Pagans: Now With Actual Holidays

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  August 18, 2011 — 55 Comments

Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee has added four Pagan holidays to its calendar, meaning an excused absence can be obtained by students for religious observances. A local-interest story on the adoption of these holidays in the Tennessean has since been picked up by USA Today and the Associated Press.

The Vanderbilt policy says students must be excused from classes and other academic activities on days when their religious traditions put restrictions on labor or forbid it outright, like Eid al Fitr for Muslims and Yom Kippur for Jews. It says professors, department chairs or deans can decide if absences will be excused for religious days that are not “work-restricted,” including the Wiccan and pagan days. “This is a mechanism to let faculty be aware of these holidays, that there may be students approaching them, for example, to reschedule an exam, to make up a day of coursework or something like that because they are choosing to observe their religion on that day,” Vanderbilt spokeswoman Princine Lewis said Tuesday. “And that’s an agreement that would have to be worked out with the faculty member.”

Local conservative commentator Roy Exum has decided this is just another example of liberal decadence at Vanderbilt.

“Now I’m all for Freedom of Religion, but when pagans and witches are accorded center stage at a school where tuition is now nearly $50,000 a year, the crazies are clearly running the insane asylum. […] Before there were holidays like Yom Kippur for those of the Jewish faith and now the Muslim holidays of Eid al Fitr are included, but don’t you think a bunch of pagans dancing around a maypole “to symbolize the mystery of the Sacred Marriage of Goddess and God” is a little over the top?”

I love it when people profess to love freedom of religion, and then talk about how the principle is being taken too far. Meanwhile, response from modern Pagans has generally been very positive at this forward step towards acceptance and accommodation. Selena Fox of Circle Sanctuary, a longtime advocate for the equal treatment of modern Pagans, struck a hopeful note on receiving the news.

“I am thankful that Vanderbilt University has expanded its diversity accommodation calendar to include some Wiccan and Pagan holidays.  It is my hope that universities, colleges, and other institutions will be inclusive of Wiccan and other Pagan traditions of those in their campus communities as well – and that accommodation of holidays extends not only to students, but to faculty and staff.”

Fox was also interviewed by the Associated Press on this story, along with Marijean Rue, a graduate of Vanderbilt’s Divinity School, who is a Witch in the Tangled Woods Tradition.

Rue, who also worked as a Vanderbilt employee after graduating, she felt comfortable telling other people her religious beliefs and felt Vanderbilt was a progressive campus that was welcoming to all religions. The addition of the holidays is a supportive sign to pagan students and faculty by the university, she said. “You feel like people aren’t going to say, ‘You’re just making this up,'” Rue said. She said young college students who are exploring religious beliefs like paganism could feel more secure in expressing themselves on campus. “When an authoritative body comes out and says, ‘We accept this,’ it really makes people feel safer,” she said.

The adoption of Pagan holidays to the list of holidays for which a student can take an excused absence has been a quietly growing phenomenon in the United States. In 2007 Marshall University in West Virginia added Pagan holidays to  its list, sparking national coverage in the process. Last year, the New Jersey State Board of Education added the eight Wiccan/Pagan “Wheel of the Year” holidays to its “official” list, while North Carolina passed a law requiring all school systems and public universities in the state to allow two excused absences per year for religious observances.

While some may feel this is political correctness run amok, it is simply a long-overdue acknowledgement that modern Pagan religions are, in fact, valid religions. Religions that have holidays and observances, and are legally recognized by the United States government. Universities like Vanderbilt and Marshall are simply codifying a reality that already exists at institutions all across the United States, that Pagan students are receiving excused absences for their holidays. Listing them simply streamlines the process of having to achieve permissions. As Pagan religiosity is further mainstreamed, no doubt Pagan faiths who don’t follow some version of the “Wheel of the Year” will also seek, and be granted, recognition as well. For those who criticize or oppose such measures, it’s simply another instance of their Christian privilege coming into play.

Jason Pitzl-Waters


  • My cousin went to Vanderbilt, and while that has nothing to do with anything, it does add one more spark of pride when I think of the school.

  • Robin

    “…but don’t you think a bunch of pagans dancing around a maypole “to symbolize the mystery of the Sacred Marriage of Goddess and God” is a little over the top?”
    sigh. And allowing recognized holidays for a religion the celebrates with a man in a robe marching down the aisle of a church with the image of a crucified god on a cross, then engaging in a ritual where the participants symbolically eat the body and drink the blood of said god is NOT over the top?? Oh the irony.

    • Norse Alchemist

      Because cannibalism is a okay, but dancing is morally wrong?

  • Emperor4evr

    Well this is awesome and so about time. I have practiced for over 50 years and I get to finally see the world change for the better. I could go on and on but why? I am glad to see this and maybe the world will finally get out under the ignorant thumb of the oppressors of the OLD WAYS. Blessed Be!!!

