Archives For War on Christmas

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 (], 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


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.

It looks like holiday display battle season has officially begun. The Chester County, Pennsylvania board of commissioners have voted to change their holiday display policy at the historic county courthouse in West Chester. Once open to all comers, displays will now be handled solely by the county.

The new policy would revoke previously adopted policies that allowed private organizations, such as the Freethought Society, the Pennsylvania Pastor’s Network, the Chabad of Chester County, and the Greater West Chester Chamber of Commerce, to erect displays on the front and south side lawns of the county’s 1846 courthouse facing High and Market streets. The resolution adopted calls for the county to “erect and maintain its own seasonal holiday displays to celebrate the traditions of the holidays” to support the troops, celebrate peace, and promote commerce. The displays, it stated, would conform to “constitutionally permitted … applicable law.”

No one is sure what will happen yet, but the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia is donating its news-making “Tree of Knowledge” to the county in hopes it will continued to be used.

“The Tree of Knowledge has become a beacon of enlightenment and has drawn visitors to Chester Count y from around the country,” society President Margaret Downey said in the letter. As a gesture of goodwill, FS will donate the Tree of Knowledge and its ornaments to Chester County for use in official holiday displays. However, should the Commissioners reject these donations, we request that the explanation for denying the nontheist community representation be sent to us, in writing, at your earliest opportunity,” she wrote. “The eyes of the nation are on Chester County this holiday season as you decide whether or not the nontheist community will be allowed equal participation on the public grounds of a government building.”

Supporters are pointing out that this move is just the latest in a series of maneuvers designed to eliminate the troublesome “Tree of Knowledge” from the holiday displays.

“This would have been the fourth year in which the Tree of Knowledge shared the lawn of the Chester County Courthouse with the Christmas Tree, the Jesus Crèche, and a large Menorah. Each year has been a fight for the Freethought Society to get around the Commissioners ever changing procedures designed to block them from participating in the winter festivities. Last year, the county even created “zones” in which holiday displays could be placed, but after a few days all the displays were moved to a more prominent location not in the zoned area except the Tree of Knowledge…”

While the commissioners say this wasn’t a religiously-oriented decision, claiming it was about supporting the troops, even the local press seems somewhat skeptical of that assertion. Meaning we’ll most likely be seeing a  lawsuit, or at least the threat of one, very soon. While there isn’t a Pagan angle to this particular story, the deliberate closing of a public space to a single minority religion or philosophy can create a chilling effect for us all. If atheists aren’t welcome in the public square, I can’t imagine modern Pagans are either. Over the last couple of years Pagan involvement in Winter public holiday displays haven’t always gone over very well, and now it seems like the “War on Christmas” is being won by the self-proclaimed “Christmas” partisans.

“This season, merry Christmas — not happy holidays or season’s greetings — will dominate retailer’s marketing messages. There will be Christmas sales and Christmas trees and Christmas carols galore. That has the American Family Association, arguably one of the loudest voices advocating the use of Christmas in retailer’s marketing messages over the past few years, predicting that its crusade could conclude in the next year or two.”

The public square should reflect the diversity of the public, especially when it comes to religion, lest it be seen as establishing or endorsing a religious preference for the government. A nativity scene, a menorah, and Santa Claus isn’t diversity, it’s a subtle endorsement of Judeo-Christian cultural norms. Further, this time is special for many different religions, and to browbeat government officials and retail companies into “putting the Christ back in Christmas” isn’t “defending” Christmas, or protecting tradition, its silencing inconvenient voices.

Top Story: While not explicitly about Paganism, the Newspaper Death Watch blog pointed me to a fascinating new study entitled “New Entrepreneurs: New Perspectives on News” ( PDF version), that interviews fifty women news creators and consumers and transmits a reality that many of us involved in new-media already knew.

