Monday, December 9, 2013

X-mas and the Three Ancestors

There are times, particularly when we have young children, that the festivities going on around us in wider culture become an important part of life, whether it falls into our belief system or not. As we have been coming up to the holiday season and the midsummer solstice, the intensity of Christmas activity around my family has been giving me a lot to think about. My son, who is two, adores the Christmas trees that decorate the local shopping malls and my parents’ home. We have paid our respects to the fire festival in our home, however, his interest in the external goings on have also encouraged me to invite a selection of the more traditional decorations into our home too. The question I have been tumbling with is “how?”.

As someone who tends to baulk at the disconnectedness of having pine trees, fake snow, holly and reindeer decorating the place in the middle of summer I have had a lot of difficulty with this. I needed to make it feel right in my head before I could meaningfully bring it into my home without feeling I had somehow been coerced into it.

I have spent a fair amount of time thinking about this and have discussed the idea of combining the festivals of X-mas and Litha with many fellow pagans and Druids. It has been an eye-opening time. There are various ways that people go about doing it. It seems that those who have children do tend towards making it more of the “traditional” x-mas style event, while those who do not, might be happier to use some x-mas decorations in tandem with decorations for Litha. Personally, for the last eight years I have been happy with my red and gold decorated bare branch painted black, which for me represents the rebirthing and cleansing energy of the fire festival, but also gives us somewhere to put the presents.

Probably the most important thing for me in this discussion is “to tree or not to tree?” and by tree I most certainly am referring specifically to the pine variety, whether real or fake. It is just so undeniably the most important symbol of the popular celebrations. To have one is to invite in the “spirit of Christmas”. It’s what Santa is looking for when he turns up, right? It’s the same thing that every other family in our culture around the planet wants to have in their living room. Somehow I feel like my blackened stick, though beautiful and meaningful, is missing something, particularly when it comes to the Santa myth.

So. Alternatives? Where to now? I had a small revelation the other evening. I had just purchased a beautiful statue of Cernnunos and was thinking that its colour – a green with a gold sheen to it – was rather Christmassy. I then thought about the connection with the celebrations of other pagans around the world at this time of year: as many of us bring into our homes the traditional decorations of Yule, despite the seasonal incongruities, we are connecting all at the same time with the heritage of our ancestors. I realised that to make the festival have real meaning, while bringing into my home the out-of-season and non-native pine tree, all I needed to do was imagine it as a process of inviting in a tradition that is globally shared and connecting with the pagan ancestors of the past.

The idea of “the three ancestors” is something dear to my heart. They are the ancestors of “blood, mud and wisdom” as Emma Restall-Orr has called them. They are the ancestors of our bloodlines who have given us our physicality, the ancestors of the land that we live in who provide us with a sense of place and being, and the ancestors of our inspiration and learning who have made us who we are in personality and mind, and create our culture too. The incorporation of this idea as important to the x-mas celebrations seemed to fit very well: my dilemma could be described as a three way tension between a) the bloodline ancestors as represented by the traditional yule and Christmas decorations, b) the inspirations of both the culture around me in x-mas and my own pagan culture’s celebrations of Litha, and c) my connection with the ancestors of the land as the fire season, summer, the beach etc. In acknowledging this as a time where all three ancestors should be honoured allows an amazing balance to the way I see things that is helping me to reimagine what I feel about this time of year.

Let me paint you a picture of where I am heading with this. Here are some ideas as to how the decorating might be worked out:

Bloodline ancestors:
  • Triquetras representing the three ancestors
  • Other celtic designs
  • Celtic deities and spirits
  • Faeries
  • Yuletide symbolism

o   Holly
o   Mistletoe
o   Ivy
o   Yule log
o   Gift giving
Inspiration ancestors:
  •           Santa symbols:

o   Reindeer, sleigh
o   North pole
o   Snow, snowman, snowflakes
  •          Litha symbols:

o   Sun
o   Fire
o   Flowers
o   Abundance (food and gifts)
o   Fruit

Land ancestors:
  • Symbols of fire
  • Native plants and animals
  • Seashells
  • Summer flowers

Our tree will be a pine. There are two reasons for this. One is that it connects with the traditions of yule and the yule log, also that it is a tree of the northern hemisphere where my ancestors came from. The other is that it is representing the global tradition and a symbol of the myth of Santa. I think the idea of Santa is a very important moral myth in popular culture, particularly for teaching children about the dynamics of giving and receiving from others, and the difference between being “naughty” and “nice”. There are certain capitalist values woven in there too, for example, the focus on materialism and that we reward good behaviour with monetary value. These are a reality of the world we live in, but they do tend to grate on me and if we look at many of the Christmas movies out there, you can see I’m not alone. There is also a counter-mythos in much of our understanding of Christmas, that the material focus of receiving gifts is not the real spirit of the season, but rather the self-less giving of gifts and a sense of family, charity and caring is more important. Santa has his associated rituals: writing the letter, getting the photo, leaving out the cookies, milk and carrots, singing carols, but most important of all is having a tree and giving gifts.

It is amazing what a difference having a child will do for the way we choose to look at festivals that have a place in popular culture. They want to be involved in everything, and there is no way we can stop them, nor should we. This is the reality of the world they live in and to be fully functioning little humans, they need to understand as much as they can. The least we can do is bring meaning to the process so that they can have an even deeper experience with it, helping them, and us too, to understand all that we have been given and all that can be taken away, and feeling a deep gratitude for all that is.

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