Celebrating The Shortest Day of the Year, (plus marinara)

Several thousand Pagans, druids and revellers celebrated the winter solstice at UK’s Stonhenge in 2015

By Timothy Walker


Allow me to wish a heartfelt “Happy Holidays,” to all of you reading these words—just be careful to whom you repeat that particular sentiment on your travels today.“Happy Holidays? Don’t you mean ‘Merry Christmas,’ snowflake?” says the bearded man in the flannel shirt picking out his Christmas tree. “Son, please don’t take the ‘Christ’ out of Christmas,” requests the nice lady at the checkout, bagging my handful of mistletoe. “Remember that JESUS is the REASON for the SEASON” blares the sign on the front door of the holiday center, which is peddling wreaths and ornaments to the faithful. Decorated trees, mistletoe, wreaths, the colors of red and green, caroling: all unassailable symbols of the Christmas season for so many of us. Yet, for many others walking the chilly streets of Dayton this December, these same symbols harken back to a bygone era: half-forgotten pagan rituals from earlier millennia and celebrations that have taken place annually since long before the birth of Christ.

The winter solstice has held a fascination for us since our species first learned to walk upright. Astronomically speaking, the winter or hibernal solstice, also known as midwinter in some cultures, marks the shortest day of the year, and therefore the longest night, and it occurs in December for those of us north of the equator. Correspondingly, the event arrives in June for our neighbors down under. As the Earth follows its annual orbit around the sun, the polar hemisphere that faces away from the sun—thereby receiving the weakest of the sun’s life-sustaining rays—is experiencing winter. In six months, that same hemisphere will face toward the sun and experience summer. This is because the Earth’s two hemispheres face opposite directions along the planet’s tilted axis, which stretches from north pole to south pole. Once past the winter solstice, the days begin to grow longer, and we know spring is on the way.

Human beings, being the incredibly superstitious and imaginative lot that we are, have taken the simple, annual, scientific, astronomical occurrence of the winter solstice and steeped it in myth, legend, and magic. It’s easy to see how people would make connections to the concepts of rebirth, resurrection, and fertility, hence the annual celebrations. A variety of cultures and religions worldwide celebrate the season in a number of ways, and while the Miami Valley—like the rest of Ohio and the whole United States—seems determined to lay a thick quilt of Christian theology and symbolism over everything at this time of year, the plain truth of the matter remains: there are as many ways to say, “Happy Holidays,” as there are nations on the planet. New ones emerge all the time, to the consternation of many.

“Unfortunately, I think it’s a sad mindset when people look at things like, ‘If it’s not my way, then it’s wrong,’” says Lisa Bennett, Media Director for the Dayton Pagan Coalition. “If more people were to stop and appreciate the beauty in other paths, other people, and other cultures, we’d have a lot less hatred and a lot less intolerance in the world.”

“Rise. And walk with me,” said the Ghost of Christmas Past to Ebenezer Scrooge. “Walk with me, say I, and let’s look at some less familiar seasonal traditions, habits, and beliefs.”

SATURNALIA is perhaps the best known of the many festivals celebrated by the ancient Romans, and it is still celebrated to this day. Held in honor of the Roman god Saturn, it traditionally took place on Dec. 17 of the Julian calendar. In later years, it was expanded, with the celebration lasting through Dec. 23. Saturn, the Roman version of the Greek deity Kronos, was the youngest of the Titans and his festival was celebrated with sacrifices performed by priests at the Temple of Saturn. Following the sacrifices, a public banquet was held, followed by private gift-giving and more partying. The free, carnival-like atmosphere overturned traditional Roman social norms—gambling was permitted, and masters provided table service for their slaves (this ended after the festival, of course). The poet, Catullus, called it “the best of days,” schools were closed and exercise regimens suspended. Courts were not in session, so no justice was administered, and no declarations of war could be made—Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un, take note. After the public rituals, families continued celebrating at home, often by sacrificing a suckling pig, the traditional offering to an earth deity.

