Thanksgiving is over, and that means it’s time to head into the Winter Solstice/Yule/Christmas season. This weekend the hubby and I are putting up the lights and getting our tree. We’ve also been working on our gift wish lists, though I admit I haven’t bought anything yet. Next week is finals, and then after that I’ll have more time for things like gift shopping.
And I’ve already seen the posts popping up about how horrible the Christmas gift giving tradition is because it’s just this orgy of materialistic consumerism. People proudly proclaiming that they don’t do Christmas gifts. People asking why we don’t just buy whatever we want ourselves and save everyone the trouble. Christmas gift giving is just a way for corporations to brainwash us into going into thousands of dollars of credit card debt buying a whole bunch of Chinese-made stuff that we don’t need, right?
I’ve heard it all last year and the year before that and the year before that, just as regularly as I hear that Christians are persecuted because sometimes they are reminded that not everyone is celebrating the birth of Jesus at this time and there are some other holidays that happen in November and December.
It always makes me sad too. I know it’s none of my business if people don’t want to take part in a particular holiday tradition, but saying that they’re going to quit exchanging gifts altogether because Christmas has gotten too commercial and materialistic seems to me like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I even thought this when I worked in retail for five or six years, first in a big box store and then in a mall, while I was in college. The first time I worked retail over the holidays, they hung a sign up in the break room saying if you call in sick on Black Friday or Christmas Eve you’re automatically fired. At least this was back in the good old days when Thanksgiving and Christmas day were the two days of the year we were closed.
I’ve definitely gotten to see the dark side of the Christmas shopping season up close and personal, but the whole time I wasn’t thinking “Christmas is terrible. We should get rid of it.” More like, “You fools are ruining something ancient and sacred with this madness!”
For full disclosure, maybe I should remind readers that this is probably so important to me because Santa Claus was my first god, and now I consider him to be an aspect of Odin. I’ve written about this before, though I feel I have to keep repeating myself because so many people think of Odin as solely a scary war god. I know the Vanir are usually thought of as being the main gods of wealth and prosperity, but Odin has some wealth and prosperity aspects to him as well. One of his many names is Oski, the granter of wishes. He owns the golden ring Draupnir, which multiplies itself into nine rings every night. There are several verses in the Havamal about the value of generosity, and the rune Gebo is all about giving.
To me, the gift exchange is not only an important part of the Winter Solstice holiday; it’s central to it. The exchange of gifts symbolizes the bonds we have with members of our human community and with the gods, and those bonds are what allow us to survive through the darkest time of year. It’s not the Yule Father’s fault that his image has been co-opted by the big corporations for profit. He’s supposed to embody the exact opposite of greed.
It’s also not surprising that a prosperity deity would get co-opted by consumerist culture. That wouldn’t work with someone like Jesus who was all about denying material pleasures. But I don’t think there’s anything wrong with prosperity deities. My pre-Christian ancestors lived in an environment of scarcity. Exchanging gifts would have been a really big deal to them. Now we live in an environment of excess, so that throws things off a bit. It’s kind of like feasting. Feasting used to be something special that you didn’t get to do every day. It doesn’t mean as much now that we’re getting health problems from having too much food to eat rather than too little.
(Yes, I have read that gift giving may have come from the Roman Saturnalia and not the Germanic Yule. I don’t care. Gift giving is part of the Yuletide now, and considering how important reciprocity was to our heathen ancestors, it seems to fit well even if it’s not entirely “historically accurate.”)
Like with so many things, there is a right way and a wrong way to do it. Instead of throwing out the tradition of Christmas presents, I think this is another thing we pagans can reclaim.
One mistake we make is equating value with an item’s price tag. Spending lots of money is not the point. Yule gifts don’t have to be expensive, and they certainly don’t have to put you into credit card debt for months. There are all kinds of creative ideas out there for thoughtful gifts that don’t cost a lot of money. When I was unemployed I used to give people homemade candy or cookies. I made pecan pralines and fudge and put them in pretty tins that I had saved from previous years, or picked up for a dollar each. Now I’m lucky enough to be able to afford to buy gifts again, but I would never hold it against anyone if they had to give me something that didn’t cost a lot of money. If you can afford to, you don’t have to buy things that are mass produced either. You can buy things from local craftsmen or artisans or mom and pop stores or off of Etsy. You can get something from the gift shop of a nonprofit organization to help support their mission. You don’t have to elbow through crowds at Wal-Mart or get everything off Amazon.com.
