A Heathen Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is coming up.

I like Thanksgiving.

It’s one of the few holidays where a lot of people get time off work (when I worked at Barnes and Noble, the only days we were closed were Thanksgiving and Christmas), so that would seem to make it a big deal, but if you look at stores, there is much more Easter and Halloween merchandise than Thanksgiving, as it gets smashed between Halloween, and the behemoth of a holiday that is modern Christmas. But maybe that’s a good thing. Thanksgiving seems uniquely immune to commercialization. It’s really just all about the food. And I love food!

It’s also 100% secular. I have a friend who is Jewish and lives in the UK, and he’s told me he’s kind of jealous of Thanksgiving and wishes the UK had something like that. He says there aren’t a lot of holidays in the UK that both Jews and non-Jews can celebrate together. Thanksgiving isn’t a Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Hindu, or Pagan holiday; it’s a holiday for all Americans. Everyone gives thanks.

Now, I know the Thanksgiving origin story is mostly mythical, and some Native Americans view Thanksgiving as a day of mourning. That’s up to them, but I prefer Columbus Day to fulfill that role (because Columbus was an asshole). At least the Thanksgiving myth is a happy myth, to remind us that not all interactions between Europeans and Native Americans were bad. Sometimes certain groups of European settlers and certain Native Americans did get along. If we remember that, I think it gives us hope that we can get along better in the future.

Since Thanksgiving is a day to give thanks, as a Heathen, who do I give thanks to?

I think it’s significant that all the traditional Thanksgiving food is native to the New World: turkey, cranberries, corn, potatoes, squash and pumpkins, sweet potatoes, pecans, and green beans. To me, that makes it obvious how Thanksgiving fits into a Heathen worldview: Thanksgiving is a feast in honor of the Land Spirits of America.

Honoring the spirits of the land is a traditional Heathen thing to do, so on Thanksgiving we feast on foods native to this land, to give thanks to the land for this bounty. Being relative newcomers to this land, it’s just good hospitality to give thanks to the spirits of the land we’ve settled on.

I don’t know much about my ancestors, but I think most of my ancestors came here from Europe relatively recently, in the 20th century. Obviously they came thinking they’d be better off here than back home, like so many other immigrants did. Thanksgiving is a time to remember why our ancestors came here to begin with, and be grateful they were able to make new lives for themselves here on another continent so far away from home.

It’s a time to remember how immigrants from all over the world have come here looking for a better life, and they still keep coming here to this day, and the mixing of all these different cultures is what makes this country so interesting. There seems to be a lot of anti-immigrant fervor around here lately, especially against Latino immigrants, which I always thought was ironic since Texas was part of Mexico before it was part of the United States. There are “Mexican” families here who go back all the way to that time. They’ve been here longer than my family has, that’s for sure. No one’s ever yelled at me to “Go back to Germany,” even though my mother was actually born IN Germany.

But since I’m a nature-worshiper, the main focus is honoring the land and nature spirits of America. Whenever possible, I try to make a dish out of something I grew and harvested myself. This year it will be sweet potato pie made of homegrown sweet potatoes. Yum!

Perhaps Thanksgiving would be a good time to learn more about your local bioregion, and the plants and animals native to where you live. Perhaps Thanksgiving is a good time to look into supporting local, more environmentally friendly agriculture.

Growing up in a nonreligious family, Thanksgiving was already a time for turkey and pie and football. Now that I’m a Heathen, I like having the opportunity to inject something a bit more spiritually significant into the holiday.

So on Thanksgiving I give thanks to the land itself, which has fed so many people. I also pray that people cease taking the land for granted, and remember how we depend on keeping it healthy for our survival.

What We Need from Pagan Clergy

One of the recurring debates that comes up in pagan blogs and forums is the question of pagan clergy. Do we even need a distinction between clergy and laypeople, and if so, what would their roles be?

Well, I’m a layperson who really wishes there were some good pagan clergy available, but what are clergy for anyway? Why can’t we all be our own priests and priestesses? One common thing I see is that the distinction between clergy and laypeople is that clergy can “hear the gods” and laypeople can’t.

Personally, I think the distinction between mystics and everyone else is on a completely different axis than the distinction between clergy and laypeople. There are plenty of people who have mystical experiences who I wouldn’t consider to be clergy (like myself for example), and you can probably be a good priest without ever having mystical experiences (though they might help).

I know this is sometimes used as a slur, but you know what I think we primarily need good pagan priests for? Marrying and burying!

