Archives For Christmas

ITALY – There are many popular mythological figures associated with the winter holiday season. We’ve all heard of Santa Claus, Rudolf, Father Christmas and Jack Frost. This past December Krampus, a figure in Germanic folklore, became a household name through the release of a new horror movie. But there is another figure, who stands out within the canon of European winter holiday lore, and is beloved by those who honor her. She is called La Befana.

“La Befana vien di notte
Con le scarpe tutte rotte
Col vestito alla romana
Viva, Viva La Befana!”

traditional song

La Befana, sometimes called “an old woman” and sometimes “the Witch of Christmas,” is part of a long-held Italian holiday tradition. In modern times, she has become an integral figure of the Christian celebration of the Epiphany. In fact, it is believed by some that this religious connection is how the old woman got her name. According to those sources, La Befana is a derivative of the Ancient Greek work for Epiphany, or epiphaneia.

The Epiphany, also called Three Kings Day, is generally celebrated on Jan. 6 as the day that the three wise men, the Magi, visit the baby Jesus in the manager. As the most common story goes, the three men stopped at an old woman’s house on their journey to the manager. She offered them food and rest. Upon leaving the three asked if she wanted to accompany them to meet the baby Jesus, but she refused, saying that she was too busy with household chores. After the men were gone, the old woman changed her mind and set out to find them or to find the baby Jesus. She found neither. But in her searching, she visited every household, leaving sweets for all well-behaved children and coal or onions for the naughty ones.

La Befana’s night is celebrated on Jan. 5, the evening before the Epiphany. It is also called Twelfth Night or Magic Night. Children leave socks out in anticipation of the old woman’s visit, and adults will sometimes leave her wine and broccoli. Before Santa Claus became well-known in Italy, it was La Befana who made the sugarplums dance in children’s dreams.

I love Festa della Befana from Ashley Bartner on Vimeo

Journalist and Wiccan High Priest Davide Marrè said that Santa was not common in his youth, and that it was “young little Jesus” who actually brought the Christmas gifts. Marrè is a native of Arona, Italy and currently lives in Milan. He said that he believed in La Befana for much longer than he ever believed in Santa. “I don’t know why,” he said. ” I was more confident with Befana than Santa.”

Marrè added, laughing, “I still remember that, below the sweets at the end of a sock one year, I found a big onion because – maybe –  I had not been so good! I am still traumatized.”

La Befana’s story comes in many forms, including some suggesting that her own children were murdered or died of disease. In these tales, La Befana actually finds the baby Jesus during her evening ride and gives to him all of her dead children’s belongings. Then, on her journey home, she leaves the sweets or onions and coal for the children.

While La Befana is often called a Witch, this feature of her story is considered quite tenuous. In many cases, she is simply called an “old woman” and depicted as a village crone. Less commonly, she is called a sprite or fairy. La Befana doesn’t always ride a broomstick; sometimes it is a goat or donkey. And she rarely wears a pointed hat; a head-scarf is more common.

However, historically speaking, the cultural lines between this type of solitary crone figure and the typical Witch character have always been crossed and blurred. In the most common modern tellings of the Italian tale, La Befana’s famous midnight ride is done on a broom, which is an iconic element of both the Witch and of the homestead. Over centuries of storytelling, the broom has become one of the common cultural signifiers for both the old woman and the Witch.

The very first mention of La Befana within a modern text is reportedly in a poem written in 1549 by Italian poet Agnolo Firenzuola, who was particularly known for his “burlesque and licentious” work [i]. According several accounts, Firenzuola only calls her “an old, ugly woman.”[ii]  But, at that time, the concept of a Witch as a crone who flies on a broom was already well-established in popular European folklore, as demonstrated by art and literature. The infamous Malleus Maleficarum, originally published in 1486, confirms this fact, stating:

Now the following is their method of being transported. They take the unguent […] and anoint with it a chair or a broomstick; whereupon they are immediately carried up into the air, either by day or by night, and either visibly or, if they wish, invisibly; (Part 2; Section I, Chapter III)

Therefore, it is not a difficult leap to understand how a story of an old woman flying around on a broom looking for a manager could be translated as a “Christmas Witch.”

But folktales are fluid, moving in and out of society and time, through adaptation and cultural nuance. There is no clear picture on the timeline of La Befana’s construction within Italian culture. The evolution of her story is buried within multiple layers of meaning and influenced by diverse regional differences.

