One Christmas Eve at Target, during their extended holiday hours, I was in a long checkout line and the store was a wreck. Abandoned red stockings were draped over candy bars at the counter. Clothes, toys, and battery packs jumbled the reindeer wrapping paper in a wire bin near the magazines. Employees queried price checks via intercoms and walkie-talkies. People flooded the aisles. One couple argued over DVDs, some pushed loaded carts, and others ran to or away from items like the Spanish Inquisition was still active and they had cause to be concerned.
Everything in my body said leave. Put down the merchandise I had no real interest in and make my way to the nearest exit. But instead, I followed suit and shuffled a few steps forward once the person at the head of the line walked away with their jumbo size plastic bags of goodies. Eventually, I was in front of the register, digging through my wallet like everyone else had done before me and paying for, well, forgettable gifts.
Already on the verge of denouncing my long religious stint with various denominations of the Christian faith, indisputably the fallible interpretations and popular belief about Christmas were bulldozing me over, right to the point of no return. This aggrandized scene of unwarranted consumption to the infinite power has nothing to do with the meaning of the holiday, yet has taken it over every Christmas I can remember.
But the glorious thing about beliefs, at least here in the United States, is that we have choices and can change our minds, however difficult the process may be. Although, for inscrutable reasons, we sometimes forget this is part of our human rights and continue along with practices we have outgrown, even though they are like spiritual markers that should chart a path. Because practices are a part of our changing, internal landscapes, when we evolve, we can opt to combine a few or find or create new ones altogether.
After leaving the store, I sat in my car awhile to decompress before driving out of the busy, electrified shopping complex, knowing it was time to bid farewell to the unconscious participation I effectuated until then.
The next year, the myth of Santa Claus was debunked for my children. They rapidly recovered and I celebrated never having to reluctantly write “from Santa” on another label. A plan was also enacted to reduce the gift count per child, which is now down to one bought gift a piece. Anything else given to each other or to those outside our home is more about sharing something we created with our own hands.
That same year, they were officially placed in charge of decorating the tree, with minimal supervision. It felt right — their tiny hands wildly ornamenting an evergreen conifer with tinsel, clumping strands of lights on either side and smelling of the tree’s winter forest it came from while I rocked out to the Temptations’ Christmas album and tried to revive a wreath of pine cones.
By then, I had returned to some of my instinctive “Pagan” practices, which included collecting vestiges of nature to scatter around our house.
So a couple years later when I set out to gather sweet-gum, carob, Jacaranda and Bottle Tree seed pods along with White Sage to make gift bouquets wrapped in recycled burlap, no one batted an eye. My interest in heavenly bodies had magnified as well and actively I tried to better understand the universe and cosmic alignments.
Naturally, I was changing the course of my spiritual practices due to the undercurrent that pulls me along; it is an intuitive navigational device. I have a tendency to gravitate towards what is spiritually needed before both the need or my movements towards it are realized on any conscious level.
It can sometimes make for confusing processes as well as interesting consequences. One of them is modifying the way I participate in many Christian-based celebrations, including Christmas. My holiday has become more of a general celebration of the Earth, which observes the birth of Christ but also includes the winter solstice and an overall better understanding for the season.
My children are aware of the tree’s cultural symbolism of life and rebirth and the Pagan roots of our widespread practice of bringing it inside our homes to signify life during winter. We have discussed major components of the solstice such as its astronomical significance to the moon and sun.
They know there is no biblical evidence that proves Christ was born on December 25th and the selection of this day to celebrate his birth was intentional, used as a deterrent for the promotion of paganism.
This belief system, paganism, is the root for many of our holiday practices, yet it is so widely misconceived that using the term without any explanation seems wrong. It is large and multifaceted, encompassing, for example, polytheism to animism to shamanism and other earth-based religions, some practices I use and many I do not.
The fact there is no one specific doctrine followed by contemporary or neo-pagans is fascinating. Ultimately, it is attractive, the focus on appreciating natural elements and the freedom to choose and modify my practices as I spiritually mature.
Nevertheless, Christmas is still a joyous time. It has not lost the valuable, fundamental aspects of togetherness with family and friends it is centered around. Instead, its meaning to me has been widened to include dialogue with the Earth and new conversations with my children about the options we have for how we participate in any holiday. It is imperative that we all periodically assess our involvement and make conscious effort towards realigning practices with our beliefs when necessary, which always makes for a healthier, happier, existence.
A California native, Jessica has lived in numerous southern California cities, chases nature with urgency, and travels to anywhere possible. She listens to folk, indie rock, blues, and anything with a spirit and lyrics she can support. Jessica writes fiction and creative non-fiction and is completing her MFA in Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.