Yule After a Hard Year

It’s become a bit of a running joke that 2016 was a terrible year. Saturday I had my usual Yule get-together and during symbel I made the first round a chance to boast about something good that happened to us in 2016. My boast was that I got a job as permanent full-time faculty after 5 years of being an adjunct!

Let’s just say that it’s a good thing I did, because other stuff this year that made my husband and I very grateful I have a stable job that pays better and has really good health benefits. We really need it now.

This makes Yule even more important. For my ancestors, winter was hard. A lot of people weren’t even sure they would still be alive by spring. That’s why we have Yule. It’s a chance to live it up a bit before the long winter ahead.

This year, as usual, I’m going to try to do a social media fast during the 12 days of Yule. No Facebook or blogs from sundown tomorrow night through January 1. I’ll also do a news fast. No Rachel Maddow or NPR.

I need a break from all that. I’m going to concentrate on making delicious feast foods to share with the gods and spirits and spending time with my family and looking at the seed catalogs that are starting to show up in the mailbox.

And maybe go see the new Star Wars movie.

Yule is a time to rest. After Yule is when the battle continues.

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The Season of Gebo

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!”

434px-MerryOldSanta

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” is 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 child. 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 expression of Gebo 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, shopping for the gifts or making them, and packaging them all up in colorful paper and bows is all a ritual act. At least, 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.

Yule Preparations

Father Christmas in Blue

Final grades were due Monday. I usually try to get that all done by Friday of finals week, but this time I had to spend a few hours at the library on Monday grading some late assignments, calculating grades, and entering them into the computer system. Oh, and answering the slew of “What did I get on my final?” emails from students. But now I’m DONE!

Yesterday I spent almost all day working in the yard and garden. It’s supposed to rain for the next three days, so this was my only chance to get some of that done before Yule. I did some mowing, which is a big task because we have an acre of land, but I refuse to get a riding mower like our neighbors have. We don’t mow very often, and we don’t have much “lawn” anyway (most of our yard is either too shady, or gardens), but I like to have the grass neatly trimmed when we’re expecting company. I also had to turn the compost pile, which means my arms are pretty sore today.

We have had very unusual weather so far this “winter”. We usually get our first killing freeze around Thanksgiving. This year we ended up having a light frost the week before Thanksgiving, and we were supposed to have a hard freeze a couple of days later. So I harvested the sweet potatoes, picked the last of the eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers, and my husband and I worked hard to bring in the potted plants and cover up the dwarf citrus trees we have planted in the ground.

And then one night it got down to 30 degrees, and since then it hasn’t gotten below freezing again at all. Down to the high 30’s at worst during the night, 60’s and 70’s during the day. My tomato, eggplant, and pepper plants lost some leaves, but have since started growing new leaves back. There are still no freezes in the forecast. It’s certainly not going to freeze again before Yule.

I know I’m not supposed to attribute any one specific weather event to climate change, but I do think this is a preview of the kind of “winters” we’re going to have much more often in future decades. Some people thought we were a bit crazy planting our dwarf citrus trees in the ground instead of pots, but maybe some day we’ll be able to grow bananas here! (But I’m not looking forward to what the summers will be like then!)

One good thing about being an educator is the time off. I teach summer classes, but still get a couple of weeks off in May before the summer semester. I also get Spring Break, Thanksgiving Break, and about three weeks of Winter Break. On the downside, that means I can’t take a vacation at any other time of year (so I’ve had to miss out on happenings in February and October, for example), but it’s still much better than when I worked in retail and had to work on most weekends and holidays. This means I get all 12 days of Yule off work, which I realize is a huge luxury most people don’t get.

Recently a question came up on the Troth Facebook group on whether celebrating 12 days of Yule is historically accurate, or a Christian thing. Honestly, I quit caring about being historically accurate a while ago. I consider Yule lasting from the solstice to New Year’s Day, which works out to be about 12 days. During this time, I try to do as little work as possible (except for “work” I enjoy, like cooking or gardening), and try to make the most of my time spending it with my family, friends, cats, plants, and gods (not always in that order). That means I have three more days to get chores done before Yule.

I haven’t yet figured out something to do for all 12 days, but I usually do something for the solstice, something on Dec. 24-25, and something for New Year Eve and Day.

I’ve had a party on the solstice (or the weekend closest to it) for at least ten years now. It started when I was in college, and it’s sort of waned over the years as my college friends have graduated, moved away, gotten married, and had families. However, this year it looks like we’re going to have a good turnout. I also plan on making this party more Heathen than in the past, rather than just a party. Of course, Yule is a joyous occasion, but this year I’m going to make it more obvious that the gods are invited as well.