YULE, or Yuletide, is an ancient pagan festival that is still celebrated by the Germanic people. Scholars have connected the original celebration to the god Odin (that’s Mr. Wednesday to you fans of “American Gods”). Early Christians are credited with later reformulating the holiday, adopting many of its traditions and renaming the festival “Christmastide.” Terms with an etymological equivalent to Yule are still used in Nordic countries for Christmas and other holidays of thi s season. Today Yule is also used—to a lesser extent—in the English-speaking world as a synonym for Christmas, as we all know. Present-day Christmas traditions such as the Yule log and Christmas caroling stem directly from the pagan celebration of Yule, and the similarities are so strong that some evangelical and fundamentalist Christians now refuse to celebrate Christmas at all, in the belief that they are inadvertently furthering a much older pagan tradition, which they believe would be displeasing to their God.

ALBAN ARTHAN AND THE DRUIDS — Every year during the winter solstice, thousands of people, many of them Druids, gather at the monoliths of Stonehenge, near Wiltshire, England, to celebrate the season and watch the sun rise above the stones, continuing a tradition that has gone on for centuries. Although they didn’t build the structure, the Druids held ceremonies there and Stonehenge has come to be identified with the ancient Druid religion and with the solstice itself. In Druidic tradition, ‘Alban Arthan’ is the name of the winter solstice festival. The name derives from the writings of Iolo Morganwg, a 19th-century radical poet, and the phrase translates to ‘The Quarter of the Little Bear.’ On the day of the solstice, druids would historically gather together by the oldest mistletoe-clad oak tree. The Chief Druid would then make his way to the mistletoe to cut it with a golden sickle, while below other Druids would hold open a sheet to catch it and make sure none of it touched the ground. With no thoughts of kissing in mind, the early Christian church actually banned the use of mistletoe in celebrations because it was so closely associated with Druids.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say our festivals were taken away from us, they were just appropriated by Christianity,” says Eric Patterson, Senior Druid of the 6th Night Grove here in Dayton. “In Christianity, they’re talking about the Son. Or the Sun, as it were—it’s all a matter of opinion. Unfortunately, it’s reached a level now where I don’t think they’re even celebrating Christ anymore, they’re celebrating the dollar. Within the last 40 years, it all has become so commercialized.” The 6th Night Grove is a chartered grove of the national organization ADF, or Ár nDraíocht Féin: A Druid Fellowship. ADF is a non-profit religious organization dedicated to the study and further development of modern day Neo-druidism. In Modern Irish, Ár nDraíocht Féin means “our own magic”.

Patterson, who has been involved with the ADF for the last eight years, explains, “It is a religious organization…they meet all the criteria here in the US and abroad. They have a standard liturgy, so to speak, a process by which we celebrate high days and the Wheel of the Year. All of our local rites are public, so you can see the same kind of format each time. We do a solstice rite each year, which is a high day rite. ADF uses the Indo-European pantheon- Celtic, Greek, Roman, but 6th Night is a Celtic-eclectic pantheon. We’ve done Vedic rites, we’ve done Greek and Roman rites, but we kind of stick to the Celtic rites. ADF specifically is very welcoming to all paths of life,” continues Patterson. «We’re not exclusive to any one way—I’ve been involved in any number of neo-pagan or pagan or occult organizations throughout my life, and this just happens to be where I am right now. I get a lot out of this because it builds community. Anything that betters your life is good for you.”

KWANZAA, a week-long celebration observed from Dec. 26 to Jan. 1 in the United States and around the world, honors African heritage in African-American culture, culminating with a feast and gift-giving. Kwanzaa, created by Maulana Karenga, an African-American author and activist, was first celebrated in 1966–1967. The word “Kwanzaa” is derived from the Swahili phrase ‘matunda ya kwanza’, which means «first fruits of the harvest.» The holiday was established to help African-Americans stay connected with their African cultural and historical heritage by encouraging the study of African traditions and Nguzo Saba, or the «seven principles of African Heritage.

