Posts Tagged ‘Christmas’
Magickal Traditions Hidden In the Mundane
It’s really rather pleasantly shocking how many customs with pagan or magickal roots are tucked amongst the seemingly Christian holiday season cheer. Indeed the entire premise of the Christmas holiday is deeply indebted to the ancient polytheistic festivals which could never quite be stamped out. And with mainstream Christmas upon us, I thought we might take a quick look at the continuing magickal trends you might not have noticed going on today and indeed throughout the holiday season and into the New Year ahead.
This Christmas, the story of the birth of the Christian semi-god Jesus Christ will be reenacted in churches and schools all over the world as part of the Nativity play. But did you know that this classic tale is actually a re-working of an even older myth concerning the Eastern deity Mithras, who also had a birthday on December 25th? The Apostle Paul, who’s version of the birth of Christ is the most heavily relied upon for the traditional Christmas story, hailed from Ephesus- a center of worship for Mithras in the later Roman Empire. His writing was highly influenced by his surroundings and thus incorporated several of the elements of the Mithras cult and birth story into his telling; including both the idea of the virgin birth and visit of the three wise men to his birth site (in a cave vs. a stable). Indeed it is likely that the early church fathers cast Jesus’s birthday in the winter to take advantage of the pre- pagan winter festivities in the first place.
The Eastern Star associated with the Nativity story, and its derivative decorative value over the holidays is likewise an element of older cults which was refashioned to suit monotheistic needs. Intriguingly, some of its greatest usage is attached to ancient mother goddess cults, including that of the goddess Asherah: the oft forgotten wife of the god Yahweh ~ the original version of the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim God celebrated on Christmas. Many other nature symbols, like snowflakes and poinsettias, which are also associated with the holidays were likewise used in older pagan cults. None more so than mistletoe. Added into the Christmas mythos through its Germanic and Norse usage during winter festivals, it is linked inevitably to the Norse gods through its appearance in the myth of Baldr, the dying god of Viking myth. Following a prophecy detailing Baldr’s impending death, his mother extracts promises from all of the plants and creatures of the world but forgets about the lowly mistletoe tucked up in the oak trees. And so when the mistletoe is unwittingly tricked into stinging Baldr at the behest of the trickster god Loki, the sting is fatal and Baldr is committed to the Afterlife until the end of the world (Ragnarok) when he will emerge to lead the new world order. The theme of the dying god appears over and over again throughout world mythology, indeed the story of Jesus Christ itself represents a ‘dying god’ myth. The re-use of mistletoe as part of the Christmas festival is therefore most fitting indeed.
Also stemming from northern European pagan traditions are the Yule log and Christmas ornaments. The giant Yule log was traditionally chosen to be burned on the Winter Solstice, the darkest and longest night of the year. The cheerful fire of the long burning log was intended to ward off the evil spirits that lurked in the dark. Families would gather together on this dark night both in fear of the darkness and in celebration of the upcoming new year ahead. The winter holidays were highly important in the pre-scientific world. In a time where you cannot fathom the astrological and natural reasoning behind the turning of the seasons, when all the plants die and the weather gets bad ~ you want to do everything you can to encourage a better season to come round.
Christmas ornaments, however, are perhaps the most gory of modern holiday traditions. Rumor has it that Germanic warriors would hang the heads and saddle gear of conquered foes on trees near their residence as trophies of their battle. These dark prizes eventually transitioned into more metaphorical baubles which in turn were placed on the first famous Christmas trees popularized by the Germanic Prince Albert at the court of Queen Victoria in nineteenth century England. Decorated vegetation was not however limited to Northern European traditions, decorated boughs of a variety of plants were common features of ancient Roman and Greek festivals, and were intended to both encourage the future bounty of the crops and protect the house from evil spirits.
Other household holiday decorations possess further overlooked magickal significance. Have you ever noticed how many anthropomorphic figures there are around Christmastime? Gingerbread men, snowmen, figurines of angels, the nativity characters and Santa and his crew: there are hundreds of thousands of little simulacra of people associated with the holidays. And while such representations of humanity may seem commonplace in today’s society, for thousands of years and indeed still in some cultures such things were and are forboden. From the ancient so-called Venus figurines of prehistoric Europe to the statues of the classical world, the recreation of the human form was considered sacred and powerful. Perhaps the most well known remnant of this concept are the voodoo dolls of Santeria and other Afro-Caribbean traditions. Their Christmas cousins may be just as powerful. From the helpful elf who watches over children’s good behavior to the angels atop the tree: these personifications of the human soul and spirit are no less powerful if one chooses to believe in them.
And finally, let us consider the concept of the infamous Santa Claus himself. The story of Santa is ripe with magickal elements. Ultimately, he is a semi-deity who lives in a magickal dimension on the northern fringes of the human world accompanied by a bevy of miraculous toy-making beings and flying creatures. And though the tradition of Santa is not very old in and of itself, the idea of powerful house spirits who bear gifts and good fortune goes back to the very beginning of time in almost every culture. In some cultures, particularly in Eastern Europe and Japan, these house spirits are still widely venerated in the modern world.
Ultimately, though Christmas is a monotheistic holiday. Its modern celebration is chock full of symbolism and traditions which hearken back to earlier times and brighter pagan customs. One needs only look closer to find them and celebrate their wonder.