  • Pagan Puff Pieces

    Wow, that’s nice of them!

    “Before there were holidays like Yom Kippur for those of the Jewish faith and now the Muslim holidays of Eid al Fitr are included…”

    I get the feeling the Jewish and Muslim holidays were too much for him, too.

    What, he’s never heard of the Mexican Day of the Dead, or at least Halloween? Yeah, it’s a whole lot of “I don’t know anything about it so, I mean, but, I don’t like it! But I heard…. What if what if what what if.” And, back to privilege… it’s “center stage?” and I’ll bet he never worried about telling who was Christian or not.

    • Mia

      Day of the Dead is Catholic (and not just Mexican), so it’s not surprising that non-Catholics don’t know or care about it. Some protestants appear to acknowledge it, but I think that’s less of a function of their beliefs (as they treat the holiday differently), and more of what is typical for their communities.

      • Pagan Puff Pieces

        True. I was hoping that, while specifically Catholic, it would be well-known enough that a holiday concerned with the dead wouldn’t seem so bizarre and foreign.

  • Sunweaver

    I’m a Middle Tennessee resident and this is a pretty big deal. I’m hoping that some of the other universities in this area pick up on this and follow suit.

    • I’m hoping it spreads.

    • Catatmyfeet2004

      I live in Eastern Tennessee (a transplant from VA) and would love for that kind of thing to happen here. However, my children often come home with scripture-laden newsletters from school, and constant pressure from students, faculty and other parents to come to church on Sundays. I have been told by the few other pagans in a hundred mile radius to keep my mouth shut and watch my back around here, even though I have my rights… This kind of thing sounds wonderful on paper, but I have my reservations that things will go smoothly.

      • Sunweaver

        I’m originally from East TN. I hear ya.

  • Reading that article made me want to fire off an angry e-mail but I refrained. Seriously? What does this guy imagine he’s saying besides “Freedom of religion is great but only for my religion, everybody else is just too weird”? Plus the mockery of our holidays, as if Christian rituals are any less bizarre when you step back and think about them, was pretty irritating.

    I work at a bank. I told my manager “Hey, these are my religious holidays, I don’t need paid time off but if that could be my day off for that week that would be cool. These are the really important ones, these are the not-so-important ones that you don’t need to schedule around since I’ll be out of here by 6:30 anyway.”

    She has consistently scheduled me off every single holiday, and in the case of the longer festivals, for several consecutive days. My assistant manager is Jain and is taking several weeks off for Paryushana. And I can’t tell you how much safer it makes me feel knowing that my boss takes both our belief sets seriously and doesn’t see scheduling around it as any kind of big deal. Plus, since it’s a bank, we also get the national (re: Christian) holidays off, so I guess we get the last laugh on that one.

  • Kelley

    While I roundly support any increased recognition of paganism by the culture as a whole, I would much rather see a return to the idea that college students are adults and the idea of an “excused absence” would be absurd.

    The ideal of the university is one where adults come together as a means for furthering knowledge, either by teaching or by research, and that adults can and should police themselves to see that they get the most out of self-motivated action.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      What you say is correct, but this policy puts a Pagan student in a better bargaining position if, for example, a major test in a course falls on a holiday and the student would like to take it on a different day.

      • Kittyfox1963

        Yes and if we have to miss valuable learning time for other holidays why not for pagan as well?

    • You’ve never met an American undergrad I see!….

    • Norse Alchemist

      Yeah….the universities aren’t like that anymore. It’s a place where you spend vast amounts of money to get a piece of paper that says you can be hired for jobs that no longer exist.

      Not to mention all the opinions that get silenced because the university teachers and staff don’t like them…

  • Roy Exum’s blatant intolerance and disrespect of religious practices makes me want to puke… on his best pair of shoes.

  • I don’t see how it can be ‘political correctness’. If Christians should be allowed to take time off for their holy days, why not pagans?

  • Valerie

    I’d like to ask Mr. Exum if celebrating the murder of a man by drinking blood and eating his flesh is over the top. Seriously, though, I used to live near Nashville and I liked it there. Good job Vanderbilt.

  • No Bod E

    Didn’t the Christian religion originally steal their holidays from the Pagans?

    • ballerina427

      most definite and the easter bunny hellloo? so pagan and yes if you learn paganism 101 it tells how far back it goes and yes they did and just changed around names and dates a little here is a website for anyone wondering what we actually do
      we want to practice our religion as others do! we don’t dog on other’s why do it to us??

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    Jason, are you tracking the story of the Santero barber in New Bedford, Mass, whose shop was shut down after chickens (one dead) were found there? It’s on Witchvox.

    • I’m on it. Stay tuned.

      • anon

        please make sure to get the real facts and post away..please
        the man is not a santero but follows palo mayombe…
        and, it was the barbershop that got shut down..
        baruch, where is the witchvox article?