“New media creators seek to report on their communities by being actively involved in them. They engage in newsgathering and reporting that is informed by their own knowledge and sense of place. They seek to entice members of their community in robust conversations. They pay close attention to their readers and communities to figure out what is of interest …New media news creators deliberately employ more involved (participatory), less dispassionate points of view, while maintaining the distinction between news and opinion …The primary motivation of news creators in starting a community news site is to amplify a sense of community and connect its members in meaningful interactions … For news creators, the primary gap is a geographic one. They are seeking to fill a void that exists because traditional media never covered their communities or have abandoned coverage because of economic pressures.”

The above could read as a mission-statement for The Wild Hunt and hundreds of other blogs, podcasts, and new-media resources out there. I’m not “embedded” in the Pagan community, I’m a part of the Pagan community, and that intimacy and familiarity gives me a perspective and vitality that no mainstream journalist can hope to match. I do believe I can be passionate about a topic while distinguishing what is fact and what is merely my opinion.  Further, the study makes plain that media creators and consumers (an increasingly blurry distinction) are both frustrated by the current state of mainstream news reporting, pointing out how “old media” has been petty and hostile towards emerging new-media solutions and  outlets.

This new attitude/reality is certainly worrying for newspapers and other traditional news-outlets. As Newspaper Death Watch states: “reinvention doesn’t come without pain”, and that pain has yet to run its course. However, I believe in the long run this change in journalism and news-gathering will ultimately create more quality journalism, not less. Further, it will forever change the old paradigm of a select few deciding what is “newsworthy”. For many, what happens in the world of modern Paganism isn’t worth reporting, or only worth reporting during Halloween, but we are no longer limited by the page-count or the deadline. In the future, news will be initially generated by self-interested communities which will then “trickle-up” to larger journalism-creating entities as “big” stories emerge. News outlets that continue to ignore these changes will just become another statistic for the media “death-watchers”.

In Other News: Turning briefly to Catholicism, I’ve previously mentioned that American nuns are currently undergoing a “doctrinal assessment” to see if they are coloring inside the lines and not straying too far into feminism, practicing Reiki, or getting too cozy with Goddess-worshipers. Well it looks like many of the women religious aren’t going to go down quietly, by, well, being quiet.

“Most US women religious are failing to comply with a Vatican request to answer questions in a document from Apostolic Visitator, Mother Angela Millea. Leaders of congregations, instead, are leaving questions unanswered or sending in letters or copies of their communities’ constitutions, NCR Online reports. “There’s been almost universal resistance,” said one women religious familiar with the responses compiled by the congregation leaders. “We are saying ‘enough!’ In my 40 years in religious life I have never seen such unanimity.” The deadline for the questionnaires to be filled out and returned to the Vatican appointed apostolic visitator, Mother Mary Clare Millea, was November 20.”

So what happens when non-contemplative Catholic womens religious orders, the ones who are usually the most tied to and involved with their local communities (and hence, quite popular with the laity) put their foot down? Saying that they are through being “bullied”? We can’t be sure, but I doubt this is making Benedict XVI very happy. Something tells me this isn’t going to be the last instance of civil disobedience and non-compliance from American nuns.

The Religion Clause blog alerts me to an update on the South Carolina “I Believe” license plates story that I’ve covered here at The Wild Hunt in some depth. It seems the local Palmetto Family Council, instead of urging the state to issue unconstitutional endorsements of a single faith, is going to follow the law and sponsor the plates themselves.

“The plaintiffs who just won the lawsuit that killed the General Assembly-sanctioned “I Believe” license tag are saying they won’t protest Smith’s plan — as long as it’s a private group, and not state government, that is sponsoring the tag. “This would be a specialty license tag like all the other specialty tags,” said the Rev. Neal Jones, one of the four plaintiffs who filed the lawsuit over separation of church and state. “It would be an expression of freedom of speech by a private group, and we don’t have a problem with that.” Jones, pastor of the Universalist Unitarian Fellowship in Columbia, said he had discussed with the other three plaintiffs the possibility of a private group putting “I Believe” on a tag. “Everyone was fine with it,” he said.”