I’m going to set up an altar to Frey in the sacred circle in our backyard. Yule is a good time to honor any of the gods, but I usually associate Odin with winter and Frey with summer. However, this year I have something important to request of Frey, so I’m making him a bit more prominent. One of my good friends just got married to a Heathen (she’s a Celtic pagan), and asked if her husband could bring a goat effigy to burn in the Yule fire. I told them that would be fine, so perhaps Thor will be honored as well. I’ll probably try to work something in for Odin and Frigg too.

Every year we burn a Yule log, started with a piece of last year’s log. We usually use a nice big piece of live oak. This year it will be a piece of one of the trees on our land that died in the 2011 drought (right before we moved here). Since it looks like this year will be a warm Yule, we’ll probably have it outside in our fire pit. In years past when it was actually wintry on Yule we burned the log in the fireplace.

Of course, we’ve already hung our stockings on the mantle, decorated the Yule tree, and hung the LED lights on the eves of the house. Yule has got to be one of the easiest pagan holidays to celebrate. I figure any Christmas traditions that aren’t explicitly about the birth of Jesus are fair game. Then again, my husband has a really beautiful porcelain nativity set that I wish he could put out, but he doesn’t trust our cats to not break something from it. So I don’t even mind the Jesus stuff either.

My friend’s husband also offered to bring his drinking horn for a symbel after the feast. He did the same thing when he came over for Midsummer, and it went well. Depending on how chilly it is, we could have it either around the fire pit, or in the sacred circle like we did at Midsummer. (We can’t have the fire pit in the sacred circle because there are too many trees around that might be injured by a fire that close.)

But never mind about that stuff! Of course the most important thing about Yule, or any holiday, is the FOOD! I’ve been thinking about what I’ll make for the Yule feast for weeks!

One holiday tradition I’ve started is to make a fruitcake during Thanksgiving break so it has time to soak in rum. I’ve been doing this ever since I saw the fruitcake episode of Good Eats. I never tasted fruitcake before, but the recipe sounded delicious, so I had to try it, and I’ve been making it ever since. How can anyone not like a cake full of dried fruit, nuts, spices, and rum? Well, turns out my husband doesn’t like it! But I was making this fruitcake before I met him, so I still make it even though he doesn’t eat any. (By the way, you can vary which fruit, nuts, and booze you use for that cake as long as you keep the portions the same.) I just hope some of my guests like it, so I won’t have to eat the whole thing myself. (I’ll do it, though! I sometimes have a slice for breakfast.)

I’ll also make some Christmas cookies… I mean, Yule cookies… for the fruitcake haters, but I haven’t yet decided which kind. Alton Brown has a melt-in-your-mouth sugar cookie recipe. I also really like gingerbread cookies, which have the benefit of a long Germanic tradition behind them. I’d also like to try my hand at making Chocolate Crinkle cookies this year, which I’ve never made before. Darn it, I might just have to make several different kinds of cookies! I could make the cookie dough ahead of time, since it lasts well in the fridge for freezer, and just take out and bake some of it for the solstice, and maybe some more for family Christmas later.

For the main course, I have a heritage turkey in the chest freezer that’s been there for quite a while. A couple of years ago I caught an after-Thanksgiving clearance sale by a local farmer who raises pastured and grass-fed meat. I was so excited by the good price on an otherwise very expensive product that I bought three turkeys from him. This is the last one left. I have a brick smoker in the backyard that I always use for my Midsummer barbecues, and this year I’m going to cook the Yule turkey in there. This morning we set aside some firewood in the garage to stay dry (I hear the rumble of thunder now), and I’m going to cook the turkey with the mesquite. Yum! It’s supposed to rain until Friday, and then clear up on Saturday just in time. Perfect!

Since free range heritage turkeys are much smaller than Butterballs, I’m also going to make some Norwegian meatballs from a recipe I got from the Penzey’s spice catalog a few years ago. They’ve become another holiday tradition around here (one that my husband actually likes). I’m not really sure what’s the difference between them and Swedish meatballs, but this recipe has ginger, nutmeg, and cardamom, which turn out to give a very interesting dimension to a savory dish.

For vegetables, I’m going to roast the rest of the sweet potatoes I harvested from the garden, including some purple ones, which should get some fun comments. I’ve got arugula and radishes ready to harvest from the garden that should make a nice salad. Too bad my turnips, carrots, beets, and parsnips are not quite ready yet.