In 1823, for example, La Befana is mentioned in a book called Vestiges of Ancient Manners and Customs: Discoverable in Modern Italy and Sicilywritten by Anglican Priest John James Blunt. He calls her “supernatural” and “a sprite.” Blunt also comments on the “burlesque” nature of the “Beffana” traditions. He ascribes these to the “heathen celebrations” associated with the Goddess Strenia, who also brought New Year’s gifts. (p. 119-120)

As suggested by Blunt’s comments, it is widely accepted that La Befana does have pre-Christian influences, even Neolithic. Aside from the already noted Goddess Strenia, La Befana has also been linked specifically to the traditions related to the Italian agricultural cycle. In some regions, her appearance is associated to ancestor worship and divination. In others, Befana is considered to be linked to the magic of Twelfth Night – a holiday highlighted in Shakespeare play of the same name.[iii] In many of these stories, Befana’s arrival marks a seasonal finale of sorts, and she uses her iconic broom to sweep away the old to make space for the new. Anthropologists Claudia and Luigi Manciocco explore La Befana’s mythology and traditions in their books A House Without Doors (1996) and The Magic and Mythogy: Toward an Anthropology of La Befana (2006).[iv]

Marrè shared another theory on La Befana’s ancient origins. He said, “Romans thought that, on the Twelfth Night after Natali Sol Invictus, a woman flew over the cultivated fields to give fertility for the future harvest. For some this flying woman was identified with Diaba because of  the link to vegetation; for others she was Satia or Abundia. The Catholic Church forbid rural rituals and this kind of story.”

A statement made in Blunt’s 18th century account corroborates Marrè’s last comment. Speaking about the Goddess Strenia from whom he believes Befana originated. Blunt writes, “Her solemnities were vigorously opposed by the early Christians on account of their noisy, riotus, and licentious character.”

[Photo Credit: Simone Zucchelli / Flickr ]

[Photo Credit: Simone Zucchelli / Flickr ]

Many modern Pagans are finding a renewed interest in La Befana. Some enjoy her simply for her Witch aspect and others for her relationship to seasonal cycles. Through this latter concept, Marrè and his fellow Wiccans have been incorporating their beloved Befana childhood tradition into their modern Wiccan practice.

Marrè is board president of Circolo dei Trivi, a Wiccan group based in Milan. Every Imbolc, the group incorporates La Befana into their celebrations. Marrè said that this annual tradition is more feast than ritual, and focuses on the turning of the wheel of the year from the old to the new. The group blends two uniquely Italian folktales together to create a new seasonal story that brings meaning to the February sabbat. In this case, La Befana represents the final joys of the old year giving her final “gifts” at Imbolc. And, another Witch, named Giobiana represents the old year’s baggage and dust that must be removed to make way for renewal.

Marrè explained, “Giobiana is another old tradition that is celebrated in the northern part of Italy, near Lombardia (Varese and Como). The legend says that Giobiana was a bad big Witch with very long legs. She lived in the wood and, obviously this is folklore, scared all the children. On the last Thursday of January, she would eat one child. Then, one year, a mother was so worried for her son that she decided to trick Giobana. The mother prepared yellow rice with saffron and sausage (rissotto giallo con la luganega, a very typical food in this area), and she put it in the window. Giobiana smelled the rice and arrived to eat it. It was so good that she forgot that it was dawn, and she was burned by the sun.”

The Giobiana legend is very similar to many other folk stories containing a frightening old crone in the woods, such as the Baba Yaga of Russian lore or the famous Witch of Hansel & Gretel. In fact, in some traditions, La Befana and Giobiana are considered one and the same. Regardless, the Circolo dei Trivi has reincorporated these two different regional stories into their own Wiccan theology, pairing them with their seasonal celebration of Imbolc.

Marrè said, “For us the two legends, Befana and Giobiana, are linked. Befana is the good face of the crone while Giobiana is the bad one. One is the nature that gives us the last gifts, and the second is the nature that, without renewal, will start to ‘eat children.’ He speculates that this had to be important in ancient times because the cold winter months were “when the mortality rate for childhood was at its maximum.” He adds, “So it is really important that the crone is transformed into the young goddess that we represent as Belisama, the Brigid of Cisalpine Gaul.”

La Befana Night in Northern Italian 2013 [Photo Credit: Bas_Ernst / Flickr]

La Befana Night in Northern Italian 2013 [Photo Credit: Bas_Ernst / Flickr]

Similar to modern community traditions in the northern Italian towns, Circolo dei Trivi burns an effigy, a representation of Giobiana, within their ritual space. They collect the ashes and tell the story of nature’s death and rebirth, through the death of Giobiana and the birth of Belisama. In that process, they also thank nature, represented as La Befana, for bringing the final gifts from the previous year. Grazie, La Befana.