        • anon

          unfortunate thought, i mean, the barbershop is prolly a big part of his income, sucks…

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          That Santero factoid may have been mine; I only checked back to recall the town.

          The article is in the news section, the Facebook connection. It should still be there, they last for days.

  • This makes me feel so fortunate to have gone to one of the most “over the top” liberal Universities in the nation. At UMass, Amherst, (20 years ago now), we could get excused for our holidays, all we had to do was ask. That was the tough part — sometimes getting the incredulous look from a faculty member. Spoiled we were, I don’t think we even realized that other folks did not get the same liberties.

    “Any student… who is unable, because of his religious beliefs, to attend classes or to participate in any examination, study or work requirement on a particular day shall be excused from any such examination or study or work requirement, and shall be provided with an opportunity to make up such examination, study, or work requirement which he may have missed because of such absence on any particular day; provided, however, that such makeup examination or work shall not create an unreasonable burden upon such school.” ~ Chapter 151C of the Massachusetts General Laws

    Gosh I love my Alma Mater. 😀
    Oh, & hooray for Vanderbilt!

  • Mrs Hale

    If the British army can allow my son to celebrate Samhain with us and then the following day we attend the remembrance service in church, then I don’t see where anyone has the right to say our beliefs are any less valid then Mr Exum’s. Perhaps if he indulged in a little more education and a little less fanaticism, he too could find himself ‘on the side of the angels.’ But then, Pagans live there religion every day of their lives, Mr Exum appears to feel he can leave his beliefs and teachings at the church door after service, and pick them up again the following week. I could quote many passages from the bible that show how he should be hanging his head in shame at his comments. But in order to indulge in debate, he would be required to have as in depth an understanding of the subject as I do. Well done to Vanderbilt University for it’s open minded and just attitude.

  • Michelle Ashley

    I graduated from Vanderbilt in 2000 and always felt a very progressive vibe there despite the crinoline petticoat and white lace glove stigma that it somehow gets stuck with. I am so proud of them. As a freshman I remember having to attend about a million hours of diversity seminars. I’m so glad to see them beginning to truly and fully practice what they preach in that regard.

  • Anonymous

    Jason, thank you for bringing this to the community’s attention. While we can’t stamp out ignorance of our beliefs, we can work together to be supportive when people like Mr. Exum find the need to make ignorant, hate-filled and disrespectful comments.

    • ballerina427

      i wish S.C. would take the same laws omg …this state compared to I.N or P.A. is well i cant put that on here but If N.C. can do it why not us i understand were in the bible belt but geez they are not open minded at all..they think we worship the devil ha i wish they would do research on our religion i have been to church and know the bible ..but yet no they will not have no part of it GRRRR

      • Petra

        Most of them don’t bother to find out about their OWN religion, much less learn about ours.

  • “students must be excused from classes and other academic activities on days when their religious traditions put restrictions on labor or forbid it outright, like Eid al Fitr for Muslims and Yom Kippur for Jews. It says professors, department chairs or deans can decide if absences will be excused for religious days that are not “work-restricted,” including the Wiccan and pagan days.”

    There still seems to be some privilege inherent in that kind of arbitrary distinction, as if it is less important for Pagans to be able to step away from school for a day because we don’t have a deity looking over our shoulders commanding us to completely refrain from work on certain days.

    I would be curious to see if, say, a reconstructionist could get a holiday to fit under the first condition if they could be demonstrate that ancient Pagans refrained for general work on that holiday/ festival.

    • Mia

      I was thinking about that too, the recon angle. But that would depend mostly on what one is reconstructing. Seasons and economics played more of a role in some cases than a calendar or a specific sun/moon position. The lack of information too for some cultures means you’re on your own in determining the times whether or not they had consistent dates for their festivals.

      So if there wasn’t a specific date, should one still try and get their own day off for a holiday, or would it be better to work their way around the schedules?

      • This is true. On the other hand if someone celebrated with a group of people (say a Heathen Kindred) that group might decide on the date and time limiting a college student’s ability to work it around their class schedule

  • Vanderbilt University (originally supported by the Methodist Church, now an interfaith school) has one of the finest schools of theology in the country has always been a progressive leader in that area. Take note also that it is firmly entrenched in the southern Bible Belt, yet has made this decision to honor diversity. Go to their website at and read the statements on faith. It’s impressive.

  • “But it is also sad. For a revered institution like Vanderbilt to officially recognize pagans and wiccans shows the Apocalypse should probably be included, too.”

    Stay classy Roy Exum.

    Good on Vanderbilt University for recognizing this! Hopefully other institutions (and other faiths!) are next.

  • Druidwood

    One thing I think people should remember that Tennessee is still considered the bible belt. I can’t think of any other university doing this out west or up north.

