A Ha’penny Will Do: A Pagan Perspective on Christmas

I’m on the road right now, traveling across the country to spend time with family. But here’s a ghost of winters past to tide you over until the new year. This post was originally published on December 3, 2009.

Christmas is coming. That song wends its way through my mind this morning. “Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat….” It’s strange, but Christmas is one of those holidays that make me feel the most Pagan. Maybe it’s all the greenery brought in from outside, the whole-hearted unabashed singing and celebrating and decorating, especially with the simple old-fashioned trimmings of ribbon and candles and holly and bits of shining tinsel. During the Christmas season, my parents’ house itself becomes a kind of walk-in shrine to Yuletide Cheer, and I’ve inherited my fair share of holiday decorations that find themselves strewn about my apartment each year. The green and red and ribbon and fire and shiny things, all this raging against the dying of the light, is all very Christmas-y to me, though. Alban Arthan, the solstice, remains distinctly quiet, reflective and dark, the new-born sun like a small, cold seed of potential light still to be planted, hidden away, unripe and unready. Yet it seems more obvious than ever that both of these are necessary, both moods relevant and revelatory each in their own ways.

xmas_blooms

This year, my decorations will be migrating over to Jeff’s place where, for the first time, I will be sharing Christmas with children as a kind of parent-figure in my own right. Children who still don’t know Santa Claus isn’t real (despite the oldest being eleven and having only just found out the Tooth Fairy has been mommy all along). The “story” we’re sticking to, in case this is the year they ask, is that Santa is real, because he is the spirit of generosity and gift-giving that we invite into our lives and into our hearts, to help guide us in choosing the perfect gift for our loved ones. It’s the same story my parents explained to me the year I playfully, but knowingly, asked my father for Santa’s phone number because I needed to call him and update my wish list, and my father in turn dutifully dictated our own home phone number as I dialed, a mischievous look on his face. But I find that I can’t be all too concerned with whether or not the kids believe in Santa Claus. Instead, I have found myself ruminating on Christianity and the story of Christ, and how to share this with the children in a meaningful way as a Pagan parent.

Honestly, I find that I’m having a bit of an identity crisis over the Christmas holiday this year. Not so much the kind that leaves me wondering who I am — I know who I am — but the kind where I find myself asking, “Who the f’ are all of you, anyway?” Christmas is still the one time a year when I attend church with my family. Every year, midnight on Christmas Eve (or, I guess technically, Christmas morning) finds me sitting meditatively in one of the long, polished-wooden pews of my old church, smiling familiarly at the faces I recognize, noting the muted creams, greens and golds of the church’s Christmas decorations, neither gaudy nor solstice-seasonal, that always seemed so oddly out of touch with everything except the building’s own particular sense of style.

Midnight Mass is presided over every year by a priest now well into his eighties, who is one of the wiser and kinder spiritual leaders I’ve known in my life, and who speaks gently and deliberately each prayer and blessing. Whereas once I thought his long pauses and slow pacing were signs of senility finally setting in, work with regular meditation in my private life has in recent years opened up these moments of quiet, in the darkest hour of the longest night, to reveal the spaciousness of absence and Mystery. From the warm lights and bustling family noises of a cheery home edged with expectation and excitement, each year we venture out into the windy darkness of winter midnight, starlight scattered across shorn-down fields rolling out to the horizon in all directions, to sit for a time in dimly-lit tranquility, singing old, familiar songs in keys nobody can comfortably reach. And when the wizened priest stands at the altar and recites the Proclamation of Christmas — “Today, the twenty-fifth day of the month of December, countless ages after the creation of the world…” — to the building crescendo of the organ piling chord upon chord, culminating in the announcement that Jesus is born, today, this day, in the present tense, while the organ shakes the building to its rafters, every year I feel that strange and knowing thrill. The thrill of mystery, where garish light-filled celebration collides with darkness and fragility and the silence of the rumbling, trembling pipes of music suddenly cutting out.

And I find myself wondering, this year especially, what does all this have to do with Christianity?

Now, I think many Christians would themselves say that this is it, this is really the heart of Christianity when all’s said and done. This moment of creation and beauty and light within the gently howling darkness. Yet so many things get tacked on, added and amended, huge socio-political institutions growing up around simple, powerful truths, institutions that expect assent to certain formulae and doctrines, that draw conclusions about heaven, hell, salvation and revelation. I no longer believe the story of Jesus as exclusive spiritual truth, let alone as literal historical fact. Yet I believe in the story in a way that anchors it deeply in my bones, regardless of what religious community I belong to. I believe in the truths this story tells. I have not left those truths behind; they were in many ways the very thing that led me to Druidry, that left me dissatisfied with Christianity as an organized religion. These truths have never disappeared from my life, and yet I am as sure of them today — as sure of their mystery and power and gentleness and goodness — as I am sure that in every way that counts, I’m no longer a Christian. Not really.