HINDU — The Indian Lohri is celebrated every year in winter in the northern hemisphere (summer in the southern hemisphere). Lohri is its name in Punjab, but it’s celebrated in many regions. Lohri may take its name from, Loi, the wife of Saint Kabir, or it may take its name from the word, “loh,” warmth of the fire. One of the most popular festivals of Hinduism, it spiritually signifies an end to barrenness and struggle.

There’s no doubt we’ve omitted mention of other solstice themed celebrations and/or rituals rooted in belief systems and ideologies the world over. In case we didn’t mention one of your favorites, we especially apologize because we cannot resist mentioning a couple of nontraditional favorites amongst us at the Dayton City Paper.

FESTIVUS — No collection of winter solstice celebrations would be complete without mentioning Festivus, “…for the rest of us?” First mentioned in the 1997 airing of “The Strike,” the 166th episode of the NBC sitcom, Seinfeld, Festivus was created by Dan O’Keefe, a series writer who swears that his family celebrated Festivus when he was a child. Festivus is a secular holiday, celebrated on Dec. 23, and it serves as a welcome alternative to the pressures and commercialism of the Christmas season. With its annual Airing of Grievances, Feats of Strength, and Festivus dinner, the holiday continues to receive acolytes every year and has taken on a life of its own outside the Seinfeld-television universe.

And though it doesn’t include celebration during the winter solstice in particular, we cannot resist mentioning PASTAFARIANISM, or religious practice of members of the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster or FSM. FSM is a religious and social movement promoting a lighthearted, satirical, tongue-firmly-in-cheek view suggesting modern faith and religion fosters a somewhat negative influence on the human race and the global community. This monotheistic church, which takes as its deity the Flying Spaghetti Monster, opposes the ideas of creationism and intelligent design, and also opposes any teaching of religion in U.S. public schools. While Pastafarianism is recognized as an actual religion in countries like the Netherlands and New Zealand, earlier this year a federal judge in US District Court denied a prisoner’s right to practice Pastafarianism by ruling FSMism is not a religion but a “parody.” Stephen Cavanaugh, a prisoner in a Nebraska state penitentiary, had sued the state in 2014 seeking $5 million in damages for “deep emotional, psychological, and spiritual pain” over the alleged breach of his right to worship the Flying Spaghetti Monster, otherwise known as “His Flying Noodliness.” Pastafarians have often been featured in the media for their habit of wearing ceremonial spaghetti strainers on their heads for driver’s license photos, as exemplified by Jim Bucher on our cover.

I ho-ho-hope you’ve enjoyed our solstice-themed wintery walk along this avenue of lesser-known ideologies. There’s no doubt we’ve omitted mention of other solstice themed celebrations and/or rituals rooted in belief systems and ideologies the world over. And we apologize in case this report includes inaccuracies. We did our best. In case we didn’t mention one of your favorites, we especially apologize because we cannot resist mentioning a couple of nontraditional favorites amongst us at the Dayton City Paper. While I have, admittedly, not mentioned this nation’s more mainstream religions of Islam, Judaism, or Christianity, I omitted them purposely, as information about these popular belief systems is sufficiently available to the curious. Similarly, the local organization chapters of the lesser known faiths mentioned, are easily found, most approachable, and the leaders are very willing to discuss their beliefs and traditions.

Enjoy the upcoming Winter Solstice, and I wish you nothing but health and success in the coming year. From all of us at the Dayton City Paper, “Happy Holidays!”

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Tim Walker is 51 and a writer, DJ, and local musician. He lives with his wife and their two children in Dayton, where he enjoys pizza, jazz, and black T-shirts. Reach DCP freelance writer Tim Walker at TimWalker@DaytonCityPaper.com

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