As with many regional traditions, La Befana’s modern construction and appearance were developed over an expansive amount of time and stem from a diverse number of cultural elements. Her story has been adapted over and over to fit into a variety of different social or religious structures.

As the international community becomes more integrated, La Befana has become increasingly recognized outside of the small Italian towns from where she came.[v] And, some wonder and even worry … will La Befana follow Santa Claus’ lead and become a largely commercial and secular figure in our global holiday season? Will she lose her regional meaning and connections to Italian culture? Will the Christmas Witch one day grace the label on a Coca-Cola bottle or appear in her own animated holiday special on CBS?

Notes:
[i] This description was used by Henry W. Longfellow in his book Poets and Poetry of Europe published by Carey and Hart in 1845. Firenzuola also did reportedly write more serious works. Interestingly, he also recorded conversations on feminine beauty, which wasn’t published until 1892.
[ii] We were unable to obtain a copy of this poem in time for publication.
[iii] Written around 1599, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night is believed to have been based on several Italian plays, and was created specifically to celebrate the final festive evening of the Christmas season. (Shakespeare, William. Twelfth Night. Pelican Books. 1986)
[iv] Neither book appears to be available in English translation at this time.
[v] La Befana’s story, for example, is featured in a children’s book by American author and illustrator Tomie dePaolo. The Legend of Old Befana was published in 1980 by Sandpiper. Tomie dePaolo is also the author of the popular Stega Nona series.

Guest Post: A Love Divine

Erick DuPree —  December 25, 2015 — 1 Comment

[In the past, The Wild Hunt has always taken Christmas Day off. But today, for the first time, we decided to “stay open.” Author Erick DuPree joins us to share his personal thoughts on this Christmas holiday. DuPree is the author of Alone in Her Presence: Meditations on the Goddess and editor of Finding the Masculine in Goddess’ Spiral. He teaches heart-centered practices that unite breath to heart, inviting a holistic relationship with the Goddess. DuPree will be joining us seasonally as a regular guest to share his contemplative writing and unique voice.]

“Love came down at Christmas” writes English poet Christina G. Rosetti, “Love came down at Christmas. Love, all lovely, a love divine.” She continues, “Love was born at Christmas, Star and Angels gave sign.”

["Starsinthesky" by ESA/Hubble. / Wikimedia]

[“Starsinthesky” by ESA/Hubble. / Wikimedia]

Admid the sea of wisdom traditions, within this big umbrella of a holiday season, which I dub “solsta-christa-kwanz-ikkah, Christmas seemingly and overwhelmingly stands alone. No sooner have we extinguished the jack-o-lantern and BAM!along Deck-the-Halls is playing at every turn. Allegedly Santa’s on His Way! Judy Garland wants you to Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas! All Mariah Carey Wants for Christmas is You. Rosemary Clooney is curious about your Silver Bells. (Rosemary, they are doing just fine!) They say, it’s going to be a Holy Night.Silent Night. We might even Rejoice Greatly, oh daughter of Zion!

Regardless of what we believe or don’t believe as Polytheists, Pagans, Heathens and more, the tides of Christmas are alongside us. And as we honor our own Goddesses and Gods and celebrate our own holy night, we still know Christmas.

Over the years, as I have come out of the orthodoxy of conservative Christianity, I have wondered what the lesson of Christmas might be? The reality is, for myself, Christmas is more than secular. It has been forever ingrained in me as being connected to something other than Santa Claus and gifts. And, this is the life legacy for many people who have been fractured by one faith tradition and, then, healed radically by another by stepping into the heart of a community that rejoices in inclusive Goddesses and Gods.

It is from my own work with the Goddess that I have been able to re-frame and release myself from the trauma of my childhood faith to be able to stand in the wisdom tradition of this time of year and what is called Christmas. Whitney Houston once sang, “Said the night wind to the little lamb. Do you know what I know?”

For brevity’s sake, here is a synopsis of this biblical epic minus many important names, places, and people. The Angel of the Lord appears unto Mary informing her “unto you a child will be born and you shall call him Emmanuel.” It is told that a different Angel of the Lord (there are many) appears to Joseph warning him of great danger; instructing him to take Mary and flee. At this same time, The Star (not the tarot card, but also symbolic of hope… just saying) appears in the East, shining so bright that the wisest men see it. We learn that King Herod receives a prophecy that a ‘great king’ is to be born and, subsequently, Herod gave an order to kill all baby boys in the land. Alas there would be no usurpers born. We then learn that the wise men deceive Herod, and that Mary and Joseph are unable to find shelter. We discover that this baby is born in a stable for there is no room anywhere else, and that he shall bring tiding of great joy to all people.