But that leaves me with a question. Because the solstice season is a season of noisy celebration and fire-lighting and gift-giving, as much as it is a time of death and darkness and the suffering struggle of rebirth in the biting, barren cold. And the story of Christ being born is, all theology and doctrine aside, the story of the birth of the world, weak and squirming and covered in glop, the on-going singing of the World Song, ever-new and always renewing, today, this very day, in the present tense. So the question I’m left with is: how do I share this aspect of the solstice, Alban Arthan, with children never raised with a theology of god-become-man, not even familiar with the story, with the bizarre notion that Utter Godness is within each of us? And how do I tell them the story without getting bogged down with the language of doctrine and interfaith politics? Never mind that Santa Claus isn’t real, how do I teach them the things that are?

Because one thing you can certainly say for Christians is, they’ve got focus. The birth of a sun-child on the winter solstice is all the more powerful when that babe of light is the unique Revelation of Spirit, the whole Divine shebang condensed down into this singular, fragile form. This is, in some ways, poetry heightened to the nth degree: not only the use of particulars to speak of universals, but the exclusive worshipful focus on a single Particular as the whole of the Universe. The Hindu bhakti yogic discipline (love and devotion to one particular deity) has nothing on this. And the mild Pagan focus on Mabon, or Sol Invictus, or whatever other solar deity… well, feels a bit lacking in comparison, just another god among a whole slew of gods and goddesses to choose from, if you please. Besides which, the gods of Pagan polytheism sometimes feel so heroic and larger-than-life that the utter mystery of vulnerability and weakness gets left in the mythic-metaphorical dust.

Whereas, take Mary, whose only superpower was having not had sex yet. As the story goes, this young woman, living in poverty, sustained in her livelihood largely by family and community ties and betrothed to a man she loved deeply, is confronted by God — friggin’ God, you guys — and given the choice to bear a holy son destined, after only a few short years on the planet, for degradation, suffering and death. Aside from the destiny of the child, to be an unmarried woman and pregnant at this time risked personal shame and community rejection, jeopardizing the future of her marriage and permanent ostracism from the social ties on which she depended. And the Universe itself basically asked her permission, this nobody, this fragile little human thing, and in full knowledge, knowing what risk she faced and the suffering it would bring, confronting the overwhelming injustice of it, and her own smallness and impotence in stopping it… she said yes. Not a goddess with nothing really to lose. Just an ordinary woman, who gave birth to a god as wrinkled and spongy and smelly as any infant.

There is something important in this, something that I wonder sometimes might be missing from today’s Paganism still deepening and finding its sea-legs. There is, in the Christmas story, something about confronting the reality of darkness and suffering, not with shouting and singing and leaping bonfires in defiance, nor with acquiescence, silent obedience or willful denial… but with quiet, unflinching affirmation: the affirmation of empowerment, courage and strength, the life-giving, meaning-making affirmation of creation. A recent comment from a reader of this blog spoke of the “gentle respect” for suffering and difficulty that lurks sometimes in my writings here. For me, sorrow, loneliness and grief go hand-in-hand with joy, connection and love in this life we live together, in this song we all are singing. In a very real way, I could not devalue or deny these things without sacrificing the fullness and complexity of beauty and life, without substituting a shallower, simpler version of mere contentedness and safety in their place. This is a truth of my Druidry, my Paganism — the balance, the intricate interweaving of darkness and suffering with illumination and ecstasy. The liminal space between, within which nothing is precisely delineated and separate.

And so, this is the space I find myself in again as Christmas approaches. Wondering, wandering in a liminal space. Asking myself how to teach children that realizing their own inner Santa Claus is infinitely more challenging than believing in some unlikely literal jolly-old-elf, and infinitely more rewarding. Asking myself where I belong, where we all belong, and how we belong to each other. Asking myself how I can tell the stories of my ancestors, pagan and Christian alike, to the children of my partner. What can I say that will be meaningful and relevant for them, that will share with them the “spirit of the season” that I have come to know and love and value? What will I say when they come singing, a penny for my thoughts?

Well, like the song says, if you haven’t got a penny, maybe a ha’penny will do. And if you haven’t got a ha’penny… may the gods bless you.

Alison Leigh Lilly
Alison Leigh Lilly nurtures the earth-rooted, sea-soaked, mist-and-mystic spiritual heritage of her Celtic ancestors, exploring themes of peace, poesis and wilderness through essays, articles, poetry and podcasting. You can learn more about her work here.

1 Comment

  1. Susan Chandler
    Dec 24, 2015

    I very much enjoyed this, especially since in the beginning of my Pagan searching, the elements showed me that each is both life-giving and life taking, that there is balance in all things and that is, in essence, what you are talking about.

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