You know, if local Christian groups had just coughed up the $4000 dollars to sponsor the specialty plate in the first place we wouldn’t have had to have an expensive court battle. But I suppose that would rob local politicians of some quality Christian pandering for votes.

In another follow-up, the massive (and controversial) Nepalese ritual-animal-slaughter of the Gadhimai Mela is over and the AFP interviews some unrepentant participants in the killings.

“Munna Bahadur Khadgi, a professional butcher, said he had enjoyed the chance to give the goddess “something in return.” “Gadhimai has been kind enough for me to have a good life and I take this slaughter as a way of saying ‘thank you’,” said the 40-year-old, who said he had killed 200 buffalo this year. “I make money by killing animals normally but at the festival I do it for spiritual satisfaction. It is the least that I could do for the goddess and I didn’t want to miss this opportunity.” For 31-year-old Abhimanyu Rana, the slaughtering was in keeping with the family’s religious belief and practice. “When I was young I had seen my dad and grandpa slaughtering animals. I am proud that I am continuing the family history,” said Rana, who owns a local restaurant.”

But while many local Nepalese participants seemed pleased with the festivities, Utpal Parashar of the Hindustan Times seemed to have had a terrible time, saying the slaughter was “nauseating” and that he was pick-pocketed twice. Inside Nepal, a commentator for the Kathmandu Post, invoking Peter Singer, said the event was “the legitimization of violence in Nepal writ large”. The coalition lobbying to stop the mass-sacrifice points out that few safety and humane regulations were witnessed during the festival, and I can’t help but wonder if a reformation movement would have met with better success than a movement for a complete ban.

In a final note, now that Thanksgiving is over, people are turning toward Yuletide gift-giving and reporters are anxious to turn in their “pagan origins of Christmas” story before heading out for Black Friday deal-hunting. In an article about a festival of trees, the pre-Christian origins of hauling a tree indoors was cited, while a variety of letter-writers are quick to point out the pagan-ness of Christmas while considering church-state concerns. Meanwhile, SF Gate columnist Jon Carroll quotes a reader on the issue of Jews adapting and adopting Christmas for themselves.

“So can’t the Jews attempt something that the Christians did so successfully 200 or so years ago with a pagan celebration?”

Yes Virginia, Winter festivals do predate Christianity, and that religion did steal borrow many popular pagan traditions in the process. However, I’m not sold on the theory that Santa was a shaman. I’m more a “he exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist” kind of guy. I’m also a let everyone celebrate their Winter festivals in whatever way they want kind of guy, but I still think that Gap ad is stupid.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

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Even though the American Family Association stumbled from the gate in the kick-off to this year’s skirmishes over religious language and iconography during the Winter holidays (aka “The War on Christmas”), that doesn’t mean other groups haven’t been cowed. Instead it looks like were going to be seeing a rather holy protest at the steps of the United States Supreme Court as Faith and Action and the Christian Defense Coalition stage a live Nativity scene.

“Rev. Rob Schenck, President of Faith and Action, states, “The traditional creche, portraying Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child, along with the angels, shepherds and Wise Men, remind us all of what Christmas is all about. “We like to refer to this effort as keeping Christ Mass in the nation’s Capitol.” Rev. Patrick J. Mahoney, Director of the Christian Defense Coalition, adds, “Sadly, we are seeing an erosion and hostility toward public expressions of faith in the public square.   This is especially true during the Christmas Season. “The Nativity Project and Operation Nativity are reminders that our Constitution provides freedom ‘of’ religion not freedom ‘from’ religion…”

Ah, the old “freedom of” not “freedom from” argument, too bad that commitment to freedom is a mile wide and only an inch deep. As the Green Bay Wisconsin Nativity battle proved, once people actually start demanding real “freedom of”, which means the inclusion of all religions and philosophical points of view on public lands, things start to go a bit haywire for those crusaders for “religious freedom”.