Oh, and I’m going to make cranberry sauce from scratch (none of that canned stuff), because that goes with both the turkey and the meatballs. Not sure if I’ll also make stuffing, or mashed potatoes, or both stuffing AND mashed potatoes! Maybe I should make some additional vegetables. Might depend on how much time I have left after all that. I’m going to try to do as much ahead of time as possible, because it seems I’m always rushing around at the last minute with these things.

But that reminds me that first I need to do a good housecleaning! I hate cooking in a dirty kitchen, and the rest of the house needs some dusting and vacuuming as well. I can almost hear Frigg whispering in my ear, “Get off that computer and get to work!”

I also haven’t done ANY GIFT SHOPPING YET! On December 25 I do secular Christmas with my in-laws (I get along with them much better than with my birth family, who I can barely speak to without hostility these days). I love gift-giving. I could write a whole post just about that (and how to avoid commercialization ruining all the fun). At least I finally got people to tell me what they want. I just need to go out and find it now.

OK, time to get to work. I hear more thunder rumbling in the distance. My garden should really like that. Hail Thor! Time to get all these house chores out of the way before Yule. Then I’ve got cookie dough to make, a turkey to brine, groceries to buy… oh my gosh, so much to do!

The Yule Father

It seems that most people think of Odin as a warrior god, taking the souls of slain warriors up to Valhalla to feast and battle until Ragnarok. And yes that is an important aspect of this deity. Many of his heiti (names/aspects) relate to battle. However, that is the aspect of Odin I actually have the least amount of personal experience with. It makes sense, given that I’ve never served in the military. I’ve never been in battle myself, so I have no idea what that would be like, and I don’t pretend to.
For the next couple of posts about Odin, I am going to describe the aspects of him that I do relate to. I’m going to start with the first heiti of Odin that I met, which actually happened long before the events that I described in my last post. That was the first time I encountered Odin as Odin, but Odin is a god who likes to disguise himself. There are many stories in the Eddas where he goes out in disguise, sometimes even as a woman. He uses whatever mask he needs to suit his purposes. And it wasn’t until the past year or two that I really started to realize Odin was around in my life long before I knew it was him. In modern times he wears a disguise that you see everywhere at this time of year, and this disguise has enabled him to continue to receive offerings from millions of people around the world, or at least millions of children once a year.

They know this aspect of Odin as “Santa Claus.”

434px-MerryOldSanta

Now, sometimes when I mention that Santa is Odin to people, they have trouble believing it. I once mentioned it to a friend of mine, and he said, “But Santa is jolly! Odin isn’t jolly at all!” Even some fellow Heathens have trouble with the idea, and insist that Santa is really Thor, and his reindeer are really Thor’s goats, and both Santa and Thor like the color red. Thor is also much more “jolly”. Also, in Scandinavian countries, goats are associated with Yule, and those may very well be Thor’s goats.

170px-Santaandgoat

But if you look at older depictions of Father Christmas, they look much more Odinic. He used to wear all sorts of colors besides red. He used to ride a horse instead of a sleigh pulled by reindeer (though reindeer are still used as draft animals in certain parts of Scandinavia, so he could have reindeer too). When I was a child, I knew there was something more to Santa. I knew there was more to him than just someone who gives you toys; there was something deeper, more powerful, more ancient. The toys were nice, but there was something about leaving that offering of cookies out by the hearth on that magical night of Christmas Eve, knowing that during the night while I slept, this ancient, powerful being would come to collect his offering and leave me gifts in return. It gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling in my heart, but also made the hair on the back of my neck stand on end. That a being that was powerful enough to do what Santa did still cared about little kids enough to visit use every year and bring us gifts, that was just amazing. And he cares about all little kids, not just the rich ones. He’d even give gifts to the poor kids who really needed them, and I was sure he actually cared about them more. Nobody was considered an outsider, unwanted, or unloved when it comes to Santa.

Coming of Santa Claus by Nast

Santa loves animals too.

