Pagans do love their festivals. Not only does the standard Pagan calendar have eight major festivals, Pagans will happily hold rituals to celebrate other events as well, such as the Full Moon and festivals specific to their particular path; for example, as a Shintoist, I try to observe Japanese festivals as well as Western Pagan ones. One could say the Paganism makes life seem like one big long party.
Only this emphasis on ritual and festival has far more significance than a mere “party.” I see modern day Paganism, and its growing popularity, as a way of putting back the spirituality into the many significant occasions that punctuate life in an increasingly non-spiritual and commercially-driven Britain.
Take Christmas for example. Although most British people would acknowledge that Christmas is a Christian festival, the numbers of people who celebrate it as such has drastically declined over the years. And while Christian symbolism such as the Nativity scene is still present in the UK, it is very much dominated by the “secular” symbols of Christmas, such as the Christmas tree, Christmas dinner and Father Christmas (who is increasingly conflated with the more widespread figure of Santa Claus). One might say that there is a relationship between the decline in the spiritual celebration of Christmas, and the rise of the less palatable, ultra-commercial side, such as the “Black Friday” sales that are getting more common in the UK and cause ugly scenes of frenzied consumers fighting over slightly cheaper goods.
I see the growing popularity of Paganism partly as a reaction against the commercialism of Britain’s religious traditions. In fact, many of those so-called “secular” symbols of Christmas are deeply rooted in the pre-Christian Pagan traditions. The Christmas tree symbolises the rebirth of life after the dark of winter, and decorating it is a form of “sympathetic magic” to encourage other trees to bear fruit again. Christmas dinner serves the same purpose as any other feast in Paganism – it is a way of ritually taking in the goodness of Mother Nature, sharing that goodness with our loved ones, and thanking Nature for her bounty. And the many mythological figures who have been woven into the character of Father Christmas are deities revered by Pagans, such as Odin, Saturn and the Holly King – I find it intriguing that children even leave out offerings for Father Christmas in the same way as a dedicated Pagan will leave out offerings for their deities. Paganism allows people who feel disconnected with Christianity to enjoy the spirituality and true “magic” of Christmas (or Yule, as most Pagans call it) and to think upon its deeper themes of celebrating the cycle of nature and gratitude for our blessings, rather than simply let companies exploit it as a cynical means to get more money out of people.
And Christmas/Yule isn’t the only British festival that Pagans try to rescue from secularisation. St Valentine’s Day, Mother’s Day and the days of the four patron Saints of the British Isles are some of the once-Christian, now-secular holidays that many Pagans choose to celebrate in Pagan fashion. Some Pagans even take modern observances not rooted in any religion, such as Earth Day, and choose it as a day to venerate the appropriate deities. Pagans understand very well that human beings have a deep craving for spirituality, and Paganism provides a means for people to fulfil this need, even in a secular society.
I don’t want to say that I think any secular or commercial aspect of religious festivals is wrong – not at all! I enjoy Christmas shopping and I think traders have every right to use festivals to earn more money for their families. In fact, merchants have always played an important role in religious festivals of any kind – just go to any big Shinto shrine or festival in Japan, and you’ll see numerous traders around; I consider them all as part of the spirit of the Shinto religion. What I am saying is that we should never lose sight of the spiritual significance of our festivals among the rising commercialism – for if we do, we will lose something very precious and magical, and we’ll all find ourselves less content as a result.