So while the  “you aren’t saying Christmas” boycotts have lost their sizzle, the battle over Christmas religious displays in the public square is still heating up. There are already a couple cases that look like they’re headed for the courts, and it seems like only a matter of time before a Wiccan or atheist decides they want a Winter display next to a Nativity on public land somewhere. Then we’ll get to really test the “religious freedom” resolve of the groups currently dressing up like Joseph and Mary on the Supreme Court’s steps.

A Few Quick Notes

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 17, 2009 — 3 Comments

I have some other stories of note to share with you today, starting with the sad news that actor Edward Woodward, 79, passed away yesterday due to complications from pneumonia. Woodward is well-known to many Pagan film lovers as “Christian copper” Sgt. Howie from the original cult-classic 1973 film “The Wicker Man” (and better-known to most Americans as the lead in the 1980s vigilante series “The Equalizer”).

Edward Woodward in "The Wicker Man"

At news of his passing, “Wicker Man” director Robin Hardy said that Woodward was “one of the greatest actors of his generation”, while co-star Sir Christopher Lee called him “a good friend and a splendid actor”. Matt Holmes at “Obsessed With Film” says that Woodward (as Sgt. Howie) committed the most memorable “gut-wrenching” on-screen death ever, while Pagan film reviewer Peg Aloi offers a touching farewell.

“Woodward is remembered by many of his colleagues as a kind, warm man who told wonderful stories, as well as being a consummate actor. His distinguished career will long be remembered. In particular, his role as Sergeant Howie in The Wicker Man will be remembered for its complexity, subtlety and power. Howie is a repressive, seemingly cold-mannered police officer who eventually reveals stunning emotional depth and passion. Woodward’s portrayal unfolds with delicious tension and suspense, as the film builds to its shocking ending.”

Here’s to you Mr. Woodward, thank you for your work, may you find peace across the veil.

Turning from the sad news of this passing, to the optimistic idea of deeper understanding and communication between faiths, we have an interesting editorial from the national Catholic weekly America. There, Catholic priest and Harvard professor Francis X. Clooney, S.J., who has argued in the past against “bland secularism” at Catholic colleges, favoring instead a “religiously diverse” campus, talks about his experiences teaching the class “Hindu Goddesses and the Blessed Virgin Mary”.

“The mix of the course is thus quite extraordinary: some wonderful Hindu and Christian texts read by a great group of students, as we discuss a wide range of issues about scripture, our images of God and humanity, and what to make of the varied religious experiences of the human race. Harvard is not the place wherein to reach single, definite conclusions about truth, but I think that this learning across religious boundaries does open us to truth, to Truth. By studying the traditions of the goddesses and Mary together, we understand both more clearly; those of us who are Catholic at Harvard find ourselves brought closer to devotion to Mary, who holds her own in every discussion. The goddesses too fare well, though each of us has to make up her or his own mind on how to appropriate these goddess traditions.”

Perhaps there’s room in this world for Mary and the goddesses? That seems to be at least partially the gist, he even recounts how a group of students sing hymns to both Mary and the goddesses before each class, and how both the Catholics and the goddess-worshipers have deepened their understanding and practice. To read more about Clooney’s work, you should read his essay “Interreligious Dialogue: Goddess in the Classroom”, and check out his book, “Divine Mother, Blessed Mother: Hindu Goddesses and the Virgin Mary”.

In a final “War on Christmas” note, it seems the American Family Assn. is issuing its yearly call to boycott The Gap for not saying “Christmas” even though the clothing chain’s silly wince-inducing holiday ad name-checks several yule-tide holidays, including “Christmas”, “Hanukka”, and “Solstice”.

“It’s unlikely the new Gap ads will placate the psalm-singers in Tupelo. After all, in the spirit of inclusiveness, Christmas is mentioned in the same breath as Hanukkah, Kwanzaa and solstice. The winter solstice, as everyone knows, is a pagan celebration, so — viewed through a peculiarly warped lens — the Gap ad puts Christians on the same level as a bunch of blue-paintedheathens dancing around a Yule log drinking mead out of a stag horn.”

