Tag Archives: christmas tree

My first attempt at working with salt dough


Inspired yet again by Ozark Pagan Mamma’s blog, I decided to try making some things out of salt dough. I’d actually never heard of salt dough before reading her blog, but I’ve since learned it’s something that mothers like to make with children as it’s really simple, cheap and harmless if swallowed (but pretty foul tasting – believe me, I tried!). I loved the idea of crafting with something so easy to make and environmentally-friendly, not to mention that it’s a combination of basic, sacred ingredients in Paganism (water, flour, salt) so I thought I’d give it a go!

I was surprised at how easy it is to make the dough to the right consistency. It’s similar to working with clay, but it’s more brittle and small-scale fine detail is hard to achieve. It also tends to collapse under its own weight a bit, hence most salt dough ornaments you see are flat. Yet it’s easier than you would think to shape and smooth. And it took less time than I thought for them to harden as well; baking them on a low heat, I’d say about 2 hours is sufficient (but I left them in for two hours longer for good measure). Again, I was surprised at how well the figures fared in the oven – they didn’t develop any cracks, but they did lose their shape a little.

I’d had the idea of making some little salt dough kodama figurines from Princess Mononoke (one of my favourite Pagan-friendly movies!) as they’re so cute and appealing, plus my husband really likes them as well. Not to mention that their design is really simple! The above photo shows my attempt – they were really fiddly to make with the right proportions and still sit upright without crushing themselves under their own weight. None of them turned out looking brilliant, but for a first attempt I’m fairly satisfied with them; I learned a lot about how to use the dough in the process.

saltdough1I also made this little statue of Jizo which I thought would be good to place in our spare room – Jizo is the guardian of travellers, which seems appropriate for a room used for guests. Unfortunately, he fell over in the baking process which now means he can’t stand up on his own (he’s being propped up in the photo!) I could give him a base, or try and make a better one next time.

I finally made a miniature mask of Otafuku, a figure representing luck at Setsubun, the Japanese “bean throwing” festival held about the same time as Imbolc. I haven’t featured a photo because she won’t look anything like Otafuku until I paint her. I plan to display her on my altar during Setsubun/Imbolc.

I’ve found working with salt dough really enjoyable and I definitely want to try again! It’s a bit of a shame that it seems generally considered something for kids, as I can see so much potential for adults to enjoy working with it as a serious craft tool. And seeing as you only need three common ingredients that most people usually always have in the house, there’s no reason to just start making some salt dough right now!

Finally, seeing as the kodama are tree spirits, I thought they’d look great on our Christmas tree! So here they are enjoying their new home…

saltdough3 saltdough5 saltdough6


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The many parallels between Christmas and Japanese New Year

Kumamoto new year shrine

Huge crowds of people outside a shrine on New Year’s Day in Japan

Although Christmas is celebrated in Japan, it’s not such an important date in the Japanese calendar, and is more of an event for young people (it’s especially associated with dating). The real equivalent of Christmas/Yule in Japan is New Year (O-shogatsu), which these days is celebrated on the same date as the Gregorian New Year, January 1st. Just as Christmas in Britain combines elements from Christianity and the old Pagan symbols of yule, O-shogatsu has both Shinto and Buddhist elements. It’s chiefly a time to say thank you to the kami (deities) for all they have provided in the year, and to pray for their continued blessings.

I’ve always thought there’s an awful lot of similarities between the two festivals so I thought I’d explore them here, as the parallels suggest that certain motifs are particular important in all religious winter festivals across all cultures and many of them are deeply rooted in Paganism.

Kagamimochi Red/white/gold colour scheme
(Left: Kagami-mochi (an ornamental display of mochi rice cakes for New Year) By Shin-改 (Self-photographed) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)  At O-shogatsu, the colours red and white are the most prevalent, followed by gold and green – very much like Yule. The white/red colour scheme is probably partly to do with these colours being those of Japan (think of the flag), but it may also carry the same symbolism of these colours in Yule – white symbolising snow, while red, gold and green are colours of vitality and displaying them is a kind of sympathetic magic to encourage the same vitality to return to the bare trees and fields.

kadomatsuDisplaying greenery
(Left: Kadomatsu displays. By Nesnad (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), via Wikimedia Commons) The Christmas Tree is one of the most recognisable symbols of Christmas and Yule, and again its display is probably rooted in a form of sympathetic magic to promote long life (the traditional pine is evergreen), while decorating it encourages the bare tree to be fruitful again. For O-shogatsu, the Japanese display pine as well, combined with bamboo and peach blossom, outside their homes, in a decoration known as a kadomatsu. The pine represents long life, the bamboo growth, and the blossom good health.