I held onto my belief in Santa long after many of my peers had given it up, though the belief that there was literally an old man bringing the gifts started to fall apart in the face of the evidence, such as how Santa had the exact same handwriting as my mom, except for the occasional year he had the handwriting of my dad, and he always used the exact same wrapping paper that we had. Finally, one year when I was still playing along with the Santa thing, my mom flat out told me, “Your mommy is Santa. All those presents you ever got were from me.” Maybe she was sick of doing the Santa thing and wanted to end it once and for all, but I was almost kind of insulted. For one thing, by now it wasn’t like I was so dumb that I didn’t know she was the one leaving the gifts. For another thing, I didn’t believe her that she was Santa, and I thought it was rather arrogant of her to make such a claim.
Yes, I got the message that we wouldn’t be doing the Santa thing anymore, and that my mother felt my sister and I were too old for it now. I was depressed for a few years after that because that magic had been taken out of Christmas. The idea that Santa is silly kids’ stuff and when you “grow up” you stop believing in it just seemed so depressing. Santa seemed like so much more than just a source of toys. I didn’t even want toys anymore. Toys were only a small part of the whole Santa ritual, and that’s why I didn’t like my mom saying she was “really Santa”. There was more to Santa than that.
When I was in my early 20’s I got a job at Barnes and Noble. It turned out to be the one retail job I hated the least out of all the ones I had, and I ended up working for them off and on for several years as I worked my way through college. Every Christmas they had this thing similar to the Salvation Army Angel Tree, except it was just for books. You’d get a tag for a needy child, and it would say what books the child would like. You’d buy one for the child, attach the tag to it, and leave it under the tree. I started doing that every year with one boy and one girl. I loved doing it. I felt that warm feeling in my heart and that prickle up my spine. When I lived in an apartment complex that had a toy drive for needy children, I always bought some things for it. I’ve always loved the whole gift-giving tradition, and even bought gifts for all my college friends at Yule, even if they didn’t think to give me anything. I figured out how to “believe in Santa” as an adult. Now I was one of Santa’s helpers. Santa’s helpers aren’t just elves; they’re anyone who gives a gift with no strings attached, just to add a little bit more warmth and brightness to the world. Santa’s helpers are the ones who actually buy, wrap, and give the gifts, but they do it under the direction of Santa, in Santa’s name, as his priests and priestesses, doing his work in the world.

Father Christmas

I’ve seen modern paganism described as an effort to “re-enchant the world”. Since I was raised an atheist, Santa was my first source of enchantment. Atheists sometimes compare God to Santa Claus, implying belief in God is just as silly as belief in Santa Claus, but is it really that silly to believe in generosity, hospitality, and kindness? When I became a Wiccan, I accepted Santa as an aspect of “The God”, and maybe that was one of the reasons why the Wiccan God was easier for me to relate to. When I became Heathen, for a long time I didn’t believe the Odin-Santa connection because of the reasons I mentioned before, that Santa was too “nice” to be Odin. I understood that they had a historical connection, which is discussed in Santa’s Wikipedia article and also this funny cartoon “Irrefutable Proof that Santa is Odin”, which makes Santa seem rather scary. (Interestingly enough, my little sister was always terrified of Santa. Hmm. Maybe she sensed it too.)

But last Yule the last bit of doubt left my mind. At least for me, it turns out Santa was Odin all along. This means that Odin has been involved in my life from the very beginning, the implications of which I’m still figuring out. I remember an article I read once about whether it’s OK to “lie” to your children about Santa, and what kind of psychological effects that might have. I wish I could remember where it was from. I think it was from Psychology Today or something like that, because it was surprisingly well-written. The part that stood out to me was where it talked about how modern Western society’s view of these things is backwards from how things are viewed in traditional tribal societies. In Western society it’s OK for children to have “fantasies” like Santa Claus, and then when you “grow up” you stop believing in that nonsense and take on a more materialistic worldview. In more animistic or shamanic cultures, it’s the exact opposite. As a child, you’re focused on learning how the physical world works, and as you become older you gain more and more knowledge of the spiritual world.

I think this makes a lot of sense, especially given the choice you have once you get old enough to realize that your parents are the ones who buy those toys, wrap them, and leave them under the tree. In modern society, once one realizes that Santa is not an actual physical human being bringing you these physical toys and eating the physical cookies you left out for him, well, then that means he’s not real, right?

That makes sense if you believe that only physical things are real. Instead, that could be the point when you learn what Santa really is, and that your childhood understanding of Santa was too simplistic, but age-appropriate until you old enough to have a more nuanced understanding.

I plan on having a child someday, and I’ve been thinking about how I’m going to handle the issue of religion, since I wasn’t brought up with religion myself. I’ve been wondering how I’d teach a child about the gods (which is especially difficult because I’m not totally sure what a god is myself), and I realized that my atheist mom actually unintentionally introduced me to the concept by participating in the Santa tradition.