Black Bags and Wrapping Paper: Magickally Warding off Evil One Tinsel Bow and Strip of Scotch Tape at a Time
I’ve been unpacking my suitcases the last few days and am bemused by how many plastic shopping bags I acquired over the past three months of excavation out in the deserts of the Middle East. And while the plastic bags from the cities of Jordan do often follow the same Safeway, Target, boutique store X model; the bags from the smaller stores, and especially the stores out in the boondocks middle of nowhere (like where the dig I work with is based): are all black. No logo, no design, no nothing. Just black. Initially I had thought this was a question of economy. That some black bag producing mini-wonder had cornered the Middle Eastern bag market. But actually, it turns out, it is mostly a question of superstition and folk magick.
The black bags of Jordan are not simply bags. They are a practical device which also wards off evil spirits and bad intentions. They are modern pieces of protection magick practiced by a living culture.
Local superstition holds that if someone were to see what you had purchased (i.e. if you were just carrying it around or used a more see-through type of bag), their envious Evil Eye could curse your purchase. And so when you went to drink your soda or use your shampoo, the bad luck cast upon the item would transfer onto you for having utilized it. The black bag keeps your purchases secret, safe from the nefarious Evil Eye which so haunts the Eastern Mediterranean imagination and customs.
It’s bad enough when You use the cursed object, but its deemed particularly bad form in Jordanian culture to pass on any jinxed purchases. And thus, when you present a gift to your friends, neighbors, or in the case of this past season: your local awesome Department of Antiquities representative; you promptly hand over your gift still in its black bag, and just after you enter their home but before you are introduced to the rest of the household in the ubiquitous social room of their house. The black bag keeps the evil energy of onlookers at bay while outside, but once inside, a quick opening of the present at the doorway is still necessary, lest other guests watch you unwrap the gift and curse it in the tiny window remaining before ownership is firmly transferred.
The formality of the black bag social customs initially struck me as quite a deliciously bizarre facet of modern Jordanian culture. But then it occurred to me that really, western culture is no different. We just wrap our presents in much more expense, even more highly stylized formats. Birthdays and the long list of fabulous winter holidays up for celebration (we do them all in my family) are not complete without some well-wrapped presents. And while much of the importance of the wrapping is placed on the idea of keeping the gift a surprise, realistically: the tradition of and psychology behind wrapping gifts is literally all wrapped up (pardon the pun) in that same idea of controlling the kinds of thought focused onto the gift. Once its unwrapped, the gift is open to all kinds of judgment: from the recipient and from those at the unwrapping. Let’s face it, it’s hard not to immediately judge a gift once given: Was it the right gift for that person? Did the recipient give an equally appropriate gift back to the giver or did they spend more or less money on their gift? Isn’t that just like what so and so got for such and such? All of these swarms of thoughts are out there, presumably affecting the now naked gift. It makes sense to keep it under wraps for as long as possible, just to keep all the potentially negative energies at bay.
It is almost conceivable that the brightly colored, intricate wrapping paper which is used for gifts in the western world adds some good energy to the gift. In such situations where ‘it’s the thought that counts,’ surely a thought that comes with spangly, glittering wrapping paper and bows counts a bit more. Be it stupidly expensive designer wrapping paper or cleverly done up comic books (hipster style!): that bit of extra energy that goes into a lovely wrapping job, that extra dollop of creative good will may well be a form of psychological magick in and of itself. Not only does it feel good to give beautifully looking gifts, it feels good to get them. If the energy of the gift can be altered by the wrapping, it makes sense that the joy of a well-wrapped, well intentioned gift would invoke good energy just as much as it protects against the envious Evil Eye.
So ladies and gentleman, bust out your mini-baubles, your ribbon fringers, your fancy labels, and colored tape. And send out positive energy as you wrap your presents this holiday season. It adds a little bit more magick to every gift you give!
P.S. It’s good to be back in the states (and with working internet!) More blogs on the past few months of archaeology and anthropology-tastic travel, as well as a slew of holiday topics and History of Witches in the Western World promos coming soon! So watch this space! xxx
It’s that time of year again: the Christmas carols are blasting in all the stores, Santa Claus is displayed in windows, and the holiday party invitations are rolling in. And despite all the celebratory diversity in the world today, what with Hanukkah, Yule, Kwanza, the recently-past Diwali, and a slew of other fabulous holidays also taking place in the winter: it’s easy to be consumed by the predominantly monotheistic marketing of the winter season. But it’s also easy to find the magickal and classically pagan traditions lurking beneath the thin veneer of the monotheistic Christmas holiday. From the origins of Christmas tree ornaments to the seemingly purely Biblical story of the nativity itself: these traditions come from ancient pagan times and older conceptions of magick and celebration. And if you look closely, you can see these lovely little esoteric gems sparkling through the already glittering displays of baby Jesus, Christmas elves, wrapping paper, and fake snow.
Case in point: the Nutcracker Ballet. I recently had the chance to observe the Fox Theater’s performance of the Nutcracker Suite in Atlanta, Georgia. For many, the Nutcracker is intrinsically linked with Christmas. Every year hundreds of theater companies around the world perform a variant of the classic Tchaikovsky ballet for children and adults alike. Though familiar with the bare bones of the story, I was much surprised to see how little the story actually had to with Christmas-Christmas. And how much more it had to do with the wider realm of Russian and Germanic faerie tale archetypes and the cosmic theory of different dimensions of being, an element shared with many mythological traditions around the world.