The LA Times is dead-on the money, as the AFA has issued a boycott update saying the Christmas-invoking ad is “completely dismissive and disrespectful to those who celebrate the meaning and spirit of Christmas.” Yes, whatever happened to all those tasteful clothing-chain holiday ads that didn’t cheapen the holy Winter months by trying to sell you loads of stuff.

That’s all I have for now, have a great day!

You know you’re in for a good time when a Christian editorial about Christmas starts off with a H.L. Mencken quote. Writer and budding parenting guru Tony Woodlief wants to give Pagans the greatest gift of all this holiday season, he wants to give us our winter holiday back.

“We succeeded in supplanting the pagan holiday, but we didn’t rid ourselves of the pagans. Instead, a good many of us joined in, gradually helping to associate Christmas with over-consumption, drunken revelry, and self-centered celebration. One can’t help but wonder if Christ would just as soon have us call what America now celebrates something else, something that doesn’t invoke his name. In this I find myself increasingly on the side of the grievance-minded and the anti-Christians—let’s publicly call this big event the “Happy Holidays,” or “Winter Festival,” or even “Saturnalia,” and stop—for the love of God—calling it Christmas.”

We here at The Wild Hunt fully support Woodlief’s proposition for Christians to fully surrender to a post-Christian inevitability. Here’s hoping his suggestion for all Christians to “quietly celebrate the birth of Christ in our churches and homes” reaches far and wide! Now that Pagans have retaken Halloween, and the tide is turning for the Winter holidays, could it be time for “the grievance-minded and the anti-Christians” to set their sights on Eas… I mean Eostre?

December brings many things: snow, cold weather, people acting horribly at shopping centers, and journalists seeking a new angle on holiday reporting. A favorite in recent years is to talk of the “pagan” origins of the Christmas holiday. These often come in the form of editorials rebutting the inane “War on Christmas” prattlings by Bill O’Reilly and his ilk. For example, Pete Langr of the Budgeteer News has this to say.

“It’s ironic that the effort to put Christ back in Christmas is both so profitable and so willing to focus on the Christmas tree and on the word “merry.” The Christmas tree itself “has nothing to do with other religious holidays celebrated in December” says my letter writer. Except that the Christmas tree was apparently co-opted by Christians from a pagan celebration in which evergreen boughs were hung in the home. In effect, the pagans lost an earlier culture war. Perhaps they bartered buttons saying ‘take back our winter solstice celebration.'”

And so on, and so forth. Some reporters have even tried to debunk the “Christmas traditions aren’t really Christian” debunkers.

“Despite popular belief, the idea of Christmas trees did not come from Pagan rituals. In fact, the first Christmas trees are believed to have originated in 17th century Germany. It took two centuries for the idea to catch on in the U.S.”

To bad the Bible somewhat refutes that notion.

“Jeremiah 10:2-4: “Thus saith the LORD, Learn not the way of the heathen, and be not dismayed at the signs of heaven; for the heathen are dismayed at them. For the customs of the people are vain: for one cutteth a tree out of the forest, the work of the hands of the workman, with the axe. They deck it with silver and with gold; they fasten it with nails and with hammers, that it move not.” (KJV).”

The New York Times has its own formula for many beloved Christmas traditions: pagans invented them, Christians appropriated them, Dickens (and 19th century England) synthesized, secularized, and popularized them, and the public embraced the entire culturally tangled mess whole-cloth.

“Standiford, the author of four other non­fiction books, tidily explains the appeal of “A Christmas Carol,” its readership “said at the turn of the 20th century to be second only to the Bible’s.” Replacing the slippery Holy Ghost with anthropomorphized spirits, the infant Christ with a crippled child whose salvation waits on man’s — not God’s — generosity, Dickens laid claim to a religious festival, handing it over to the gathering forces of secular humanism. If a single night’s crash course in man’s power to redress his mistakes and redeem his future without appealing to an invisible and silent deity could rehabilitate even so apparently lost a cause as Ebenezer Scrooge, imagine what it might do for the rest of us!”

