Last year was the first Christmas since I was a child that I spent with a real tree in the house. We bought it the weekend after my Sagittarian birthday, team carried it from the lot across the street and up three floors to our home, and left it there, bedecked and cheerful, through our trip to New York, my wife’s birthday, the new year, and two sets of visiting relatives. A month passed before I realized that it was no longer the handsome tree we had brought home. I would have to figure out how to manage taking it down.
I realized this too late. The moment I touched the tree it began to drop limbs, ornaments coming away in showers of needles and dry lengths of wood. Alone in the house, my wife due back in a few hours, I realized this was a question of mess reduction. I had no idea what to do except keep the damage as localized as possible. I grabbed the black-handled knife that lives on my altar, the one that helped me cut my wand, and got to work.
When my wife returned, she found me wrestling the trunk of the tree into a pair of linked trash bags at the center of a three-foot blast-radius of greenery. I looked up, feeling hunted – I had wanted to have finished vacuuming and tidying up before she got back. She looked me over, saw the mallet I had dedicated to Thor in one hand and my sap-coated knife lying to the other side. Then she took a breath and walked out of the room to take her coat off.
We’re a mixed tradition family. This wasn’t the strangest thing I had ever done, slightly out of her line of sight. But it was the end of a season that stubbornly, determinedly refused to fit into our expectations for a holiday. There was the travel, food poisoning, birthdays that bookended the season and distracted from everything else – a dozen reasons that any celebration in our household kept getting pushed back. Money was tight, gifts were delayed. When I finally suggested that we simply open our packages and skip any big celebration, the relief was so palpable that we both knew it was the right choice.
That was the year we stopped celebrating Christmas. Carting the bags of miscellaneous tree parts out to the dumpster, I became deeply aware of the symbolism of the whole situation. I just didn’t know what to do next.
In the slightly pedantic circles I frequent, we talk a lot about the difference between orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
Orthodoxy is, in these conversations, the religious structure that says it is important that people believe the same things. This, my friends often say, is the common stance in Christian contexts. While what a Christian does is still important, they are spiritually in the clear as long as they believe correctly. Orthopraxy, on the other hand, is the focus on what someone does. This, I am told, is a trademark of Pagan practice. While each individual at a Pagan ritual may have very different beliefs, it is the act of practicing the religion – performing the ritual, giving the offering- that is important.
I’m not sure I believe this. It seems a very neat binary for the complicated tangle of human interrelation that makes up religion. (Isn’t that Sunday ritual I performed throughout my childhood, devoid of meaning but devout, orthopraxy?) But even assuming that it is true for the community at large, a broadly correct anthropological observation, I cannot relate to it.
Trying to focus on building praxis, defining the rituals and offerings that I might find meaning in, has left me cold for years. I don’t enjoy magic for magic’s sake; I don’t particularly resonate with the cycle of the seasons or the waxing of the moon. When I want to accomplish something specific, I can grow a ritual around it as organically as a story – but scheduling a ritual or an offering robs the act of some vital spark. The joy in my Paganism, especially as it relates to community, comes from conversation, the clash of ideas and beliefs, and the recognition of a similar soul. Oh, it says, you feel that too? You think the same thing? You get the same face when the universe looks at you?
Attempting to be orthopractic while seeking something closer to orthodoxy – not the same beliefs, not entirely, but similar – is an unpleasant ride. The nature of belief, at least in a religion as dependent on personal experience as mine, is that no two people will ever match. I will always work with slightly different spirits, experience different facets of my gods, draw different conclusions from my scholarship and relationships. Those differences are strengths in the Pagan community, and lead to a variety and breadth of experiences, but I lack a language to talk about them that also builds connection. Orthopraxy seems like a fallback, a manageable second best. We may not believe the same thing, but at least we’re both here, holding the same cup, taking the same deep breath. If we focus on that hard enough perhaps it will be almost as though we mean the same thing by it, as well.
It’s funny, then, that rebuilding a tradition is such lonely work. Holidays are the ultimate in orthopraxy. What you believe about flying quadrupeds, chimney travel, or virgin births is all but immaterial in the cultural phenomenon that is American Christmas. Families do the same things across a swath of incredibly varied belief structures. We cut down trees, prepare lavish meals, travel to see our families. We open presents and watch the same movies and are told that these are the trappings of the true emotional experience we ought to be having. In my experience, and as far as I have seen in the experiences of my friends from the same hearth culture, it is the actions that define the season. When those actions do not create the expected emotional payoff – well, surely it’s some mistake in our performance of the formula. We must have worked the spell wrong.
I am trying to step away from that, and I am learning that I miss it. Not all of it; there is a great weight of stress that left with the idea of needing to buy wrapping paper. But without the vestigial celebration of Christ’s birth, wrapped in its unique blend of European borrowings and commercial invention, it turns out that I don’t care much about the end of December. It is filled with family birthdays, and I find it joyful for that reason, but there is no great celebration to take the place of or run parallel to the ecstasies of shopping and sugar my friends are currently in thrall to. It is just another month, and it is a strange thing to find myself queuing up Die Hard out of habit and loneliness, and because I know it is one of the actions that has come to mean celebration, baked down somewhere deep in my bones.
I know it is a hollow thing to have action without belief. I was not expecting to find something missing in belief without action.
This is all overly simple. There are issues here of habit and of expectation and of family that complicate the conversation, break it into side tangents and provisos, render it all but meaningless. I am still early in the season – I can still go out and buy another tree. My world is filled with other Pagans who have built or borrowed new traditions. I am not lacking for options or opportunity to build a season for myself.
I am trying, instead, to listen. What do I miss, exactly? What pieces of the larger holiday actually speak to me, and what in them, if anything, is religious? Are there other celebrations that can give me those things? Are there parts of this celebration that I want to reintroduce? I am researching older holidays, listening to carols and hymns old enough to strike the ear as strange and not-quite Pagan.
And I bought a wreath, because I love the smell of greenery. When it dries I will bring it into the kitchen, spread out newspaper beneath it, and carefully harvest the juniper. It will burn throughout the year, because I believe the smoke has a cleansing effect. I know I am not alone in that belief.