably – if not always comfortably – together. It’s a metaphor for something, I’m sure.
For the past several years, I’ve been adamant about not celebrating Christmas or Chanukah. “Not my religions; not my holidays” was my standard response when someone asked about my plans.
I did this for because, one, it’s fun to watch people’s faces when I tell them that I don’t celebrate the world’s biggest consumerist holiday, even glancingly. Two (and more important personally), despite having been a practicing Pagan since 2001, the only consistent Winter Solstice practice I’d developed was staying up all night, which becomes increasingly inaccessible as I get older. I needed to step back and develop celebrations that neither appropriated an oppressed religion nor kowtowed to an oppressive one.
I needed that time away. It’s done me a world of good as a Pagan.
The December event of the Minnesota Threshold Network was called “Facing Holidays After the Death of a Loved One.” As I sat in that circle, talking about holiday traditions and honoring loved ones who have died, I thought about how, although I don’t celebrate Christmas or Chanukah, I once did, and my Ancestors have, for many generations. By choosing not to engage with these holidays, I’ve cut myself off from them, from using shared practices to thank, honor, connect with, and grieve for those who have gone before me.
So this year, I chose one action to acknowledge each holiday. Not a full celebration, since they’re still not my religions or my holidays. One act to connect me to Ancestors recent and distant who celebrated these holidays. To remind them, and myself, that though we walk different spiritual paths, they are welcome here.
Chanukah was easy: I created a… well, I hesitate to call it a chanukiah. It’s a strip of fabric set up under the Yule tree with LED candles. Every night I’ve been saying the blessings and lighting the candles. (The Yule tree, btw, is three birch logs lashed together in a tripod, wrapped with blue string lights and topped with seasonally appropriate cookie cutters. Because we are those Minnesotans.)
Christmas was more challenging. Other than attending the Christmas Eve service at church, which, just, no, my family of origin was much more connected to the holiday’s consumerist aspects than its religious or cultural ones. Being as anti-capitalist as a 21st-century American urbanite can be, those aren’t traditions I want to replicate.
I thought about food, instead. Specifically, waffles. My parents had a waffle maker. It was a wedding gift. They hated using it, considering it too unwieldy and difficult. It came out once a year: on Christmas morning. After we opened presents, Mom and I would watch The Nutcracker (Baryshnikov version) on PBS while Dad swore at the waffles.
This is tricky, of course, because I shared the tradition with ancestors (living), not Ancestors (dead). But it connects me to family, and although my more distant Ancestors may not have eaten waffles on Christmas Day, I’m sure that most of them had special holiday food traditions of some sort, and this feels like sharing mine with them.
I am one moment in Time. The lines of memory flows from the Ancestors, through me, and on to the Descendants. And in this time of deep, healing, dreaming darkness, I stand with ancestors, Ancestors, and Descendants at the confluence of three winter holidays and greet the returning light.