If you are not a Heathen, I think the Santa tradition can still be a vehicle for introducing children to the gods of your tradition. He could be Saturn, if you follow a more Greco-Roman tradition and celebrate Saturnalia at this time of year. He could be the Holly King aspect of the Wiccan God. He’s already Saint Nicholas for the Catholics, and I’m fine with that. Lots of pagan gods became saints to help people continue to worship them after the coming of Christianity.

But if you still think that Odin isn’t nice enough to be Santa, John T. Mainer wrote a really good blog post about it a few days ago. That post actually came up while I was still working on this one, so I had to completely rewrite mine. Another instance of another writer beating me to something and explaining it better than I could! That post perfectly describes Jolnir, the Yule Father, the Odin I’ve known since I was a child. May he bring you peace, joy, inspiration, and wonder this holiday season.

Interesting that C.S. Lewis has Father Christmas bring the children weapons.

Interesting how C.S. Lewis had Father Christmas bring the children weapons.

SDF Solitary Yule

I’ve always liked the ADF. I’ve wanted to join for a while but still haven’t gotten up the guts to do it. For one thing, though they are technically pan-Indo-European, they mainly focus on the Celtic culture (after all, they do call themsevles “Druids”), and I’ve always felt most at home in Germanic culture. The closest Grove to where I live seems to do all Celtic rituals, at least as far as I know. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Some of my best friends are Celts! And the Celts and Germans are extremely similar. Still, I’m just not that familiar with Celtic mythology or gods.

On the other hand, I really like how much emphasis ADF places on Mother Earth and Nature-worship. I know that more conservative Asatruar wince at the idea of being labeled as following an Earth-based religion, but the ADF embraces it, and so do I. Although I have a close relationship with certain Germanic gods, I think Nature and the Earth are much more important in the grand scheme of things. Praising the Earth Mother is a major part of every ADF style ritual. She comes before any other gods are invoked, and I really like that.

One of the blogs I try to read regularly is Bishop in the Grove. Recently its author, Teo Bishop, a member of ADF, put together something he’s calling the Solitary Druid Fellowship. I decided this would be a good way to try out ADF style ritual without formally joining ADF or getting in contact with my local ADF Grove. You know, a way to dip my toe in a bit.

Besides, I wanted to do some sort of formal ritual for Yule, which is the most important holiday in Heathenry. I’ve always been a huge fan of Yule, even back when I was celebrating secular Christmas with my non-religious family. I’ve never been the sort of person to complain about Christmas music blaring at every store, and as far as household light displays go, I say the brighter and more extravagant the better! For me, coming to paganism just added an additional spiritual dimension to an already beloved holiday, but I’ve had trouble getting around to doing anything spiritual during Yule these last few years. There are parties, feasting, and gift-giving, which is all great and important, but I still feel the need to do some kind of formal ritual to mark the occasion, and I often miss the chance to do that.

I went ahead and requested the SDF Yule liturgy as soon as it was posted. I printed out the pdf, and then it sat on my nightstand. I follow the tradition of Yule lasting from the Winter Solstice to New Year’s Day, which helps me cram in all the stuff that’s going on. I usually have a party with my friends at my house on the solstice or the weekend closest to it. This year I had a wedding to attend on Friday, the actual day of the solstice this year, so I had my party on Saturday, which lasted late into the night. Sunday I went to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey with the family we had visiting for Christmas. Monday I got last-minute gifts made and wrapped, and Tuesday was Christmas with my husband’s family. Wednesday our elderly cat needed to be taken to the vet (she’s fine now), so by Thursday I was exhausted. I actually ended up missing a couple of things I had planned to go to (like the Christmas Eve service at the UU Church and a Boxing Day party at a friend’s house). I’m an introvert and get tired out by a lot of socializing, so by Thursday I needed to recharge my batteries.

I realized that Friday, December 28 would be my last day alone to do any kind of ritual. Since I’m an educator, I’m off for Winter Break, but my husband was at work. Over the weekend was another Yule gathering with my pagan friends, and then it would be New Year’s, and Yule 2012 would be over and it would be 2013. I was glad I hadn’t yet given up on the SDF Liturgy and thrown it away or something, though by the 28th the discussion on the SDF website had closed, so I’ll just have to tell you about it here.