The idea that Emmanuel could bring tidings of great joy to all people seems like a pretty tall order. I think, in modern times, Santa Clause might have a better chance.

When I see language like “the Christ child is born,” I often think to myself that the baby born in that manger isn’t a story about a Christ child. Christ means anointed, transliterates as messiah, “Jesus the Christ.” Jesus the teacher, the prophet, the ‘messiah’ hasn’t done anything in the story above. Instead he’s simply a baby in dirty manager, on the run form a crazed King whose trying to kill him. With two angels as sidekicks, a giant star, and some wise men with swag bags of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

This is the story about Emmanuel.

Emmanuel means “god is with us.” That might seem radical for the Christian who might not know transcendent divinity or divine immanence. But the very idea invokes so much. For myself and many other Polytheists, Pagans and Heathens, we know that the DIVINE IS WITH US, even if our Gods are not Abrahamic. For me, this divine is certainly the Goddess, the Queen of Heaven who Jeremiah tried to smite, but she is also the woman who birthed Emmanuel.

What might it be like if we gave ourselves permission to rebirth Emmanuel, not as a god, but as love? Love Is With Us. Love Came Down At Christmas? Love All Lovely. A Love Divine.

Oh come oh come Emmanuel… ransom captive Israel. What is the currency to ransom a captive heart? Can we call upon our souls to arise and call unto the Gods to be with us, as LOVE. Love is with us. Love is the currency, all lovely, a love divine.

What if for a moment we looked at each other the way we look into the eyes of children, with love? If one man could ransom one captive nation with love, imagine the power of every child in the world? Feeling love, and knowing what love is, believing that love is divine. Emmanuel. Love with us.

On this Christmas day, may we look toward the Goddesses and Gods of our traditions renewed with sovereignty and love. May we call upon the holiday season with tidings and may we know peace. May we know love. May we know joy. And may we too, welcome The Love Divine.

The Solstice is upon us, both winter and summer. To honor this seasonal change, I’ve decided to set my journalistic instincts aside (almost) and replace them with a cup of cocoa, some holiday music, and a Santa hat. In other words, the following post is an opinion piece with some facts, some anecdotes and some over-sized, good-spirited, inflatable fun.

By 4028mdk09 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

By 4028mdk09 (Own Work) via Wikimedia Commons

Here in the United States, it is very difficult to avoid the holiday buzz during the last few weeks of December no matter what you do or don’t celebrate. More specifically it’s difficult to hide from Christmas.This megalithic holiday hangs like celestial mistletoe over the entire month of December with tiny little elves waiting at every turn to plant sweet peppermint kisses on your cheek.

Part of this seasonal tsunami is the yearly debate over who owns the holiday. What is the true “reason for the season?” As I noted in my article Caught in the Crossfire, you can set your clocks to these Holiday Games which begin around Thanksgiving.

Remember Freedom From Religion Foundation’s New Jersey billboard “Keep Saturn in Saturnalia?” Since my Crossfire post, the sign has been the target of repeated vandalism. In the most recent incident, two men attempted to burn down the offending metal sign. Local police have stepped up surveillance.

American Atheists elected to go bigger and rented a 40 x 40 digital billboard in New York City’s Time Square.  After seeing this billboard, New York state Senator Andrew Lanza called it an “expression of hate” and added “Religious persecution of this kind …led to the Holocaust.”  In response, the American Atheists rented a second billboard near the Goethls bridge which happens to lead to the Senators’ Staten Island district.

download (1)

Courtesy of American Atheists

In a recent post for Americans United, Rob Boston claims “There is no war on Christmas.”  Is he right? Is this just the virulent rhetoric of right wing conservatives? From the spectator seats of the religious minority, I would say it’s definitely more than simply rhetoric.  While there may not be a “War on Christmas,” these daily events are definitely part of a muddy tug-o-war between two cultural extremes.

Just this past week, Georgia State Senator Mike Dugan proposed legislation that would ostensibly permit the use of Christmas Trees, mangers, and the words “Merry Christmas” within Georgia public schools. Here’s the caveat:  at least one other religion or secular seasonal display must also be represented. When a local CBS reporter questioned the need to legalize something that is already legal, the Senator replied, “A lot of [schools] don’t [display Christmas trees] because they’re afraid they’re going to step on somebody’s toes or there’s going to be legal ramifications.”