So the answer to the “pagan origins” debate is that everyone’s right. A lot of “Christmas-y” stuff is pre-Christian in some form or another, but it is equally true to say that they have been fully absorbed into a Christian context. In turn, both the pagan and Christian contexts for hanging the holly and trimming the tree have morphed into a fully secular affair, complete with a popular mythology that is a mish-mash of pagan, Christian, and pop-culture elements. What the Christmas warriors don’t understand is that their war was lost long ago, and the majority of people who just wanted a reason to find hope, merriment, and camaraderie during the bleak midwinter won out.

(Pagan) News of Note

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  November 8, 2008 — 3 Comments

My semi-regular round-up of articles, essays, and opinions of note for discerning Pagans and Heathens.

It seems our troubled economy is sparing no-one. The International New Age Trade Show has canceled their East coast show for 2009 (the West coast show is proceeding normally), citing concerns over the “current worldwide economic situation”.

“In light of the current worldwide economic situation, we’ve decided to postpone the INATS East show until 2010. By waiting out these hard times, we feel we’ll be better able to provide the buyer attendance that is crucial to exhibitor success. It’s always our goal to provide the optimum situation for both buyers and exhibitors. With the holidays upon us and the predictions being made about retailer slow-downs, we feel it is in our exhibitors’ best interest to postpone at this time.”

So much for that “one decimal point”. Will Pagan festivals and conventions also see postponements, cancellations, and moves to smaller venues as the world tightens its collective belt? After all, it’s hard to buy trinkets and take time off work when you’re barely making ends meet. Thanks to Juliaki for tipping me off to this developing story.

We aren’t the only ones noticing that Republicans have lost the non-Christian vote.

“For Republicans, the news only gets worse. Not only is the country becoming less White Anglo, it’s becoming less rural, and perhaps even less religious. Meaning, in political terms, less Christian, specifically less Protestant. Most Catholics voted Democratic Tuesday. Jews and Muslims mostly voted for Obama. So did that still small but growing minority—mostly Asian-American—raised in the Buddhist or Hindu traditions. So, in all likelihood (the exit polls don’t get into these areas) did those who were raised as Christians but now consider themselves New Age, neo-pagan or simply indifferent. Every year, there are more of these folks, fewer of the stereotypical traditional American—the rural, white Protestant whose ancestors have been here for generations. Every year, the country gets more diverse, more metropolitan, more cosmopolitan, even a bit more secular. In the process, it gets less Republican.”

The strategy of doubling-down on conservative Christianity may have seemed like a great idea thirty years ago, but in an increasingly religiously pluralistic society it can cost you elections.

Speaking of the Obama victory, I’ve rounded up reactions from some notable Pagans, including Thorn Coyle, Starhawk, Deborah Oak, Hrafnkell, Cat Chapin-Bishop, Erynn Rowan Laurie, and Judith Laura. Meanwhile Pagan authors Oberon Zell-Ravenheart and Edain McCoy have sent out a call for spiritual protection for our 44th president.

“We have been made aware that a clear and present danger hangs over the head of Sen. Barrack Obama. Unfortunately, we still live a country where many are taught to hate and fear others based on nothing more than the hue of their skin. Our community mobilizes all the time to send healing and protection to others, and we hope you will join us in a multi-faith magickal effort to keep Barrack Obama–and his family–safe from harm as he transitions into the role of our President.”

They are asking for focused workings at Yule/Midwinter and on inauguration day. Also, while technically not a Pagan, I think Nobel-winner Wangari Maathai eloquently puts forth a prime concern among many Pagans looking towards the next four years.

“If there is one thing I would personally wish of Obama, it would be to fight for the environment. I would urge his administration to help Africa protect its forests and to adapt to the changing climate. We know that Africa will be very adversely affected. The post-Kyoto protocol negotiations are ongoing, and forests must be included as part of the solution. I hope America will support that.”