mochiMaking Sweets
(Left: Homemade mochi) It’s popular in many households to make and eat sweets on the run-up towards Christmas/Yule, including cookies, gingerbread men, candy canes, mince pies and of course Christmas Pudding. Making sweets for New Year is popular in Japan too, the most prominent being mochi rice cakes. One difference is that the mochi is usually put out as an offering to the spirits before it is eaten, while this is rarely done in non-Pagan households in the UK – except, interestingly, by children leaving out mince pies for Father Christmas!

amazakeSweet alcohol
(Left: Sweet amazake rice wine. By emily_harbour_in_july (Flickr)via Wkimedia Commons) 
We associate both Christmas and Yule with drinking alcohol in the UK, and  the drinks associated with Christmas tend to be sweet – sherry, mulled wine, brandy, wassail etc. New Year is a time for drinking alcohol in Japan as well, but usually in the form of the mild, sweet form of rice wine called amazake. As discussed previously, alcohol is considered sacred in many traditions, and anything flavoured with sugar or spices was also often considered a suitable offering for deities in days of old due to the comparative scarcity of these ingredients. In both festivals, I think the drinking of sweet alcohol is a way of saluting the gods.

nengajoSending cards
(Left: Nengajo postcards. By Halowand (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons) Much like the Christmas tradition of sending greetings cards, the Japanese will send postcards called nengajo to all their friends and family. Very often the Japanese will paint a design on the nengajo themselves, often incorporating the animal of the Chinese zodiac ruling that year. The tradition of sending nengajo is taken very seriously – it’s very bad form to send them late, and if you don’t send them at all people may think that you or someone in you family has died.

otoshidamaGiving gifts
(Left: Envelopes for o-toshi dama. By ©Jnn (Jnn’s file) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), via Wikimedia Commons) The giving of objects for special occasions is an important tradition in Western cultures, and Christmas is the biggest festival of all for gift giving. The Japanese give objects as gifts as well at New Year, but this is relatively downplayed – what’s far more significant, at least for children, is the giving of o-toshi dama, or money presented in a special little envelope. Money has always been the primary form of gift in Japan so this isn’t much of a surprise (in comparison, giving money as a gift in Britain can be taboo in certain cases and has to be done with care). But two other things surprised me about o-toshi dama when I first learned about it. One is the amount given – usually it’s quite considerable, and children may receive the equivalent of hundreds of pounds over New Year. The other is that I’m half-Welsh, and in Wales there is a very similar tradition of giving money on New Year’s Day, called calennig (it’s usually nowhere near as much as Japanese o-toshi dama though…)

enkaiOffice parties
(Left: Typical office party in Japan. By Josh Berglund from Richardson, United States (Kampai!) via Wikimedia Commons) The “staff Christmas party” is now an important part of Christmas in Britain. But Japan takes office parties far more seriously – they are far more numerous, expensive and wild. I can assure you from first-hand experience that Japanese work socials can go insane. One of the most important work socials of the year is the bonenkai, which is held before New Year. There’s no “secret Santa” but you can expect there to be games, good food and lots and lots of drinking.

Picture 022Bells
(Left: Monk ringing a temple bell) Bells are an enduring Christmas symbol, both in the form of church bells ringing on Christmas morning, and as the “sleigh bells” on Santa Claus’ sled. The functions of church bells are both numerous and fairly vague (the main purpose being to call people to mass but also having the function of signifying a celebration as well as the more Pagan concept of warding off evil), but in Buddhist temples in Japan, the great bells are rung with a very specific purpose in mind on New Year’s Eve. Starting at midnight, the priests will ring the great temple bell 108 times in order to rid people’s hearts of the 108 desires according to Buddhism.

osechi Luxury family meal
(Left: O-sechi ryori) The Christmas dinner is typically the largest and most expensive home meal that British households will eat during the year. This is also true of the meal eaten by the Japanese on New Year’s Day, which is known as o-sechi ryori. O-sechi ryori will contain rare delicacies such as red sea bream, black beans covered in gold leaf and lobster. Each of the ingredients has a special meaning, which usually derives from its appearance or a play on words. For example, prawns are eaten because their curved bodies and antennae are suggestive of an old man with a beard, so they symbolise long life, while the word for sea bream in Japanese, tai, sounds like the ending of the word for “rejoice,” medetai. One important difference is that increasing numbers of Japanese get their osechi-ryori delivered rather than preparing it themselves, while it would be fairly unthinkable to get take-away Christmas dinner in your average British household. But in both cases, the banquets eaten at the British Christmas and Japanese New Year serve both to help the family bond, to wish for good health and long life, and (probably) to honour the gods of old.