Yes, there are other things for priests to do, but those two rites are really, really important rites of passage that don’t occur in a person’s life very often, and when they do happen, it’s especially important to “get it right.” That’s where we laypeople really need a professional with a lot of experience handling these sorts of things. These rites are so important, such a primal need, that many atheists still have weddings and funerals.

And so far in my life, the pagan community has completely failed me in this regard. For example, when my husband and I got married, we got a liberal Christian minister to officiate even though neither of us are Christians and it wasn’t a Christian wedding. Why? Because of all the people we knew, he seemed to be the best man for the job, and that had nothing to do with which deity he worships.

Oh, when the local pagans found out that we were getting married, I had plenty of offers from people who wanted to officiate. But leading a ritual is a skill. It’s hard work to get it right. And frankly, I have been to some of the rituals some of these other self-proclaimed “priests” and “priestesses” have led, and they really weren’t very good. But I’d been to another wedding this Christian minister officated, and it was excellent, so I was confident he knew how to run a good ritual. His church is welcoming to GLBT folks, they believe in “creation spirituality” (not Creationism, but a type of nature-based Christianity), and the local ADF grove sometimes uses his church to hold events.

We wanted something that looked like a proper wedding, even if it wasn’t going to be Christian. We would have pagan guests there, but also Unitarian Universalists, atheists, and Christians. We needed something that would be pagan enough to stay true to ourselves, but not so strange as to freak out my husband’s elderly aunt. When we went to meet with the minister, he knew exactly what we meant! He seemed excited to be doing a wedding that wasn’t in a typical Protestant Christian style, and pulled out a notebook he had with scripts from lots of previous weddings he’d performed, including ones with pagan elements. We spent a couple of hours with him planning how we wanted the ritual to go, and it was the least stressful part of the whole wedding planning experience.

And that’s because he’s good at his job! He’s done non-traditional weddings before, he understood all of our concerns, and he understood what his role was in all this. He said when he performs rituals like this, he sees himself as ferryman steering the boat to the spirit world, while we’re the passengers. His job is to get us to our destination safely and back again, but he’s not the focus of the ritual, just the one who steers the boat.

This is something a lot of self-proclaimed “pagan clergy” DO NOT understand. When you lead a ritual, it’s not about you. If it’s a wedding, it’s about the people getting married. If it’s a funeral, it’s about the deceased and the mourners. If it’s a ritual in honor of a god, it’s about the god and the people trying to get in touch with the god’s presence. I actually can’t think of any type of ritual where the priest would be the center of attention rather than a guide.

But I’ve been to plenty of pagan rituals where it did seem to be mostly about the priest or priestess showing off how great they are. Months after my wedding, when the subject of gay marriage came up on Facebook, and people started saying things about how they don’t understand why it’s such a big deal since it’s just a legal contract, I found myself commenting about how important I think the marriage rite is, and how there’s a lot more to it than just signing a contract. Then this “high priestess” asked me, “If you think marriage is so important and meaningful, why did you have a Christian perform yours when neither of you are Christians?” I’m not sure what exactly she was getting at, but she was one of the people who offered to officiate, and I turned her down, so maybe she was still offended. My husband ended up jumping in saying we chose him because we already knew him, and since it was so important we wanted to make sure we chose someone who would do a good job.

When I got married, I didn’t want a ritual where people would show up in jeans and t-shirts, or topless, or in sarongs and bare feet, and I didn’t want the person leading the ritual to be reading off sheets of paper. Yes, our wedding had a couple of small mishaps, but the minister was skilled enough to not let those completely throw the whole thing off. And since a wedding is an important occasion, yes I requested that people dress nicely and not act like slobs, which made it a lot different than a lot of pagan rituals I’ve been to.

To me, marriage is more than just a legal contract. When you marry someone, you are entangling your thread of Wyrd with theirs. That’s why I liked doing the handfasting ritual where our arms were literally tied together with different colored chords (each chord represented one of our vows). Yes, there is a legal contract involved, but since I am a religious person, there is a spiritual component as well. We invoked the spirits of nature (it was an outdoor wedding) and the Ancestors (since weddings are important to them since we’re combining our family lines together), but didn’t name any specific gods. I figured ancestors and nature spirits were generic enough to not offend the Christians present (it’s not like there were any fundies, just some older, more traditional folks) while still keeping true to my own beliefs.

