The True Meaning of Christmas (Pagan Style).
I am not going to lie, all I want to do right now is sleep and watch fantasy television.
Which makes sense. With the Solstice preceding Christmas by only a couple days this is the time of year with the least amount of energy. The warmth, the light, even the harvest of crops and their calories generated by the Sun are in their low tide.
It makes sense that our bodies have evolved to sleep it all away.
If not for coffee, advertising, and street lamps that could very well be what Christmas would turn into; a day of rest, lazing around with the family.
As much as a part of me wants this I realized the ancients didn’t exactly sit around taking naps.
They invoked their gods, pacified their spirits and the dead, and worked their sympathetic magic. . . magic reflected in our own traditions of gift-giving, trees, and Christmas lights.
When we reach the year’s rock bottom the energy has to shift (think Yin to Yang) and so for better or worse we invoke our magic.
The Yin-Yang Christmas.
It is the theory of Daoism that the active and passive energies cycle one into the other to restore their properties.
The year starts with the Yang of Tree/Wood energy in Spring, turns into the excitement of Fire in Summer when energy is so abundant it is nearly free, passes through Earth where it begins to settle in harvest, collects in Metal where we begin to conserve, and moves into the Water of Winter where we sleep and dream.
In this way, the Winter balances the extremes of Summer. This also means that the heat and life of Summer is germinated here in the darkest night of Winter.
While the seasons cycle with or without our theories this look at energy holds particularly true for living beings and our reactions to the seasons.
The heat and warmth of Summer is a crescendo of energy. In ancient times this meant more energy for hunting and harvest. Today it means more energy for travel, outdoor activities, household projects, games, and partying.
But if we did that all year long we’d burn ourselves out. Luckily the world doesn’t sustain this and so we have the move into Autumn where people sort through the chaos of Summer as we head into Winter.
Here it is common for people to hit rock bottom in regards to energy levels. It's simply harder to survive in Winter, it's cold, it's dark, and there used to be a scarcity of food (still is in much of the world).
The season’s many holidays marked a time where the ancients worked to rebirth the slowing energy of the year.
Whether we think of Yin cultivating back into Yang, or the Negredo turning into the Albedo or the birthing of a new Sun we see the same archetype recurring over and over again: in the darkest night new life is born.
The dark births light.
While we may think of this birthing from the dark as the need for new hope, the ancient mind sees it more as the way the process has to go.
We need death, night, the dark to birth life, day, the light.
It isn’t that we need a hope in the darkest night but rather that without the darkest night there is no space, no womb with which to birth the light.
Further, the ancients saw themselves as important participants within the cycle. It wasn’t enough to hope that the new be born from the dark, rather the dark womb needs to be inseminated.
How did they do this?
Invocations and appeasement.
The ancients had many ways of invoking their intentions in the world.
Among these were offerings to the gods, appeasement of spirits, and sympathetic magic.
If we look at the Roman tradition and the festivals of December you see all of these methods put to good use.
In particular, there is a theme of the gods and spirits of harvest, order, wealth, life, and its vigor.
The sorts of things you want to make sure carry over to the new year.
At the same time, the unknown, the dark, and the dead are appeased and honored.
December opened with ceremonies at the temples of Neptune and Pietas. Neptune originated as a god of springs and eventually became the god of the oceans and rains, thus affecting crops.
Pietas was the roman duty to proper living (in relation to the gods, Rome, and family) and thus a force for order and the “right way” to live.
The next celebration was that of Bona Dea. Her rites were limited to women, involved strong alcohol, were conducted at night and included blood sacrifices (normally reserved for men).
There are many theories on her cult ranging from a fertility deity associated with women to a cthonic deity invoking the unknown to a sort of Bacchanalia solely for women.
Personally, I see her rites involving all of the above which seems to fit with the themes of the later Saturnalia and the various offerings to fertility deities, especially feminine fertility deities with chthonic associations.
Rites for Faunus, a god of the wild and its vitality followed several days after.
Then came Tiberinus Pater, “Tiber Father,” the main river of Rome associated with life and agricultural fertility and Gaia, the earth.
There were also festivals for Ops, Ceres, and Saturn. All gods of harvest and wealth. Epona was also given a festival day, honoring her as a goddess of fertility and work animals.
There is a clear focus here on fertility, crops, and harvest.
No other time of the year invoked all these gods in quite this magnitude. Their other festivals tend to be spread out over the harvest months and some in the spring with planting but this brings them all together in mass.
It’s also interesting to note that with the exception of Neptune and Faunus (god of untamed spaces: the forests, oceans, and rivers) the focus is on cultivated abundance. These are gods of harvest rather than Mars or Jove who seed or generate life.
It seems important that here in the darkest part of the year these gods are invoked so that in the heart of Yin (or the year’s rock bottom) there is planted the seed of the next year’s abundance. The harvest of the Spring and Summer’s Yang.
Other rituals involved the gods and spirits in more complex relationships.
The Divalia occurring on the Winter Solstice included rights to Angerona, the goddess who relieves men’s worry and pains. She also protected the city and aided people in crisis. Further, she was connected to the concept of silence, a hushed moment to initiate the new year and the birth of the Sun.