It sounds like the First Amendment needs a publicity manager and not a legislator.

All kidding aside, there are important religious freedom issues at stake. Minority religions do need to be ever vigilant as the U.S. becomes more religiously diverse. Our public space should be kept neutral in order that everyone is allowed to enjoy their lives – both secular and spiritual.

As I pointed out in my Crossfire post, minority religions have recently been implicated in the games as unwitting allies. Paganism has been dragged onto the side of secularists through a common interest in the Solstice, nature and mythology. Judaism, which was once on the secular side, often finds itself teamed with the conservative Christians. If you sing a few rounds of “Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel,” you’re clear to belt out “The Hallelujah Chorus.”

In his article on the proposed Georgia legislation, Jim Galloway of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution clearly demonstrates this holiday strategy. Galloway quotes Senator Dugan saying, ‘The trick is to include a slightly off-season menorah.’ Then Galloway himself adds, “Or a symbol from some other religion – maybe something Wiccan, or a comparable secular image. Perhaps a scene from Macy’s.” 

Courtesy of Flickr's swh

Courtesy of Flickr’s swh

According to Sen. Dugan, minority religions are the ticket, the “trick,” or the constitutional work-around for the legal installment of religious Christmas expressions within the public sphere.  However, minority religions are also the catalyst that forces the removal of all religious expression from that same public space in the first place. If that isn’t a paradoxical ironic Christmas conundrum.

Let’s take a closer look beyond the public sphere. What are we debating anyway? The reason for the season?  According to a new Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and Religion News Forum (RNF) poll, 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas. Of that number, 84% celebrate only Christmas while the remaining 6% celebrate both Christmas and another holiday.

Why is this so interesting? According to the latest Pew Forum pole, only 78% of Americans identify as Christian. If the two studies are accurate, at least 12% of the people celebrating Christmas are not Christian.  Moreover if you consider that a small portion of Christians don’t celebrate Christmas that number is actually higher than 12%.

Does this mean that Christmas is slowly becoming a secular holiday devoid of any spiritual essence?  Are other religions co-opting the holiday? Are there an increasing number of interfaith families? Or are religious or secular Solstice celebrations being recorded as Christmas celebrations? There are similarities in the traditions. Does it even matter?

By McKay Savage from London via Wikimedia Commons

By McKay Savage from London via Wikimedia Commons

I believe that the answer is deeper and more complex. Family cultural traditions are hard habits to break. When belief and nostalgia compete, nostalgia often wins or at least leaves an indelible mark. I still eat Matzoh during Passover which, if you have ever tried Matzoh, is almost inexplicable.

Let me illustrate with a personal anecdote. I have always celebrated Christmas despite growing up as wholly religious “none” (not to be confused with a holy religious nun.) My atheist father was raised Catholic so Christmas was his family tradition which we kept in a purely secular fashion. Each year our Christmas dinner guests were always Jewish friends and family and, on occasion, some Muslim friends. Despite our secularism, that night was always sacred and magical in ways that are completely indescribable.

When I began to explore the spiritual, I came to understand the deeper meanings within the Winter Solstice and that magic it brought. Today my multi-faith family has expanded to include Baptists, Methodists, Pagans of many practices and more. As such the magic of the season has only become stronger.

While watching this public Yuletide tug-o-war, I return to the original question, “What is the reason for the season?” When I listen closely and distill each and every seasonal prayer or story, I find a common point – a universal message.  It is one of hope.

Pagans find hope in the rebirth of the Sun through deity, through nature, through art and through mythology. Jews find hope in the oil that lasted for eight days.  Christians find hope in the birth of Christ. Hindus find hope in the lights of Diwali. Atheists find hope in the scientific rhythms of the stars.  And so on and so forth.

The reason for the season is hope, in whatever form it comes.

So I say: Keep the Sol in Solstice. Keep the Saturn in Saturnalia. Keep the Christ in Christmas. Whatever it is that brings you peace and however you choose to celebrate…..Keep the Hope in Humanity.

By User:Darwinek (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

By User:Darwinek (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

 

Due to family obligations we won’t be blogging today, but we’ll be back tomorrow with our regular daily dose of modern Pagan-related news and commentary. In the meantime I wish a very happy holiday season to you all, and a very happy birthday to Jesus of NazarethMithrasCarlos CastenadaSol InvictusRobert Ripley, and Annie Lennox among many others.

Leaf disc dedicated to Sol Invictus.
Leaf disc dedicated to Sol Invictus.

Happy Holidays! Back tomorrow.