My husband and I both came away from our wedding very satisfied that we got a good ritual to mark such an important spiritual binding, and everything was done properly.

Contrast that with when my dad died. He didn’t get a funeral. He died in a hospice and was cremated immediately. His ashes were divided in thirds, and his brother got some, I got some, and my sister got some. He wanted to be scattered on Pikes Peak, but there was so much family turmoil after he died, that we certainly won’t do that all together like he suggested. I still have my portion, and am still planning to fulfill his request. I’m just not sure when I’ll get the chance. Maybe I can do it on the anniversary of his death.

But it still seems wrong to me that there was no funeral. I know that’s what he requested, but I still feel like something is missing. I felt like I need a ritual to mark something this important. Ideally there would be priests or shamans to perform some sort of funeral rite. Funeral rites are found in all cultures. You need something that not only helps the soul of the deceased get to the afterlife safely, but also allows the mourners to express how important this person was to them, and to honor their memory, and to help them find some kind of closure.

It felt like as soon as my dad died, he was more or less “disposed of” and it was time to move on with our lives right away, get that paperwork done, sign that death certificate, work out the will and split up the inheritance, pick up his ashes in a Ziplock bag in a cardboard box with his name printed on top.

Maybe I’m the only one who feels this way, but I still feel like something’s missing. My mother-in-law kindly bought us a tree to plant in our yard by our ritual circle and sprinkle some of his ashes in the hole, which we did on Father’s Day. In my previous post I already talked about the Samhain ritual I did a couple of weeks ago to honor him.

But here’s the problem with that. In both those occasions, I basically had to be my own priestess. And that’s hard to do when you’re the one who’s so emotionally wrapped up in the occasion the ritual is for.

Doing your own devotions to your patron deities and spirits isn’t that difficult. Neither is doing your own seasonal holiday celebrations for Yule or Midsummer. But if you’re the one getting married, or you’re mourning the death of a person close to you, it’s hard to do those rituals all by yourself without help. It’s like trying to perform surgery on yourself. It’s easy to perform simple first aid on yourself, but if you need surgery, you want someone else to help, preferably a professional.

But I basically had to perform the rites all by myself. I’ve led rituals before, and I learned really quickly that when you’re leading a ritual, you really can’t get that emotionally involved in it yourself. You’re too busy making sure everyone else is OK. If you’re the one steering the boat, you have to concentrate on that, while everyone else gets to have the profound spiritual experiences.

So I’m left feeling like my dad didn’t get a proper sendoff. I was too upset about his death to do it properly myself, so nothing got done, because like with so many pagan things in my life lately, if I don’t do it, no one will.

I’ve seen self-proclaimed pagan priests say they don’t serve people, they serve the gods. A lot of them seem to not really like people at all. Well, I don’t like people either, but I think that withdrawing from humans and focusing all your attention on communing with your deity isn’t actually being a priest. It’s more like being a monk or nun. And the monastic life is perfectly fine if that’s your calling, but being a priest is about serving humans AND the gods by helping humans connect with the spirit world. And that requires priests to be compassionate and trustworthy individuals who are really good with people.

We need more people we can trust to steer the boat while we’re too emotionally caught up in the journey to steer it ourselves. We need someone to safely get us to the other side and home again without crashing or capsizing us or getting us lost.

Paganism needs more people who are good at marrying and burying, and other rites of passage, so that I don’t have to call on a Christian to do it or it doesn’t get done. And yes, priests can be handy to celebrate seasonal holidays and do divination and oracular work, but that seems to already be fairly commonplace with pagans (though with varying levels of competence). I mean, I’ve done seasonal rituals and done rune readings for people myself, with quite satisfying results. That stuff is pretty entry-level as priestly functions go. If you mess up Yule, there’s always next Yule, but your dad only dies once.

We need priests who can take care of people’s spiritual needs when they’re getting married (a very stressful time, even if it is a happy occasion) or have had a death in the family, or are seriously ill, or having a baby, or in some other type of crisis. So called “priests” who hate people and only serve the gods can’t do that.

Being clergy is a job that requires skill and practice and experience. I just wish pagans had more people like that, instead of all these people calling themselves a “High Priestess” to mainly make themselves sound important, or people who blog about spending all their time with the gods while shunning humans. Because when something really important and life-changing is happening to you, those are not the kind of people you want to call for spiritual support.

