Lyn’s Essays: On Winter Holidays

It’s that time of year again.

Every time I see a car bumper sticker about Jesus being the reason for the season, I want to invoke the presence of Huey from Boondocks, who says exactly what goes through my mind, with the exact attitude with which I want to say it:

Unfortunately, Huey also gets the exact reaction that I am pretty sure I would get from most of my friends and family, and getting that reaction would hurt me a lot. I’m sensitive like that. So when the topic of Christmas comes up, I very rarely speak my mind. Instead, I focus on the psychological value of the holiday.

I have spent every winter of my life in the Midwest of the United States of America, specifically in either the states of Illinois or Iowa (with occasional brief excursions into Wisconsin). The winters around here are vicious. It’s good to have a reason not to focus on the long dark nights and drab, dreary days. I look out my window right now, and it’s not a white Christmas – the sky is flat grey and the ground is flat brown and the trees are stark naked and the houses all look like they would rather be somewhere else. Most Decembers, it looks like this, most of the time. The magic of snow shows up later, in January, in February – and now that I’m old enough to be driving a car around, snow is just as much a cause for teeth-gritting anxiety as it is for frolicking. It’s good to have something else to think about, something beautiful, like the generosity of my fellow humans, or the knowledge that the Solstice is the nadir of the light and even while the winter is dragging its heels into March, the light is getting stronger.

Yes, I celebrate the Solstice. I have a very good friend who practices Asatru, a particular form of Norse/Germanic Neopaganism. He probably wouldn’t want me to use that anthropological term for it, but this is my blog, not his, and if our friendship weren’t built on openly acknowledging our differences and respecting them, it would quickly crumble, so here I call it what I call it in my head: Neopaganism. Let’s briefly review what Neopaganism has to say about Yule, the winter Solstice celebration…

Basically, the story of the God’s incarnation begins at the year’s first Quarter, the Winter’s Solstice, when, after the year’s longest night, the darkness begins to give way to the returning light. The Light is reborn as the Sun — the Son of the Great Mother Goddess. The Yule celebration honors the annual Birth of the Holy Child as a time of joyful innocence, possibility and hope.

(For more information about the Neopagan holiday cycle, check out the entry I wrote about my poem “Blossoms for Corpses.”)

The morning after the Solstice this year, my Asatru friend and I quietly exchanged our gifts, acknowledging both the value of our chosen spiritual paths, and that psychological value behind the Christmas traditions celebrated by our families.

My chosen spiritual path is Buddhism. There is no quintessential winter holiday to celebrate on this path. My private suspicion is this has much to do with the religion’s origin in India, where winter looks very different than what I have always known.
Of course the reasoning behind this different holiday emphasis is not solely climate based. After all, Buddhism has roots in Hinduism, also native to India, and Hinduism has Diwali, slightly earlier in the year than the Neopagan Yule but containing similar themes – light over darkness, knowledge over ignorance, good over evil, hope over despair. I think the reason that Buddhism leaves Diwali behind can be found in the Buddha’s challenge to Hindu priests to sacrifice their desires, rather than making material offerings to the gods.

Yes, my chosen spiritual path is Buddhism, yet I still celebrate the Solstice to give myself that psychological boost of faith in good’s ability to triumph over evil, and I still attend Christmas gatherings and share Christmas gifts with my Protestant Christian family, and with my husband’s Catholic Christian family. My husband and I love our families very much and would not wish to hurt them by refusing to participate in their celebration of love. I suspect it may be easier for me, the Buddhist, to participate in these celebrations than it is for my husband, the existentialist.

If Joel had more control over the way his life was structured, I have come to the conclusion that every day would look pretty much the same for him. He would spend his time pretty much the same way every day. He would eat pretty much the same food every day. He would see pretty much the same people, for pretty much the same amount of time, and do pretty much the same things with them when he saw them. To use a term from the Old World of Darkness, Joel has a Pattern Essence. In this respect, he and I are very different. I have more of a Questing Essence. Drawing upon a different game, Joel is more like a Ranger, exhibiting the virtue of Spirituality, and I am more like a Bard, exhibiting the virtue of Compassion. A Ranger in Ultima IV has uniform stat values across all characteristics – it is slightly better than average at everything the character is expected to do. A Bard in Ultima IV has variegated stat values across those characteristics – some things it is quite good at, others it is below average. If you total the points that a Ranger has to work with, and total the points that a Bard has to work with, the numbers you arrive at are the same. The points are just distributed differently. In other words, there is a Relative difference between the characters, but in an Absolute sense, they are the same. That’s how Joel and I work. It’s a dynamic that plays out every day in our relationship, and at this point, it plays out pretty predictably most of the time.

Joel’s Pattern Essence, his desire for every day to look pretty much the same, makes holidays difficult for him. They throw him out of his routine. They’re inherently stressful for both of us, but they’re more stressful for him than they are for me, because I use different holidays at different times of the year to provide balance – to even out my variegated stats, and Joel doesn’t need to do that because his routine is already quite balanced. The different holidays that I celebrate perform a mood-balancing function similar to nicotine for a smoker. They bring me up when I am down, and down when I am up.

(Or at least, that’s how they are supposed to work.)

So when I say “It’s that time of year again,” I don’t mean the same thing as a lot of my family and friends. When they say it, they’re thinking of celebrating love and light, or possibly of some reaction to consumerism (either gleefully engaging in it, or trying to bulwark against it). When I say it, I’m usually thinking of the delicate dance I must perform to interface between my own beliefs about reality and the beliefs of other people I know.

I hope you have enjoyed this sojourn into my world, reader. Thank you for reading this blog entry, and I wish you peace and love in this, as in all seasons. Namaste.