Choir Boy

Eric O. Scott —  December 14, 2012 — 15 Comments
shepard large

Shepard Elementary School, St. Louis, MO.

Mr. Dellard, standing behind the piano in Shepard Elementary School’s music room, points to me. This is my signal; I step forward, separating myself from the rest of the eight year old boys that make up our public school choir’s tenor section. I have the solo in this song, the only song in our repertoire that even has a solo. For two verses, the twenty-five other children fade into the background, dim lights eclipsed by my star. They are merely the Supremes; I am Diana Ross.

“What you gonna call your pretty little baby?” the choir sings. “What you gonna call your pretty little baby, born, born in Bethlehem?”

“Some say one thing,” I reply, beaming. My voice echoes the bounce of the Mr. Dellard playing the melody. “I’ll say Immanuel!”

Thus did the Heathen child welcome Christ into the world.

December was the best time of year for a choir kid. No other after-school club at my school got the chance to travel around the city; we alone were allowed to skip class during the Christmas season and perform concerts in downtown St. Louis. There is no currency so precious to an eight-year-old as extra field trips. We lorded it over our fellows, reminding them that while they suffered in class, we were singing to the businessmen at Metropolitan Square. We told them this, and then we basked in the warm glow of their hate.

Most of our repertoire consisted of the classics: Santa songs, like “Up on the Housetop,” “Jolly Old St. Nicholas,” and so forth, and Jesus songs: “Silent Night,” “Away in a Manger.” But Mr. Dellard, to his credit, liked to experiment with new tunes from year to year. “What You Gonna Call Your Pretty Little Baby?” was one of that year’s experiments.

At the time, nothing seemed too strange about the song, though it was obviously different than the rest of our oeuvre. Mr. Dellard called the song a “spiritual,” but that word didn’t mean anything to a gang of third-graders. It was just the song we sang between “Little Drummer Boy” and “Give Love on Christmas Day.” There was nothing more significant about it than that.

Looking back now, almost two decades later, the irony of the scene pains me. For one, being a spiritual, “What You Gonna Call Your Pretty Little Baby?” is tied to the African-American experience. I went to a school whose student body was, by a substantial majority, black, and did not lack talented young vocalists. Yet the solo went to a white child. It’s also pretty obvious that the soloist represents Mary – indeed, most versions of the song address Mary by name, though obviously ours did not. Yet the solo went to a boy.  Finally, the song expresses, as much through its form of call-and-response and its rhythm as through its lyrics, the particular character of African-American Christianity. Yet the solo went to a boy who had never been Christian – not that any of my teachers knew that.

I also had a high, froggy voice. Perhaps Mr. Dellard gave me the part because it didn’t require much of a range.

I sang about Jesus with no reservations – it seemed perfectly normal to me. I had no real conception of religion at that point, and neither did the other children. We were young; we had little notion of the complex world beyond the blacktop of our schoolyard. The first time I ever discussed religion with a boy my own age, I mentioned that there were others kinds of people in the world than Christians, though at the time I didn’t know what they might be. He scoffed, and, in a tone that implied I was an idiot for not knowing better, said, “Man, everybody’s a Christian.” Then he paused, and added, “Except Catholics.”

We didn’t know any better. A questioning nature does not appear fully-formed at the onset of language; it takes training to develop. My classmate could not think of life beyond the Christian world of his birth, except for his first experience of irrational prejudice. I knew, if only to a degree, that I was different, that when my parents and I prayed, we spoke to someone besides Jesus. But I had no words to express those feelings – even the word “Pagan” was absent from my vocabulary.

For lack of any other way to conceive of myself, I went along with the others. When I was asked, I said I was a Christian. I didn’t know that I wasn’t.

But one boy did.

He was another member of the choir. He came to practice one afternoon with a sour look on his face and went to Mr. Dellard before we could start singing. He needed to talk to him about the song “Away in a Manger.” Mr. Dellard told us all to talk among ourselves and ignore him. Naturally, every one of us sat in rapt silence, listening to the whispers between the little boy and the music teacher.

I don’t remember much about the boy. He was a small black child, a year behind me, and consequently completely out of my social circle. We wore uniforms at my school – white polos and blue slacks, intended to prevent envy-inspired fights in the playground – so his clothes weren’t distinctive. But I can still remember everything he said, all those words not meant for my ears.

“Mr. Dellard, my mom doesn’t like me singing these songs,” he said.

“No?” said Mr. Dellard.

“No,” said the boy. “She doesn’t want me to learn it, or Silent Night. Or any of those songs.”

