My compatriot Jason Pitzl-Waters has written an excellent essay on the Winter Holidays, Paganism, and Christmas over at the Washington Post. On one hand, I agree with him: during the dark part of the year, it is natural to wish to bring a little light in, to gather in warmth with friends and family, to celebrate what we have, together.
On the other hand… I really wish that Christians would take back Christmas.
Christmas, at least how it is celebrated in the U.S. overculture, has become a sort of Frankenstein’s monster. The sewing together of old Pagan customs, Christian theology, and rampant consumerism has wrought a beast that is ugly, fearsome, noisy, and out of control. Christmas has so overtaken us, that even many Jews have upgraded what used to be a fairly minor holiday into a gift exchanging extravaganza. It is hard not to at least try to compete with the juggernaut that is Santa’s sleigh.
Years ago, I opted out of the frenzy. I am not a Christian. Being a Pagan from the Northern Hemisphere, I celebrate Winter Solstice, honoring the darkest, longest night in celebration with my friends. I give a few small gifts to my partners, but everyone else, for the last 17 years or so, gets a Solstice poem, which I started writing that first year that I decided compulsory gift giving was both a crock and a consumer nightmare. Like all gifts, the poem varies from year to year, in both content and success level, but at least it doesn’t feel like an obligation. The year I changed over – I recall it vividly – the carols everywhere were a cacophony in my ears, it was a rare freezing year in San Francisco – so cold my motorcycle started with great difficulty – and I was shopping. The least expensive thing on the list I’d gotten for the sister I was to be “Santa” for cost a $75 I could not afford, so I chose instead a lovely shawl and a favorite CD. For my nieces and nephews, I bought hand crafted yo-yos from Guatemala or fair trade dolls from Sri Lanka. Sister was puzzled and likely disappointed. Nephews and nieces were polite, but uninterested, preferring things composed of plastic and batteries and made in China. I gave up and said never again. After that year, I ceased even going to gather at Christmas with my family, because to do so felt like a lie. As problematic a holiday as Thanksgiving is, that is when I make my familial visit.
Many people are likely to argue with me on this next point, and that is fine, but I say to anyone who is not a Christian and who celebrates Christmas: what exactly do you think you are doing? Why are you contributing to this beast, this monster, this creature that not only feeds on the sweat of poor people around the world but simultaneously takes more and more money to just maintain its caloric requirements? Why have you – atheist, Pagan, Christian, or Jew – been taken in?
Yes, Pagans have celebrated their Winter holidays for millenia, and with good reason. Yes, evergreen trees and special cakes were part of this. Yes, the birth of a baby God enters into some versions of the celebratory rituals. So separate it out again. Throw a party for your friends to ward off the cold. Honor Yule, or Winternights, or Solstice. Make gifts if you wish to. Cook food and kindle lights. But leave Christmas alone. Perhaps if enough of us cease to feed the monster, it will lose power, and Christmas can return to being a small celebration by a sect who believes that the Child of Promise so many Pagans speak of – the Bright One born from the cold – was named Jesus and came to work the magic of healing the sick and feeding the poor.
The carols will stop blasting from the loudspeakers of every downtown shopping area. Decorations and entreaties to Buy! Buy! Buy! will not fill our towns from Halloween to January. Stampedes for the latest electronics and toys will become a memory of the distant past. People will gather to celebrate Festivus, or Mithras, or Frau Holle, or La Befana, or Jesus, or the rededication of the temple, or the simple warmth of each other’s company.
Let us put the Christ back into Christmas, and then leave it well alone. Let us lay the monster of rampant consumerism to bed and light some candles to ward off the darkness and herald the promise of the returning sun.