How Samhain Went

October is over, and now we really enter the dark part of the year. All the activities for Samhain/Halloween/Day of the Dead are done, and I can reflect on how it all went. Samhain is the biggest holiday for Celtic and Celtic-inspired pagans, and since most pagans I know fall into that category, I participate (even though Yule is really the most important Heathen holiday). But more importantly, I think having a holiday to honor the Dead is a really good idea, especially this year, the year my father died.

This year’s Samhain season had its ups and downs, and unfortunately I’m left with some feelings of disappointment. Maybe it’s because this year’s Samhain was especially important to me, so I had a lot of anticipation.

I’m mentioned here before that I attend this semiannual pagan campout held for Beltane and Samhain each year. It’s a splinter group from a much larger pagan festival here in Central Texas, but I wasn’t involved in the schism. I’ve mainly been going to this one because it’s cheaper, quieter, and smaller than the big festival (which I have also been to a few times), and therefore usually more suitable to an introvert like me. This has been going on for a little over ten years now.

When this campout first started, there were a lot of activities, probably because people were trying to recreate the big festival. During the day there were crafts and workshops, and every night there was a bonfire. On some Beltanes there were unofficial handfastings, or at least re-dedication rituals for couples, but my favorite was always the Samhain ritual.

Some of the founding members would dress up as various death gods, and the rest of us would walk down a trail through the woods to the big pavilion, encountering the death gods along the way. At each step, one of them would have something to say to us. There was Odin, then Anubis, and finally when we got to the pavilion, we were welcomed to the Underworld by Hades and Persephone.

Then we’d partake in the Dumb Feast. People would bring dishes that reminded them of their Beloved Dead. An altar was set up with pictures of the deceased (including pets), and we’d say a few words about our loved ones, and then eat in silence. There was a small wooden coffin with pens and paper to write messages on. Then when people were done eating, the coffin was closed, and then carried in a procession to a funeral pyre set up in the main fire ring. Then it was burned, and we’d stand around in silence or say some more words about our loved ones. When the coffin was finally completely consumed by the flames, the rite was over, and we could relax and pull out the drums and have fun the rest of the night.

That’s how it used to be. Over the years, the ritual has shrunk. The woman who used to play Persephone moved away. She was one of my college friends, and when she graduated, she moved to Portland. When she left, the man who played Hades said he wouldn’t be doing it anymore without her, and that was the end of that aspect of the ritual. The man who played Anubis now acted as priest over the Dumb Feast along with his wife. They’d do a Wiccan ritual under the pavilion as priest and priestess calling the quarters and the Goddess and God. Not my style of ritual, but at least it was a ritual.

Then the priestess got breast cancer, and last year her picture was on the altar for the dead. I had actually set up that altar myself and put a picture of our cat on it, and later when I passed by I noticed someone had added her picture. We had a dumb feast without much ritual to go with it, but when we burned the coffin, the man who used to be Anubis had a lot to say about his departed wife.

I hoped that would show people how important Samhain is. Now for the first time one of our own was on the altar. One day each one of us will die too. Don’t we also want to be remembered in a Samhain ritual after we’ve passed?

But at the beginning of this October, what I always feared happened. A post by one of the people who organize the campout appeared on the Facebook page, saying to let her know if anyone wants to do this coffin ritual this year, but otherwise they’re not going to bother with it. The guy who usually builds the coffin said he could build one if anyone really wants it, but someone else would need to take care of all the rest.

I commented on the post in a panic saying yes please build the coffin because my dad just died and I’ll take care of all the rest of the ritual. I was freaked out and upset until he finally replied saying that would be no problem.

And now I had committed to running this year’s Samhain ritual myself, because if I didn’t do it, no one would. The campout was the weekend before Halloween weekend, so it wouldn’t conflict with any at-home Halloween activities people had. That didn’t leave me much time to prepare.

I had already decided what I would make for Dad for the Dumb Feast. When I went to visit him in January, he made me some salmon. Dad loved cooking, and would sit and watch the Food Network all day, even when he was too sick to eat anything. He sat with me while I ate my salmon, and he drank his Ensure and talked about how much he’s looking forward to beating the cancer so he could eat solid food again. He was about to go into surgery to get the damaged part of his esophagus removed. He had gotten radiation and chemotherapy to kill the cancer in his esophagus, and then was going to have that part cut out.