As I drank my coffee in the morning I looked over the printed out liturgy. I wanted to only use things I already had in the house, so I wouldn’t have to go to the store for anything. I’m impressed at how well ADF’s ritual structure fits into Germanic cosmology. Are all Indo-European cultures really this similar? Obviously the Sacred Well is the Well of Wyrd and the Sacred Tree is Yggdrasil. The Sacred Fire is less obvious. In the ritual it’s used as a gateway to the Gods, so it must be Bifrost. Bifrost is a rainbow, but I guess rainbows and fires are related. A rainbow is the light of the burning sun hitting water in the Earth’s atmosphere. They’re both shiny, I guess.

I needed a representation for the Well, the Tree, and the Fire. I have three places I can hold a ritual at home. There’s my personal altar set up in the bedroom. There I could put a vessel of water of some sort, and use a candle for the fire, but what about the tree? I also have a sacred grove set up in the backyard, where I could use a real tree, but it was very windy outside, which would blow out a candle. I think we’re on an outdoor burn ban anyway, which would make a larger fire dangerous. The last option was the hearth. My husband and I just moved into this house in February, and it’s the first time I’ve had a fireplace since I lived with my parents. We already burned the Yule log in it during my party on Saturday, and I give offerings to the House Spirit there. That would be a perfect place for a really good Sacred Fire.

I considered using our actual Yule Tree, complete with tinsel, electric lights, and ornaments for the Sacred Tree. It was my first real Yule/Christmas tree, a six foot Douglas Fir. I already think of Yule trees being a representation of Yggdrasil. However, when I realized I would need to give an offering to the tree, how would I do that? I decided to use the potted Norfolk Island Pine on the other side of the fireplace opposite the Yule Tree instead. It used to be one of those living Christmas trees they sell at grocery stores. My husband got it at a garage sale many years ago, before we met. My parents-in-law had kept it alive in their greenhouse until I got over 15 feet tall and they couldn’t fit it in the greenhouse anymore, so they gave it back to my husband now that we have our own house. He had to cut the top off to get it in our house, but it can’t survive a freeze, so it was either that or let it die. It’s in a pot, so I could pour my offering to the Sacred Tree in the pot. I admit I didn’t really like this tree before. It felt kind of ridiculous going to so much trouble for one of these darn Norfolk Island Pines that don’t even belong in this ecosystem, but I must say it made a fine Yggdrasil stand-in.

Then I needed a Sacred Well. I thought about the sort of vessel I’d like. Something deep and dark, so when you gazed into it, you couldn’t see the bottom, like you’re gazing into the bottomless Well of Wyrd. I know a lot of ADF people use those little cauldrons you can get at witchy stores, but I don’t have one. I looked around the house at all the various things my pack-rat of a husband has collected over the years, and found his ceramic bean pot! Or at least we think it’s a bean pot. I took it down from the shelf and looked inside at its shiny, dark brown, glazed interior. Perfect!

For the deities of occasion I selected Odin and his wife, Frigga. They’re associated with Yule already anyway, and if I’m going to make this a regular thing, I wanted to start with Odin, who is my “patron deity” I guess you could say. That was an easy choice, but one area that made me a little nervous was the Gatekeeper, another important element of ADF style ritual. I have no idea who this would be in a Celtic or Greek culture (Hermes, maybe?), but if you want a Germanic version of Ganesha or Papa Legba, which the ADF seems to be doing here, then the obvious choice would be Heimdall.

The problem is I’ve never really had any contact with Heimdall. I don’t know if he even likes me or wants anything to do with me, so it seemed weird to have him play a big part in one of my rituals. The people in the first Asatru online community I used to participate in, back when I was a newbie heathen, seemed to look down upon people who call upon lots of different deities, considering it “fluffy”, even if they were all from the Germanic pantheon (though “eclectisism” was of course much more “fluffy”). You were supposed to stick with your “fulltrui”, rather than bothering gods you don’t even have a relationship with.

I’m not sure how common that view is, but I did consider calling upon Thor to be the Gatekeeper instead, who is a deity I have already formed a relationship with, just in case invoking Heimdall would break some sort of rule of worship etiquette. But after thinking about it for a while, I thought I’ll go ahead and give Heimdall a try. As Diana Paxson says in Essential Asatru, “Of all the gods, Heimdall is the one who is the most consistently benevolent to humankind.” Well, ok then, if he’s such a nice guy, maybe he won’t mind.

I have a candle made for Odin and Frigga, but no Heimdall candle. I again searched my husband’s collection. Heimdall’s sacred animals are the ram and the seal, but we don’t have any ram or seal figures. Then I saw the ammonite there in my husband’s fossil collection. Ammonites are named after the Egyptian god Ammon, because they look like ram’s horns, and Ammon’s sacred animal is also a ram. They’re also fossil sea creatures, for Heimdall’s link to the sea. That should work!