    • Ursyl

      Marshall University, in WV, does this too.

      I am appalled that WVU didn’t beat them to it.

    • Sunweaver

      Which is why this is such a big deal. To recognize and include Wiccan/Pagan holidays as valid shows that the South is not necessarily a hostile place toward Pagans. Some places are, I’m not gonna lie, but I’m glad that Vanderbilt took this positive step toward diversity.

      • Druidwood

        I love in the biblebelt & it really is a big deal here. Some friends & I tried to get a PPD going here & we were met with some very hostile people. The local food shelter wanted nothing to do with us even though we wanted to work towards a common goal. They said that we can’t be seen working with pagans. It just got worse from there. So to me someone who was raised in the south I feel this is a very big deal.

        • Sunweaver

          Amen, brotha’. I think things are getting better, though. There will be those who resist change and they will resist it fervently, but the greater momentum is toward positive change.

  • We never cared what the “official” school policy may have been. When we kept our children out of school for a religious holiday, the school was told it was a religious observance, and that the absence would be excused. No ifs, and, or buts about it. Never had any problem with it, either.

  • More and more schools are moving this direction. I almost pooped my pants when Marshall allowed Pagans to take their holidays as excused absences.

  • It’s curious the Wiccan/Pagan holidays Vanderbilt chose to recognize: : Samhain, Yule, Ostara, Beltane (northern hemisphere). I understand Beltane and Samhain, since to many Wiccans those are the most important days. But why the spring equinox, but not the fall equinox? And why the winter solstice, but not the summer solstice. Perhaps Yule was thrown in because they already recognize it as a Christian holiday. And perhaps the spring equinox was added because it is close the Christian Easter. If that’s the case, then Pagans only really got 2 days out of this. There are 10 Jewish holidays listed, 9 Bahai holidays, 5 Buddhist and 4 Muslim ones. Not to look a gift horse in the mouth, but I think that shows where we stand.

  • Alex Pendragon

    I was born in the South. I live in the South. And I can tell you that the more “religious” people are down here, the more dangerous they are. The few Pagans I run across are mostly gentle and harmless, and a lot more fun. So, who in the hell is HE calling “the crazies”? When is the last time you saw a mob of Pagans lynching a Christian? I didn’t think so…….

    • Grimmorrigan

      or killing doctors…or shooting Norwegian children….or protesting funerals….or blowing up federal buildings….

  • Daniel Kestral
    • Anonymous

      Thanks for posting the links. I was unaware of the story and I’m half an hour away (I guess that’s what I get for not watching much TV). It looks like a health issue, not a religious one. I can’t tell what part of downtown he’s in, but New Bedford is an old whaling city. The streets are narrow and businesses tend to be squished together in very old buildings, so I can understand the “no livestock” rule.

      It’ll be interesting to follow as it develops.

      • Daniel Kestral


        You are more than welcome! I am sure there will be more developments, and I will be sure to keep up on them. On one of the links, with the media pictures of the basement, I have to wonder if that was for the purpose of sensationalism–health violation or not. Santeria, or any other religion that sacrifices animals, is often unfairly portrayed.

  • Suzyree2

    I’m not sure how to take his comment about tuition. Is he insinuating the school is too good for Wiccan/Pagans or that we are so lowly, he can’t believe tuition can be afforded?

  • Guest

    What drives me nuts is the unmitigated gall of Roy Exum first proclaiming Freedom of Religion, then denigrating Paganism as sarcastically as possible, then excusing his idiocy by “admitting” that he doesn’t really know much about Paganism… kinda funny as he thinks he knows what the dress code is for Beltaine.

    His true idiocy shows when he refers to “Beltaine/Samhain” and “Samhain/Beltaine” and makes it sounds like even Pagans don’t know which is which. If he had really done any research as he claimed he might have figured out that which holiday falls on which day depends on which hemisphere you are in! He apparently has also never heard of a little Christian holiday called “All Saints Day” that falls on November 1st, which often used to be celebrated by washing and decorating tombstones of loved ones… not that that would be considered a Feast of the Dead or anything…

    But the cream of his hypocrisy is when he ever so innocently states “how is a professor to know who in class is a pagan or a wiccan” and follows it up with “But from what I have read, there isn’t any honor if you are a witch or a pagan?” Excuse me?? May I beat Mr Exum profusely about the head and neck with the idea that I see no honor in him, nor would I believe he is a Christian, as I see nothing Christ-like in his words or attitudes?

  • No Bod E

    It’s part of the “Moral Superiority” that is taught in churches. I am Very happy that I was able to break away from Christianity even though it took most of my 50+ years to do so.

  • Do you think we could get a list of schools that have Pagan Holy Days included in the calendar? If anyone has that it might be nice to share and keep updated for our growing body of Pagan kids who will one day need to pick a school.