The next day he had the surgery, but when the doctors cut open his chest, they saw the cancer had spread to his stomach, and just closed him back up again. While he was in recovery, the doctors called the family in and showed us pictures of his stomach dotted with tumors…

But I digress. I got Dad a nice salmon fillet and wrapped it in a foil packet with butter and lemon to cook on the grill and contribute to the Dumb Feast. I also brought pens and notepads for people to write messages to the Dead on to put in the coffin. When we got to the campground, the little wooden coffin was already on a picnic table under the main pavilion. I put the pens and paper next to it, and then set up the altar on the picnic table across from it. Pagans like to use sarongs for altar cloths, and I have a dark blue one with black bats on it (very different from the usual Celtic knots you see) that I got from the gift shop when I was an intern at Bat Conservation International in Austin. I like to use for Samhain. I think bats are appropriate animal spirits for this time of year. I put on a picture of my Dad that was taken at my wedding, the last time I saw him healthy (and didn’t know he would be dead in almost exactly a year). I added two Day of the Dead skull candles from the local grocery store, and my black Odin candle with the raven on the front, since Odin is the God of Death.

Next to the picture of Dad I put a bottle of Dr. Pepper. He said that was one of the few things he could drink when he was on chemotherapy that “went down” well, without making him nauseous. I also added a paper plate to put food offerings on for the Dead.

I ended up having about ten people attend the ritual, which was only a small fraction of the people who were at the campout. I designated another picnic table as the place to put the food, buffet-style, and then we sat down at another table. I told people we’d first say a few words about our loved ones, and explain why we brought what we did, and then the Dumb Feast would begin, and we’d serve ourselves and eat in silence. I told them while we were eating, anyone could go and put offerings on the plate, which was going into the coffin when we were done, and I also had pens and paper to write notes to put in the coffin. Then when it looked like most people were done eating, we’d close up the coffin and take it to the funeral pyre.

Of course, at first nobody wanted to talk, so I had to start. I told them about my dad, and struggled to keep from breaking down and crying (less than successfully). My husband also added some things. Then some other people spoke up briefly about their dead loved ones. Then we had the Dumb Feast, some people added offerings to the plate, and added notes to the coffin. When it looked like people were done, I put the paper plate with offerings into the coffin, and we closed the coffin up and proceeded to the funeral pyre in the big fire pit. A stack of juniper had been set up nicely, and the coffin was set on top. The fire was lit, and we stood around in silence watching it burn. Before it was completely burned, people started to squirm and look at me for some signal that they could end the ritual and start the reveling, but I didn’t budge until the coffin completely collapsed in the flames. These things need to be done to completion.

Once the ritual was over, more people started to gather around for the revel fire. I overheard the man who used to play Odin say (presumably to answer a question about why he didn’t participate in the ritual) that, “I don’t really consider myself a pagan anymore.” The man who used to play Hades stayed at his campsite the entire time. People said he is having trouble walking down the steep, rocky path to where the fire pit is due to a bad knee. Though he’s already said on his Facebook that he’s “pretty much an atheist,” so he might have not been interested anyway, bad knee or not. The man who used to play Anubis didn’t come at all this year.

If I hadn’t insisted upon a ritual, there really wouldn’t have been anything “pagan” about this campout at all. Same thing happened at Beltane when my husband and I brought that Maypole. Otherwise it’s just like any other campout with people sitting around knitting and talking by day, and singing songs around the campfire at night. Nothing religious at all about it really, just a social event. Obviously that’s what most people there want.

I know a lot of teens and tweens come and go in paganism as a “phase”, but these are people in their 40’s and 50’s. Was it just a phase for them too? Or are they older and wiser than me and have figured out that this is all silly after all? Maybe it’s only a matter of time until I also mature and figure that out for myself, and one day I look back on my Heathen years and say, “What was I thinking?”

But right now I still think rituals are important. I think they’re important no matter what you believe about the afterlife or deities. Rituals are a way to express how important an event is in your life. When someone dies, you want a ritual to say, “Hey, this person is no longer here, and I think this person was important and needs to be remembered.” My dad didn’t even get a funeral. He was just cremated and that was that. He said he didn’t want a funeral, But I still felt like something was missing. Without a funeral, it felt like he died and nobody cared.

Modern paganism is a way for us to have those important rituals in our lives outside of a Christian context. But will paganism even survive when so many people just view it as a phase that they grow out of? Part of the power of a ritual is continuity from one generation to the next. We honor the ancestors, partly because one day we will be ancestors ourselves, and we hope that our descendants will honor us.

But they won’t if the idea of honoring the Dead was just a phase we went through that we decided wasn’t worth continuing.