Holidays celebrate us
by Jason Mankey
I’m a big believer in holidays, and being careful not to attach too much religious goop to them. If a holiday is spiritual or religious in your eyes, I think that’s great. I feel that way about some too, but sometimes a holiday is just a holiday and not necessarily a “holy day.”
This is not usually a problem for me, but it comes up a lot in the period between Halloween and Christmas. The “holiest” day of the year for many Pagans is Samhain, or as it’s more popularly known Halloween. For many of us, it’s a time to remember and honor the dead, and perhaps be gifted with a moment of reunion. In such instances, Samhain is a “spiritual” moment, and not a night for the more commercial aspects we associate with Halloween.
Personally, I’ve always liked the spiritual moment and the commercial trappings, and as such I’ve always tried to straddle the space between the two. My front porch is decorated with bats and spiders, the altar above my fireplace is adorned with statues of deity and the foliage of autumn. On the outside, my house is decorated for the secular Halloween, on the inside it reflects the more spiritual Samhain.
For many people, Pagan and non-Pagan, Halloween and Samhain are nearly identical holidays. No Pagan has ever given me grief for passing out Halloween candy, though many are surprised when I pass on an invitation for a Samhain gathering to cater to trick or treaters. (Paganism is flexible enough that you can celebrate Samhain when it’s convenient, for me that’s meant October 26 and 27, and November 3, isn’t that enough?) Choosing the secular over the spiritual aspects of late October is not generally seen as offensive to anyone; unfortunately, December is an entirely different story.
For Pagans the big December holiday is Yule, the Winter Solstice. I celebrate the Solstice, but in my household it’s been all but consumed by Christmas. Yes, I’m a Pagan who celebrates Christmas, something that often bothers both my Christian and Pagan friends.
My Pagan friends often assume that by celebrating Christmas, I’m celebrating Jesus. While I do enjoy a nice nativity scene (ancient pagans had similar myths) I celebrate Christmas because society hasn’t given me much choice. Everything is closed, if I don’t unwrap presents that morning, what else am I going to do? It’s also something celebrated by my extended family, none of whom are very religious. I celebrate Christmas to alleviate boredom, share a moment with my family, and because the decorations are pretty (and identical to those of Yule). It’s not a spiritual holiday for me (and it’s not to many Christians either), it’s just a big secular holiday.
That big secular holiday is one thing that many of my Christian friends don’t get either. The majority of Christmas holidays have nothing to do with Jesus, the Bible, or Christianity. Most Christmas trappings were either appropriated from ancient pagans or conceived of in the 19th Century. I’m not stomping on anyone’s religious traditions by celebrating Christmas, I’m mostly just celebrating consumption and capitalism. Jesus was always a recent addition to the winter party.
I think there are religious groups out there who like to take “ownership” of holidays. No holiday has ever been celebrated in just one particular way, and every shared holiday in the United States is a patchwork of history, sharing elements from various cultures and traditions. The “timeless” elements of many holidays are just as likely to come from Madison Avenue as they are from antiquity. It might be possible to claim a sliver of a holiday’s DNA, but ownership? You’d have to do some real mental gymnastics to line Jesus up with mistletoe, fir trees, and snow. The same thing applies to jack-o-lanterns and Druids.
Holidays are what you make of them. To paraphrase a bit, we weren’t made to celebrate the holidays — holidays were made to celebrate us. Some people celebrate with religious reflection, and others celebrate with raucous partying. As long as everyone remembers to act responsibly, there’s no right or wrong way to do these things.