Next I needed offerings for everybody. For the fire, I wanted something I could throw in that would burn nicely. I got a handful of frankincense resin. For the tree I wanted to pour something into the pot, but it needed to be something the tree would actually like. I decided to use some rainwater out of my rain barrel, and to make it special (since this is a special occasion and rain barrel water is what I always water that tree with) I added some liquid fish emulsion fertilizer. It smells like rotten fish, but to a tree, it’s delicious, so in it went. For the well, I needed some kind of beverage. Ideally I would use something very German for my German ancestors, like a nice German beer, but all I had was wine, hard cider, and a variety of hard liquors like vodka, rum, and brandy. I decided to go with the cider.

Then I needed offerings for the gods. Phew! This was already getting complicated! Ideally, I’d have a separate offering for each god, but I decided to use the Ravens Wood wine I had Bough a while back. It’s a wine with a very Odinic label that I had grabbed when it was on sale to offer to the Old Man some time, so now seemed like a good time. I hoped that Odin’s wife and son wouldn’t mind sharing the same wine with him.

OK, I had a well, a fire, and a tree. I had something to represent Heimdall, Odin, and Frigga, and offerings for all of them. Next I needed something to represent the Earth Mother. In the liturgy, it says you’re supposed to kneel and touch the ground, which would be nice if I was outside, but it felt weird to kneel and touch my tile floor in the living room. I got one of the cool rocks my husband has collected, a big hunk of limestone full of fossils, and put that on the floor in front of the hearth.

Finally, I got bottle of Blessing Oil from Natural Magick and a sage smudge stick to purify myself and the space with, and my bag of runes for the Omen. I don’t have an offering bowl, so I got two of my Christmas-themed holly glasses, one for the gods and one for me. Now I had everything I needed for the ritual, but wait! Look at this mess! The house was still pretty messy since I’d been too busy lately to do much cleaning. I did a thorough cleaning before the solstice, but now things were messy again. If I was going to invite Mother Frigga into my house, it had better be presentable!

I had planned to do some housecleaning that day anyway, even before I decided to do the ritual, so I thought I’d better get to work. First I realized I still needed to eat breakfast, so I made some steel cut oats, with an extra portion for my housewight, which I put by the fireplace. After breakfast, I tackled the dishes, swept the floors, vacuumed the carpets, threw in a load of laundry, and even scrubbed the bathtub. I’ve always preferred to do rituals in a clean space anyway. Even back when I was just starting out as a Wiccan I’d vacuum before I did any ritual. What’s the point of doing ritual cleansings when your space is physically dirty?

By the time I was done it was about 2 pm. I felt that my blood sugar was low again and fixed myself a sandwich to make sure I was in tip-top mental condition for the ritual. Then I cleaned that up, brushed my teeth, washed my face, put on some nice clean clothes, and brushed my hair. I decided against actually taking a shower because I was already starting to run out of energy, and the bathtub was soaking in vinegar anyway, to get the soap scum off. I put on my bear pendant, which I’ve decided I’ll wear for any serious ritual, to represent my fetch. Now I was finally ready!

Everything ready to go. Just need to light the fire.

Everything ready to go. Just need to light the fire.

I went outside and got some ash wood from our woodpile, which we got from a branch that fell on our cars during a winter storm last year. I put it in the fireplace, and as I lit it, I chanted part of a neat old English poem about firewood I found a while ago. “Ash that’s new and ash that’s old; fit for a queen with a crown of gold. Ash that’s green and ash that’s brown; fit for a queen with a golden crown.”

As the fire started to flare up, I initiated the rite with the words given in the liturgy. Because it felt right, I grabbed my bear pendant as I said the words. Next I anointed myself with oil on my Third Eye and then over my heart, lit the sage in the fire, and smudged myself and the general area for purification. I knelt down and put my hand on the rock to honor the Earth Mother, and this is where I really started to feel something! I had opened the window in the living room (it was 65 degrees outside on this Texas winter’s day) and could hear the wind blowing outside through the trees. I held my hand on the rock for a while, a rock that’s over 65 million years old, from the Cretaceous period, with fossilized sea shells within, from the shallow sea that used to cover this land. I pondered the ancientness of Mother Earth.