How Lyn Writes Poetry: “Blossoms for Corpses”

One night each year
to wear black velvet, crushed
by unseen hands.
One day each year
to dole out sweetness to
strange children wearing masks.
Burn black tapers now to summon
memories of shades;
paint your eyelids dark as the abyss
to make the horror sexy.
It will lose its power if you make it part of you.
Bring the gates that close off realms
down to the ground; lift the curtain
that parts half from half
high enough for crossing
space to space.
Mix and mingle with your loved dead.
Ask them for their wisdom, like a child asks
adults they trust implicitly
for food, drink, shelter.
They loved you when you saw their faces.
With all that they have seen,
they will love you now, just as truly.
Trust their voices, calling through the vapors
vanishing beneath an autumn moon.
The cycle of the year
has given you one blessed night
to burn through all the barriers
and see the other side of truth.
Make it count.


Since I have already written in this blog about my past use of tarot cards, it should come as no real surprise to the reader to know that for several years I fancied myself a Neopagan. I think the religion’s most enduring attraction, for me, has always been its yearly cycle of holidays. For those of you who don’t know how Neopagans mark their calendars, here is a brief overview, lifted from a past sermon by Unitarian Universalist Society of Geneva‘s Senior Minister, the Reverend Lindsay Bates:

Basically, the story of the God’s incarnation begins at the year’s first Quarter, the Winter’s Solstice, when, after the year’s longest night, the darkness begins to give way to the returning light. The Light is reborn as the Sun — the Son of the Great Mother Goddess. The Yule celebration honors the annual Birth of the Holy Child as a time of joyful innocence, possibility and hope.

Halfway between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox is the first Cross-Quarter Day of the Pagan calendar. This is Candlemas or Brigit’s Day or Imbolc, which mean’s “ewe’s milk” for the time of the year when the ewes begin to produce milk for the new spring lambs, when the infant God is a rapidly-growing child. The Goddess is beginning to awaken from her winter slumber and the sleep from which she gave birth, and in the growing warmth and Light of the Son, her fertility returns.

At the next Quarter-Day, the Vernal Equinox, the God is a young man, dancing the dance of returning life with the Goddess who is now fully awakened as the Maiden. Spring has returned; Persephone has been freed from her confinement in the land of death, and Demeter, rejoicing, brings the green and growing plants of springtime back to life.

At Beltane — May Day — the Cross-Quarter Day half-way between Spring and Summer — the God and Goddess celebrate their marriage, and all the earth celebrates with them. Their marriage is consummated at the Summer Solstice — and the God is consumed by his passion. The year is turning now back toward darkness, and the Summer-Crowned God dies.

At Lammas or Lughnasad — August 1 — the Goddess mourns the God’s death, which is actually his life’s fulfillment, and the God is buried, returned into the earth — to the Goddess as Death Crone and Eternal Mother. The God is now in the grain, which having lived to ripen, is now nearly ready for harvest.

At the Fall Equinox, the Harvest has come. The grain is cut down with thanksgiving for the life of the world that gives itself for the sustaining of life, and the god sleeps within the womb of the Goddess as she carries him to rule the Shining Realm Beyond the Waters. This Realm is part of the Netherworld, the place where the souls of the dead grow young again and prepare to be reborn.

At Samhain, the God arrives at the Land of Youth and becomes its ruler. He opens the gates between the worlds so that the spirits may visit their loved ones. His own spirit continually growing younger, within the earth, within the Goddess, he prepares for his birth to the again Virgin Mother — at the Winter Solstice… The Lord of Death becomes once more the Lord of Life (and if any of this sounds vaguely familiar from your Sunday School stories, that is not an accident)…..

This holiday cycle holds a poetry for me that I find lacking in those of Judaism and Christianity, the dominant religions of US culture. Going to family Christmas parties is very difficult for me now, because every time someone says “Christmas” I have to fight back the urge to say “You mean Solstice, right?”

This poem is a tribute to a secular or psychological reclamation of the holiday most US natives think of as Halloween, the time for children to gorge on candy, teens to toilet paper each other’s houses, and adults to ogle each other in costumes, yes, even the ones that aren’t intentionally framed as sensual – the holiday most Neopagans refer to as Samhain, or if you feel like having a Scottish brogue, Samhuine, the polar opposite of the love-holiday Beltane. Even as an atheist, I believe that it is a good idea to have certain days marked to remember certain aspects of my worldview. Kind of hard for me to call them holidays when that word derives from “holy” and I don’t know if anything can be “holy” without a deity. I guess “observance” might be a better word for what I have in mind.

Samhain/Halloween, for me, has become a time to acknowledge the value of fear. I believe there are many things in this world that it is appropriate to fear. Chief among these is dying. Note that I did not say death. There’s no more reason to fear death than to fear a dreamless nap. But the process of dying… being conscious of the fact that soon you will never be conscious again… that scares the dickens out of me. And I believe that is healthy. It’s also healthy to fear pain, in its sundry permutations, although it is possible for this fear to reach pathological heights and cause paralysis; it’s a fear that has to be worked through (and I suppose one day the fear of dying will be worked through too, simply by the process of time). Fear also has value in that it serves as the counterpoint to love. Just as without two eyes, the human brain loses depth perception and some actions become clumsy if not impossible, without both halves of the binary pair of fear and love, the human mind loses the ability to nuance its view of the world.

Ultimately, the significance of October 31 in your life is a delicate interplay of culture, subculture, and your personal perspective. I hope this poem has provided you with a way to re-image that significance. Stay tuned for a spooky film review tomorrow!