Mr. Dellard frowned. “Well, what are we going to do about that? If you can’t sing them, you can’t be in the choir.”

The ultimatum obviously pained the child. His parents didn’t mind the Santa songs – maybe he could just sing those? But Mr. Dellard said no, he couldn’t have one child standing around by himself for half a concert – Mr. Dellard couldn’t watch him and conduct the choir at the same time. Sing all the songs, or sing none of them; that was how it had to be.

The boy said he’d talk to his mother about it.

He missed the next choir practice. We all thought he had been forced to quit, but he came back the day after. We pounced as soon as he sat down. “What did you mom say? Can you sing the Christmas songs? Do you have to miss the field trip?”

“No,” he said. “I can go on the field trip. She said it was okay. Just as long as I don’t bring it home with me.”

I find myself thinking about that little boy every year at Yuletide. He was the first person outside of my family I ever knew to be something other than Christian. I still have no idea what religion he had been raised in, or the explanation his mother gave for why he couldn’t sing “Little Drummer Boy” like the rest of the kids. But that conversation with Mr. Dellard must have been a frightening, lonely experience for him. It’s hard at any age to be marked as different. It’s worse when you’re so young, when you’re so desperate to fit in.

I wish that I had been able to express any of this at the time. I probably had more in common with that child, whatever his family believed, than I did with anyone else at my school. But I faded into the crowd of other children, not even realizing how alike we were.

Memory: I can think of no other puzzle like it, one which grows more complicated the more effort we put into it. At times, I find myself humming along with a tune at Yuletide, and then recognize the song as one I sang as a child. My memories remain fond ones; I did love to sing, especially at Christmas time. But now I can’t help but think of the implications. It seems like a trivial thing to worry about, yes, but – but why were we singing about Jesus at a public school? Why was nobody bothered by the intertwining of Christian myths and public education but one little boy’s mother?

The lessons we receive in youth stay with us forever; while I am no developmental psychologist, I expect they inform the person we eventually turn out to be on a fundamental level. Those snowy days, standing inside of Union Station, singing our praises to the newborn king – they taught me, without anyone saying a word explicitly, that to be Christian was to be normal, that to be anything else was strange. That stayed with me, as much as the melodies and the lyrics.

How could a child help but take that home with him?

We in the West live in a world that is dominated and shaped by Christianity. That dominance may be fading in places, particularly in Europe, but few can deny that Christians continue to occupy a place of cultural and political privilege. This is especially true in the United States, where an unofficial religion test of our political candidates for national office is enforced by various pressure groups, religious leaders, and our own (theoretically secular) media.

As America’s favorite satirist put it:

“Yes, the long war on Christianity. I pray that one day we may live in an America where Christians can worship freely! In broad daylight! Openly wearing the symbols of their religion… perhaps around their necks? And maybe — dare I dream it? — maybe one day there can be an openly Christian President. Or, perhaps, 43 of them. Consecutively.”

The simple fact is that Christianity remains the world’s largest religion, and nearly 37% of the world’s Christians make their home in the Americas. Despite this dominance, or perhaps because of it, many Western Christians feel uneasy about the future, thinking that some secular/pagan/Islamic overthrow is just around the bend. This fear is often exploited by politicians to win votes, framing any limitation on Christianity or Christian institutions as a stalking horse for persecutions.

“You don’t want the gay liberation movement to morph into something like the Ku Klux Klan, demonstrating in the streets against Catholicism.” – Cardinal Francis George, Archbishop of Chicago

I think few realize how limited the discussion of religion really is in our media, often limited to debates between liberals and conservatives (or progressives and traditionalists) within Christianity, sometimes with a token Jewish or secular voice thrown in. Any deviance from this pattern is seen either as satire or scandal. Coming out of the Christmas holiday, where a yearly fabricated “war” over Christian celebrations continues to garner press, it can be easy to forget the millions of individuals who fall outside the Christian paradigm, and how we exist, worship, and compromise in a culture that alternately enforces a Christian culture while claiming that culture in under constant threat. For example, CNN looks at how “other faiths” celebrate Christmas (aka December 25th for anyone who isn’t a Christian).

“Sometimes in the West these days there’s a kind of tendency to clump all the religions together and say, ‘We’re all climbing the same mountain,’ and I think the intention there is nice. There’s a harmonious intention there. But I think it’s much nicer to say, ‘Let’s respect the differences and love and appreciate the differences of the other faiths,” [Buddhist monk Ajhan] Yatiko said.

