This is my first ever Christmas/Yule as a Pagan, and it’s turning out to be an interesting experience – partly because Christmas is undoubtedly the most important festival in Britain, and partly because I’m an ex-Catholic with very many memories of past Christmases celebrated in the Christian way.
I have always been very fond of Christmas – as a Catholic, Agnostic and finally as a Pagan. I do think it is a magical time of year; there really is a strange kind of wonderful energy in the air around Christmastime. And what surprises me that since becoming a Pagan, I have found myself becoming even more fond of some of the Christian imagery surrounding the festival.
Admittedly, I think much of this has to do with nostalgia. As a Catholic child I loved hearing the story of Mary and Joseph travelling to Bethlehem and baby Jesus born in a manger, surrounded by animals. I also loved singing Christmas carols, and going to church for midnight mass – hearing beautiful choral music surrounded by flickering candlelight and the scent of frankincense is deeply enchanting (I’m sure many a Pagan can appreciate that!). Nostalgia touches us deeply, so I think that’s one of the reasons why I still have a lot of warmth surrounding the Christian interpretation of the winter solstice.
Another reason is that it’s very easy to attribute the nativity story with Pagan symbolism. After all, the basic story is one of the oldest and most numerous in folklore – the story of creation, of a new baby. People from all cultures and religions can appreciate that the birth of any child is something to celebrate! Many Pagans interpret Yule as the time when the Great Goddess gives birth to the Great God, and to me the figures of Mary and Joseph to me are aspects of the Goddess and God – the “God” aspect is somewhat complex as Joseph, Jesus and, well, God (Jehovah) are all simultaneously aspects of the Great God, but most Pagan don’t have a problem with their deities having multiple avatars!
Then there’s the other figures of the nativity story. The shepherds represent the common people of the land, those who depend directly on nature for survival (the lamb imagery also has links with Imbolc, the next Sabbat after Yule). The three wise men…well, with all their prophesies and knowledge of astronomy, they definitely sound like “witches” of a sort to me, so it’s a triumph that such Pagans are often described as the three “kings” within a Christian story! And finally, let’s not forget the many animals in the Christmas story – the donkey, the ox, the ass, the wise men’s camels – the consistent presence of whom in all nativity imagery reinforces the importance of nature.
In fact, the status of the animals in the nativity story was one of the reasons why my parents started surrounding their own little nativity set with other animals – not just the one mentioned in the traditional nativity story, but many other kinds as well, from farm animals to jungle animals to sea animals to even dinosaurs! (I think my enthusiasm for this tradition as a child may also be responsible for the proliferation of weird and wonderful animals around the nativity set). Apparently, there’s also a legend that says that all animals can speak human language at midnight on Christmas Eve, and I think my parents had this story in mind when they started building up their nativity menagerie as well.
Since childhood, it was our tradition that my job would be to set out the nativity set and its many animals. Although I’m grown up now, my parents still invite me round to their house to do this, and it’s something I do with pleasure. Not only because of a sense of tradition, but also because I genuinely appreciate the symbolism. It’s just another Pagan altar, albeit in a different form.
So even though I now celebrate Yuletide as the birth of the Sun rather than the son of God, I will still gladly participate in Christian traditions including carol singing and appreciating nativity imagery. I’ll do it both out of respect and nostalgia for old traditions, and in the knowledge that both religions are really celebrating the same thing – life, light, hope and the rebirth of nature.