Here’s hoping that global warming and the environment is at the top of his priority list, for all our sakes.

Though the Halloween interview season is over, that hasn’t stopped New Jersey monthly from interviewing local Pagan shop owners and the editor of the forthcoming “Thorn” magazine.

“For those who want to explore paganism in relation to modern culture, Thorn Magazine, will make its debut this month. Editor Chip O’Brien said it’s the only one of its kind in the northeast. He hopes this Matawan-based publication and website will ‘illuminate the joys and complications of living ancient paths in the wired era.'”

Nice to see a reporter actually scour the state looking for Pagans to interview, though overall points have been deducted for not fact-checking claims that Wicca stems from “ancient Egyptians and Celtic lore”. Still, a generally decent overview of the Pagan business community in the state.

In a final note, it looks like all sorts of litigation of interest to modern Pagans will be in our future. South Carolina is going ahead with their controversial “I Believe” license plate design, Bill O’Reilly is gearing up to fight the Christmas Wars once again, and the city of Green Bay, Wisconsin, has decided to include religious displays after all.

“Yesterday’s Appleton (WI) Post-Crescent reports that the proposed policy that would have allowed only secular displays on government property has now been changed. By a vote of 8-4, Council added language stating that the U.S. Supreme Court has approved combined religious and nonreligious displays, and that city officials, at their discretion, may permit these as well as purely secular ones. Before final passage, Green Bay’s city attorney will study the new language.”

You can click here for a quick overview of the whole sordid religious mess caused by Green Bay’s mayor and city council because they want to place a plastic baby Jesus on their building (litigation is already pending). Also, keep an eye out for news of the the Supreme Court case Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, which will hear arguments on November 12th.

That is all I have for now, have a great day!

The Religion Clause blog reports that a case involving a controversial Nativity Scene erected on city property in Green Bay, Wisconsin this past December has been dismissed by the judge.

A brief moment of religious inclusiveness in Green Bay.

“…a Wisconsin federal district court dismissed an Establishment Clause challenge to a nativity scene displayed last year on the roof of the entrance to Green Bay’s City Hall. Plaintiffs sought a declaratory judgment, an injunction and nominal damages. Without reaching the merits, the court concluded that plaintiffs lacked standing because “none of the relief they seek would redress the injuries they claim.” City Council had already enacted a moratorium on all displays, until a policy is worked out in the future. Also the city took down the display at issue on December 26, just hours before this lawsuit was filed. The claim for nominal damages was not sufficient by itself to create standing.”

This ruling isn’t exactly a rousing victory for Mayor Jim Schmitt. While Green Bay won’t have to pay damages, this “Christmas Wars” showdown hasn’t endeared him to the local press, and even local clergy have told him to keep city hall secular.

“Mayor Jim Schmitt has met with clergy to get their ideas on a city policy. They agreed that the city should stick with secular decorations and leave the religious displays to area churches and synagogues.”

This case has displayed the worst impulses of politicians. Enacting policy in order to “take the fight to” organizations they disagree with, inviting religious diversity to cover their tracks, and then insulting a local Wiccan organization (Circle Sanctuary) by refusing to replace a holiday display that had been vandalized. It makes one wish that Green Bay’s mayor had the same good sense as Muskego’s.

“You have to be respectful of all religions and if you start putting one display up, you have to put up displays for everybody,” Muskego Mayor John Johnson said. “If you put up a Nativity scene and then a group asks you to put up a Hanukkah display or a display for the Muslim holiday, do you tell them no? You can’t.”

While the Freedom From Religion Foundation’s suit was dismissed, they, and the Green Bay residents who filed with them, really won the larger battle. It seems very likely that Mayor Jim Schmitt and the city council will take the advice of local clergy and keep things secular this year. Avoiding future games of litigious “chicken” for the sake of proving that Green Bay is more Christian than Madison. Let’s hope this case fizzling out will be a harbinger of the larger “War on Christmas” finally losing momentum among the punditocracy.