Next was the statement of purpose. When I mentioned I would be honoring Odin and Frigga, I lit their candles. When I mentioned Heimdall as the Gatekeeper, I placed my hand on the ammonite. Next came the Grounding and Centering, which was a variation of the tree visualization that I like to ground myself with already. Roots growing out of my feet into the Earth, branches growing up to the Sky.

I was a little confused about parts VI, VII, and VIII, since all three parts deal with the Fire, Well, and Tree. It’s a good thing I read the liturgy over before performing it so I could figure out what the repetition meant. I decided for part VI, “Recreating the Cosmos”, I would trace a rune in the air for each: Pertho for the Well, Kenaz for the Fire, and Eihwaz for the Tree. When I called Heimdall as the Gatekeeper in the “Opening the Gates” part, I poured him some of the wine, then waved my hand over the Fire, dipped my fingers in the waters of the Well, and grasped the trunk of the Tree as I asked him to make each one sacred.

Then it was finally time for offerings, and this is where it got fun. I took the handful of frankincense and threw it over the Fire. It hissed and crackled in a most satisfying way, releasing a lovely fragrance. That was the offering for the Gods in general. Next was the offering to the Well and the Ancestors. I gazed into the dark water and started to pour the cider in. I didn’t plan to at first, but ended up pouring in the whole bottle. It fizzed and released its sweet smell. My heart started pounding and I gazed into the Well for a long time. I haven’t really been doing a good job of honoring my ancestors. I come from a dysfunctional family, and though I’ve been advised to look even further back to more distant ancestors, I still haven’t really done much of that. But here I was staring into the Well, and the Well staring back to me, and I knew Ancestor Worship isn’t optional in heathenism, and I’m going to have to come to terms with this somehow. Then I poured the fertilizer-laced water into the pot of the Tree, which caused a much less pleasant odor than the first two, snapping me out of my trance a bit, but that’s what trees like.

To invoke Odin and Frigga, I used poetry from Essential Asatru, but I would say this was the least satisfying part of the ritual. I was so preoccupied with figuring out the ADF-specific stuff that I neglected the part where I honor the deities, especially since there was only a brief note of it in the printed liturgy, because this is a part I should have more flexibility with. The invocations in the book I used were meant for a group blot, so I accidentally forgot to change some of the “we’s” and “ours” and said “feast” instead of “rite”. Next time I need to put a lot more effort into it. I’ll probably have to write my own invocations, or at least find some more appropriate ones. At least I remembered to give them offerings of wine.

Next was the Omen. My runes are ones I made myself from slices of a Live Oak branch, in a drawstring bag I knitted out of cotton yarn. “How were my offerings received?” I drew Ehwaz, the Horse. Ok, that seems good. That’s a rune of cooperation and partnership. “How shall the Kindred respond?” I drew Thurisaz, the Thorn. Hmm, not exactly the best rune, but I remembered that Teo had drawn some sort of thorny Ogham for this part of the general SDF Omen too. I’m not familiar with Ogham, but maybe Thurisaz is the corresponding rune. Then for “What more would you have me learn?” I got Tiwaz. Now that’s interesting. I hardly ever get Tiwaz in readings, and Tyr is another god, like Heimdall, that I admire but don’t have much to do with. What immediately comes to mind is Self-Discipline, which is definitely something I need more of in my life.

Then it was my turn to drink, and receive the blessings of the kindred. I had originally planned to use the rest of the cider for this part, but since it was all in the Well now, I poured myself some more wine and “drank deep” as the liturgy instructed. I immediately felt the alcohol rush through my system and was reminded of how alcohol is the main mind-altering substance used by Heathens, since moderate amounts are used to loosen your tongue in rituals. It certainly worked for me! I skipped the Working part, since working magic didn’t seem appropriate at this time (I don’t usually do magic during celebratory rituals), and said the final affirmation with added wine-inspired enthusiasm. I thanked the beings, closed the gates, and the rite was ended. I blew out the candles, put everything away, and now here I was with a nice, clean house too!

Overall, I think that went well. I like how complete the ADF liturgy is. It has everything that’s important in the Cosmology: the World Tree, the Well, the Fire, the Ancestors, the Land Spirits, and the Gods. It’s flexible enough to add in or take out some parts. Now that I’ve done one of these rituals, I’m sure the next one will go much more smoothly. I’m looking forward to it. Perhaps I’ll be able to do it outside. The next holiday is Imbolc/Charming of the Plow/Candlemas on February 2. I’ve already decided the deities of the occasion will be Freyr and Gerda, and hopefully the weather will be right to do it outside this time.