The irony is that the most materialistic people I’ve known have also been the hardest to find gifts for. They’re always the ones that have the most stuff, so they already have everything they want. Whenever they see something they want, they just buy it for themselves immediately. They can’t handle the delayed gratification of putting it on their holiday wish list and waiting a few months or weeks for someone else to give it to them. And then even if you do find something to give them, you know it just gets thrown on their huge pile of stuff and forgotten.
People who obtain material possessions thoughtfully and deliberately seem to have a better idea of what they want, and when you hunt down that special thing that they want, they seem to appreciate it so much more. These are not the people the Black Friday commercials are marketing to, but they’re so much more fun to shop for.
And yes, I do think Christmas/Yule shopping is fun, and I usually hate shopping. I especially hate shopping for clothes for myself. I’ll wear things until they have big holes in them to put off buying new clothes for as long as possible. Grocery shopping isn’t quite as bad since I love to cook, but still more often than not it seems like a chore. But I love shopping for gifts for people! I love picking out the wrapping paper and ribbons and bows and wrapping it up and arranging it under the tree and then marking that person off my list. I love seeing the look on the person’s face when they unwrap it and see that I got them that thing they’ve been wanting for so long. I love the whole process.
I held on to my belief in Santa Claus much longer than my peers, but after a while I could no longer deny that those gifts by the fireplace every Christmas morning were put there by my mom, and the stomping on the roof I hear that one year that sent me and my sister scrambling to our beds on Christmas Eve (because if you’re not in bed when Santa comes, you won’t get any presents!) was my dad.
But then I discovered paganism and figured out that Santa Claus is a god, and now that I’m an adult, the way to continue “believing in Santa” was to perform his work in the world.
When I worked at Barnes and Noble, we had a tree covered with tags with the names of needy children and what kind of books they like. People could get a tag, buy a book, stick the tag on it, and put it under the tree to get donated to the needy children. Each year I would get a boy and a girl who said they like science or animal books and get them some of the cool books we had in our children’s department, the kind of books I looked at and went, “I would have loved this when I was a kid.”
The ultimate gift giving is giving to someone that you know is never going to pay you back. That’s what Santa Claus does. He gave me a My Little Pony Dream Castle, a Super Nintendo, and a stuffed tiger that still sits in my bedroom to this day, and all he got in return were cookies. As a kid, that didn’t teach me materialism, that taught me that when someone has the power to be generous, whether you have a workshop of magical elves that crank out toys (or are they dwarves?), or you just have some disposable income to buy something for someone in need, you should do it just to make the world a happier place, not to get paid back. Santa Claus wasn’t a toy vending machine, he was a role model.
But yes, a lot of the people I buy gifts for could buy those things for themselves. I can afford to buy myself everything on my wish list this year. Why even bother with that? Why not just buy things for yourself if you want something? Why do the gift exchange? Why do you need to give people material things as a symbol of your love for them? Shouldn’t they just know you love them without you having to hand them a physical object?
Pagans should understand this. Why do we do rituals where we burn candles or knot chords? Why do I have statues of my gods on my altar? Why do I have an altar at all? On one level, the gifts are another magical prop like the candles in a spell. The exchange of gifts is a magical act that bonds people together.
I’m wearing a ring right now that’s the physical embodiment of my marriage with my husband. I’d still be married to him if I didn’t have a wedding ring, or if I lost it, but I still wear it every day, and if I lost it I’d be pretty upset. We could have just signed some paperwork and we’d be legally married, but no, I wanted to do a full ritual and exchange rings, because I thought it was important and needed a ritual.
The Yule gift exchange is kind of like that. Making a big production of it once a year through the Yule ritual reminds you how important your bonds are that are there throughout the year, and doing it at the darkest time of year makes sense because it’s during the dark times of your life when you need your tribe the most. Going to the trouble of finding out what the person wants, finding the gifts or making them, and packaging them all up in colorful paper and bows is all a ritual act, or it can be if you treat it that way. Pour positive intent into your actions throughout the way. Galdr Gebo and Wunjo runes as you wrap them. Pray to Jolnir to bless the gift’s recipient, and don’t forget to leave him out an offering of cookies on Christmas Eve to thank him.
People have been complaining about Christmas being too commercial for generations, so that’s not changing any time soon, but I’m never going to give the gift giving tradition up. I feel sorry for the people who dread the coming of the Yuletide and see it as just being a stressful chore and don’t see the magic in it. It’s the first magical ritual I ever did, overseen by the first god I ever believed in. I just try to emphasize the good bits and ignore the rest.