With her were sacrifices to Heracles and Ceres. Ceres being another goddess of the grain and wealth with chthonic connections while Heracles acts as a protector and bridger of the worlds: a human god who traversed both the world and underworld and ascended to Olympus.
In this way, the moment of crisis, the birth of a new year is linked to fertility and abundance as well as powerful protectors who can balance all of the realms.
After this came the anniversary of the Lares, local spirits and the spirits of the home often associated with the success of a household.
Then came the Larentalia, also honoring the Lares as well as the dead. Just like the Divalia and solstice.
The dead and their link to the underworld meant that they could positively affect the fates of a person’s wealth and success but if angered or allowed to get out of hand they could cause ruin.
To aid in protection Diana and Juno Regina were called upon.
Juno Regina protected the Roman people as a war goddess revered by women. As Juno, she is also associated with fertility, abundance, and the increase of populations.
Diana ruled over the wilds, was also a protector, was linked to Luna, childbirth, and the feminine, as well as Hecate and the underworld.
Offerings to the tempests or goddesses of storms were also conducted at this time.
Here again, you have the appeasement of chaotic powers while simultaneously invoking powerful guardians to make sure things go right.
From the 17th-23 there was the Saturnalia. This means that the Saturnalia ran through the festivals of Epona, Ops, Divalia, the Lares, and ended on the Larentalia.
On December 25th there was the birthday of Sol Invictus, the “Unconquerable Sun.”
It is believed by many that Christmas is celebrated on the 25th of December in order to replace this particular holiday.
Sympathetic Magic and the Saturnalia.
Amongst the festivals and the calling in of protectors, fertility, and abundance were feasts, candle lightings, gift-giving, and the overthrow of the “norm.”
The Saturnalia was in honor of Saturn, king of the golden age.
It was believed that the golden age was a time where spirits and men alike lived by the decries of Saturn and thus lived in harmony.
There were no superiors, no hierarchy required besides the rule of the perfect king.
In honor of this, the Saturnalia flipped the traditional roles of Rome upon its head.
Slaves would gamble with their masters. The wealthy cooked for their servants. Gifts were given to everyone.
The expectations for the gifts were low so no one was shamed for being poor, dolls, dice, and simple toys were given.
Sometimes rich patrons would give money to the less wealthy so they could afford to buy gifts for others.
The focus was on a classless society for six days, the perfect world. (Minus a lot of misogyny which still occurred.)
In their own way these feasts and the giving of gifts acted as rituals of sympathetic magic. In the darkest part of the year when resources are beginning to be stretched (Yin phase) a model of utopian excess and ease of life is lived out for six days.
This went hand in hand with mass candle lighting. The invoking of light in the dark. The seeding of the Sun’s growth and abundance in the year to come.
Renewal magic around the world.
Practices like those of the Roman are known all around the world. They each take on their own cultural flavor but the themes are similar:
- Promoting of the right way to live (as this leads to abundance).
- Appeasement of the gods, spirits, and dead.
- Invoking of fertility, abundance, and protection.
- Symbolic acts that simulate abundance and fertility.
India has Diwali, known as the festival of lights, during the darkest night of its traditional autumn month. It celebrates the conquering of ignorance through wisdom. There are feasts, offerings, the lighting of candles and lamps.
Many associate the festival with the birth of Lakshmi the mother goddess of wealth, prosperity, and spiritual gifts.
In a similar way, Galungan is celebrated here in Bali.
Since India and Bali are so close to the equator there isn’t as much emphasis on the polarities of Winter and Summer.
Bali’s Galungan happens every 210 days so it's constantly shifting but my hosts assured me it is the same as Diwali, the celebration of Dharma (the right way to live) over adharma (chaos).
It's a day of feasting and ceremonies, inviting the gods and ancestors to come to earth for a full ten days of celebration.
Offerings are made to appease the spirits and the dead, the gods are invoked, and fertility and abundance are ritually symbolized again and again.
Our Christmas magic.
Ask me what I think about Christmas on my crankier days and I’ll probably drone on about capitalism and the corruption of our spiritual traditions.
Catch me in a good mood and I’ll say it's nice to have some time off with loved ones.
At its heart, Christmas is the celebration of the birth of the Christian messiah, the answer to the darkest night, the rock bottom of the world. In this way, it is like Diwali or the birth of Sol Invictus.
To many, it represents the hope of a new world much as the Saturnalia celebrates the Golden Age before and the hope for a better age to come.
In a way, we have our celebration, our sympathetic magic to invoke something better. We’re certainly feasting and giving gifts.
The rituals of abundance are there but when so many go into debt to do it and the expectation is so high it's a mindless magic.
We often hear that the meaning of Christmas is lost due to consumerism. Perhaps though, the gifts are a part of the magic it's just that their meaning is lost too.
Is there a better way?
How do we restore Christmas to fulfill this deep human need? The need to recognize a better world? The way the world should be?
Not to cling to hope but to know that something better is coming, it only needs our helping hand to make it so.
How do we break away from the unconscious race to get “everything done” the way we think it needs to be and instead breathe awareness, meaning, insight back into Christmas, back into the darkest part of the year, back into the world’s rock bottom?