Meanwhile, at RealClearReligion, columnist Jeffrey Weiss bemoans the “Xmas Borg” and discusses just how difficult it is to avoid wall-to-wall expressions of Christianity for two to three months out of every year.

“I defy Bill O’Reilly and his compadres to locate the smallest corner of our nation immune from the months-long drumbeat of Christmas stuff. For us, the holiday seems closer to Star Trek’s Borg Collective (“Resistance is futile!”) than anything I can find in the Christian scriptures. To be Jewish (or Hindu, Bahai or Brama Kumari) in America requires some effort to wall out the overwhelming pressure of our national majority faith.”

The tendency to bundle non-Christian Winter holidays together and treat them like cultural add-ons to the Christmas juggernaut has started to find some dissenters, but most of us rationalize celebrating the holiday in the secular-religious hybrid that has now become the norm (particularly since most of us have Christian relatives and friends). Pagans perhaps have the best excuse, as many traditions and observances have their genesis with our religious ancestors, but we still exist in a culture where those elements: trees, gift-giving, various decorations and customs, are understood by most as function of a nominally Christian holiday, not some syncretic hybrid.

So long as Christianity remains the dominant religious force in our lives minority religions will have to hope that secular separations of church and state hold (or in the case of Mexico, progress), and that Christians of good conscience start to understand how their power works, and how that affects those who aren’t Christian.

“The most searching way to discover, recover, or practice one’s faith is to be a member of a religious minority–to live on a small island of Otherness in an archipelago of bigger religions or in the lake of a theocracy. The situation can be agreeable or dangerous. This is a truism for religious minorities, but it may surprise many in “Christian America.” Not everyone belts out Christmas carols.

Being a minority tests the temper of a faith, its resilience and fiber […] Being a member of a minority entails the ability to bend and to negotiate. This, in turn, demands a deep understanding of the majority and local conditions, deeper than the majority may have about the minority; respect for them whenever possible; diplomacy; patience; and the building of relationships, infinitesimal gesture after infinitesimal gesture.”

The author of that piece, Professor Catharine Stimpson, was writing about being a Christian in the Islam-dominated United Arab Emirates, and how that perspective has shifted the way she sees all religious minorities. I think that her experience is important, and her testimony much-needed. Christianity has a historical and theological persecution narrative, which can unfortunately become something of a complex that distorts reality,  instead of calling its adherents towards a witness of tolerance and coexistence for all. All persecution narratives, even and especially our own, run the risk of becoming a toxic method of making people of different faiths or perspectives an inhuman “other.” Faceless villains who sport labels instead of human qualities, who become distorted monsters not to be trusted. The challenge for the formerly persecuted is to rise above their own persecution narratives, to build a future where none are persecuted, while it is the challenge of minorities to avoid enshrining them in the first place.

I hope that as this holiday season winds down we’ll all take a moment to consider the perspectives of others, and to critically think about the narratives we are participating in.

Due to family obligations I won’t be blogging today, but I’ll be back tomorrow with my regular daily dose of modern Pagan-related news and commentary. In the meantime I wish a very happy holiday season to you all, and a very happy birthday to Jesus of NazarethMithrasCarlos CastenadaSol InvictusRobert Ripley, and Annie Lennox among many others.

Leaf disc dedicated to Sol Invictus.

Leaf disc dedicated to Sol Invictus.

Happy Holidays! Back tomorrow.

There are lots of articles and essays of interest to modern Pagans out there, sometimes more than I can write about in-depth in any given week. So The Wild Hunt must unleash the hounds in order to round them all up. This week, I unleash the special yuletide holiday hounds (they’re like the regular hounds, but with festive accessories) and bring you a collection of links that leans towards matters seasonal.

That’s all I have for now, I hope all my readers have had/will have a festive holiday season, whatever your faith or tradition.

Due to family obligations I won’t be blogging today, but I’ll be back tomorrow with my regular daily dose of modern Pagan-related news and commentary. In the meantime I wish a very happy holiday season to you all, and a very happy birthday to Jesus of NazarethMithrasCarlos CastenadaSol InvictusRobert Ripley, and Annie Lennox among many others.

Leaf disc dedicated to Sol Invictus.

Leaf disc dedicated to Sol Invictus.

Happy Holidays! Back tomorrow.

The always-incisive T. Thorn Coyle, inspired by latest response at the Washington Post’s On Faith site, provides a counter-argument that Christians should take back Christmas, and Pagans should just leave it alone.

“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.”

I encourage you to read the whole thing and add your thoughts. You may also want to read her yearly solstice poem. If you have any other links to thoughts on this season, and our place within it, please share them in the comments.