EmperorSpeeches from royalty
(Left: The Emperor of Japan) Just as the Queen makes a televised speech on Christmas Day in Britain, the Emperor addresses the Japanese nation on New Year’s Day. Although the speech is generally about current affairs and society, the public appearance of the monarchy on the most important religious festival in both countries reminds me of the close link between religion and royalty. The Queen holds the title of “Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England,” while the Imperial Family was historically considered to be descended from Amaterasu Omikami, the Shinto sun goddess. The Golden Bough goes into a lot of detail into the relationship between royalty and Pagan religions –  I definitely recommend reading it if you’re interested in the subject!

karutaParlour games
(Left: The popular Japanese game karuta. By Ceridwen, via Wikimedia Commons)  In Britain, it’s common for the family to play games after Christmas dinner, the most popular being Charades. Japanese families play simple games on New Year’s Day too, including karuta (a rapid matching card game) and fuku-warai (similar to “pin the tail on the donkey” in which a blindfolded person has to make a face with cut-out facial features). Both British and Japanese parlour games of this sort, which have simple rules so even young children can join in, help families to bond and to pass the time indoors during the cold weather of the season.

darumaWish-granting figure
(Left: A traditional daruma doll.By Brücke-Osteuropa (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons) In Western countries, one of the most prominent Christmas figures is Santa Claus, traditionally identified as Father Christmas in Britain. He is portrayed as a plump, bearded old man clad in red white and gold, and he grants children their wishes by giving them the presents they ask for if they’ve been good. As discussed here, Santa Claus is an amalgamation of many different figures, most of which are Pagan in origin, but is often most frequently associated with the Christian St Nicholas.

Japan has a strikingly similar figure associated with New Year who is also based on a saint – a Buddhist one. Daruma is the Japanese name for the Zen Buddhist monk Bodhidharma, and he is most familiar in Japan in the form of the daruma “wishing doll.”

Like Santa Claus, the daruma doll is plump, bearded, employs a red, white and gold colour scheme, and the Japanese ask him to grant wishes or to help with achieving goals by colouring in one eye. When the wish is granted, they colour in the other eye. The daruma is then taken to a temple on New Year’s Day to be ritually cremated, and a new daruma is purchased.

It’s very interesting that there should be so many similar physical characteristics between Santa Claus and Daruma. I think this relates to the things that people generally wish for in winter – life and brightness (the red, white and gold), long life (old bearded man), and health and abundance (the plump figure). In both the West and Japan, these “spirits of winter” symbolise hope and determination.

CIMG0058Visiting the local place of worship
(Left: Daruma dolls being cremated at a temple on New Year’s Day) Even the least devout people in both Britain and Japan may find themselves going to their local church or shrine/temple on the biggest festival of the year. Much of this is done simply for the fun of the occasion – churches hold carol services which are fun to go to even for non-Christians, while Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples often sell food and mementos as well as providing o-mikuji – a sort of fortune-telling raffle.  Public services for Christmas in Britain and New Year in Japan also serve to strengthen the community spirit.

At both the Christmas church service and the Shinto New Year festivities, blessings are an important part of the occasions, as is gratitude. In both cases, people express their thanks for life, love and light. And this is also true of the Pagan festival of Yule, when Pagans give thanks to nature for everything she has provided.


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My Yule/Oshogatsu altar


Yesterday I decorated my indoor altar for two upcoming important festivals for me – Yule and Oshogatsu (Japanese New Year). I put a large wreath behind the pentagram at the centre of my altar, and added some other Yule/winter symbols with Pagan connections – holly, ivy, pine cones, apples, mushrooms and a little Christmas tree (unfortunately they’re mostly fake – I would prefer real ones but I’ve had the fake ones for years and it can be tricky to obtain the real thing). I also have a fake pohutukawa; a type of red flower that blooms at Christmas time in New Zealand, so the altar incorporates a little of my husband’s Kiwi heritage as well. For Oshogatsu, I’ve put out a gold fan, an old Christmas card of a torii in the snow, and several Daruma dolls. Daruma is really a Buddhist figure, but he’s strongly associated with New Year in Japan and what with Buddhism and Shinto being so conflated in Japan the distinction hardly matters. Plus, with his plump body, red colour and reputation for granting wishes, I can’t help but see some similarities between the daruma doll and Father Christmas.

yulealtar3I put up a Christmas tree as well (again fake), but this is more “personal” than Pagan – it has a Gothic/Kiwi theme, with black and silver baubles, glittery skulls, black and red roses, silver ferns and even a Father Christmas in an All Blacks kit!

I feel bad that I haven’t really decorated my outside Inari shrine, but it really isn’t easy with the cold, wet weather we’ve been having. Perhaps if I find the occasion to collect some natural pine, holly or ivy I might use that. But I did place some fresh offerings at the shrine, including a seasonal apple, satsuma and persimmon.

I would also like to add a gohei (Shinto wand of purification associated with Oshogatsu) and perhaps some figures associated with Yule in Paganism, such as Saturn or the Holly King. I’ll see how much time I get!

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Paganism: Reclaiming Spirituality from Commercialism


Odin, one of many figures that inspired the modern-day Santa Claus / Father Christmas

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.

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