I have to admit that this post is in large part due to the conversations abounding in the polytheistic blogosphere; let it never be said that I will not jump on a band wagon when it is playing a tune I like!
So Christmas, Yuletide, the Holiday Season. Christian v Pagan, Religious v Secular, and all that hullabaloo. It`s been done, and likely better than I could surmise here. So I will take a different tack, and simply talk about why Christmas is important to me.
I suppose it bears a brief discussion of the religious aspects ( I know, I know, I said I wouldn't but what kind of polytheist blog woudl this be without a little religious content?). Christmas, for me, has never really been a religious holiday. My parents would probably both label themselves some kind of Christian, though I was raised in a rather agnostic household. Christmas in my home was not about creches, wise-men or infant demigods, but rather evergreens, decorations and family. Oddly enough, any sort of religious context would have been gleaned from the Christmas carols we sung at school, in the Christmas pageant, or in conversations I did not quite understand at the time, with school mates. No, Christmas has always been secular for me, and perhaps I am better able to continue the celebration of it, despite not adhering to the religious significance most others associate it with.
From the other aspect, as a Gaelic polytheist, the solstice is not something which tends to be marked. I understand this may strike some people as odd, as the vast majority of Pagans mark the solstices and equinoxes in some way or another. Heck, even a lot of Druids will mark the solar markers are important, and point to structures like New Grange and some other passage tombs, which do seem to have some correlation with the solar events, as proof that the pre-Christian Gaels did acknowledge them. My argument, would simply be that while the neolithic structures do (likely) correspond, they are neolithic, not Iron age. As such, there is nothing in any of the extant texts which show that the pre-Christian Gaels had any kind of celebrations or festivals pertaining to the solstices and equinoxes. This is often a major point of contention between a lot of modern Druids, Celtic polytheists and Reconstructionists, and gets back to the debate about whether or not sun worship or solar deities were a part of pre-Christian Celtic religion. Other than a few epithets, pertaining to shinning ones (which have a number of interpretations) and the earnest, but now highly doubted, Celticists of the late 19th century, there simply are no reliable sources which support the idea that the Celts were sun worshipers. Further, there is nothing in the existing folklore or festivals which bear any mention of celebrations of the solstices and equinoxes. The consensus is that the pre-Christian Gaelic calendar probably revolved around the cycle of the harvest and livestock, and this is reflected in the texts and folklore, via the so called "cross quarter days". As such, there is little religious content from my current beliefs either, and so I will wish people a Blessesed or Joyous Yuletide, but do not celebrate Yule either, though I can appreciate that what I have always associated Christmas with, is decidedly pre-Christian in origin.
But I digress. Christmas to me, has always been about decorations, music, feasting and family. However task of decorating our Christmas tree has always stood out in my mind as the quintessential Christmas memory. For almost all the years until I was in my late teens, we would harvest our own tree. This would involve getting up early, dressing myself and my two younger brothers in full snow regalia, piling into my father's pickup, and driving to a smallish town north of Toronto. We would arrive, pile out, and traipse through the parking lot, past the pre-cut trees lined up near a barn, and line up to hitch a ride on the wagon. Now the wagon was pulled either by two rather large Clydesdale's, or less enchantingly, a tractor. Needless to say we preferred getting the horses. We would then ride out, along with other families, through the tree farm, until we reached the section we wanted. Most of the time we would get spruce, the needles were fairly sharp, but they were a lot more manageable than pine, and held ornaments better than fir. We would systematically walk up and down the rows, seeking out that particular tree. Generally it was my father and mother doing the searching; my brothers and I would be running around, trying to pelt each other with snowballs. Eventually one tree would be chosen, and cut down using a bow-saw (my father owned a remarkably large assortment of tools). We would then carry it out to the wagon trail and await an empty cart. I should mention that b this point, what was pulling the wagon was secondary to what would get us back to the entrance, which had a bonfire, hot chocolate and a Santa walking around handing out candy canes. The tree would be wrapped, and we would truck it out to the pickup. The drive back was more subdued, due to the fact that we had spent the afternoon running about in foot deep snow. We would carry the tree in through the sliding glass doors we had, and stand it up in a large bucket, filled with sand. My father had worked out long ago that a sand filled bucket was far better than a plastic or metal tree stand; our tree would remain green well into the new year. The tree would then be untied, and left to stand over night.
Some time the following day, my mother would haul out the box of decorations and we would begin trimming the tree. We would pop one of several Christmas cassettes into the player, which would belt out standards; to this day, as much as some people revile the song, "simply having a wonderful Christmas time" complete with synthesized chorus, is still my favourite Christmas song. We had a variety of ornaments, many of which we still have today, tucked away in boxes somewhere. The lights would be the first to go on, and we had a couple of different styles of strings; some which were flower shaped, with small foil petals which would reflect the light, others of a more traditional variety where if one bulb failed, they all would. One year we bought a little timer, which would allow the lights to come on in patterns, and the that was very cool. Our tree topper was always a star, and when I think of it now, the thing was awfully gaudy. Five individual lights, with small reflective foil, and ornamented with blue tinsel fringes, but it was OUR star, and I have yet to see another like it. Our ornaments ranged from the traditional glass balls, or various sizes and colours, a growing number of ornaments made by myself or my brothers, those which commemorated each of our first Christmases, these sort of ridiculous stuffed men who had hockey jerseys on, and my mothers favourites, small glass birds which had fiber-optic wings and attached to the tree on these little clips. They were ancient, and very fragile and we couldn't touch them, but there were something to behold. We would then add either strings of metallic garland, or metallic beads. Finally a liberal draping of tinsel "icicles" would complete the trimming. We would then spend the rest of the day decorating the rest of the house.
To me, that was (and is) what Christmas was about; spending time with my family, expending hours of time in an effort to deck our home in Christmas cheer. I may be overly sentimental, and frankly there is little that I am really sentimental about, but at the end of the day it wasn't about the gifts, or the food, or the jingles or spirituality, it was about spending time together as a family. And really, that is why I continue to celebrate the holiday, and hope to pass on my family's traditions.