Monday, December 25, 2006

The Keeping of Days

I'm sitting here next to a baubled, gleaming evergreen tree, with a skirt of environmentally-obliviously wrapped gifts swirling around its feet. Neither as a Quaker nor as a Pagan is this supposed to be my holiday, but here I am. And I'm _not_ wrestling with deep philosophy, so much as I am waiting for my daughter to wake up and come downstairs so we can open all the pretty boxes... Neither my desire for Pagan purity nor my Quaker leadings toward simplicity have saved me from really, really wanting to open up the presents, and the fact that my daughter is now of an age where I need to wake _her_ up to unwrap gifts is as unwelcome to me as the fact that my in-laws have the self-control and patience to eat breakfast first.

This is especially ironic given the fact that, only a few years ago, I wasn't celebrating Christmas at all.

Before my daughter reached the age where school was not to be missed, and before both my husband and I took jobs that make taking time off before a vacation week extremely fraught, our family used to celebrate the solstice itself--and I mean _on_ the solstice. We stayed up the night before--theoretically all night, though in reality, I don't think any of us ever made it that far--and we kept a candle, lit during the last hours of daylight, burning all night through as well. At sunset, we'd set up the Yule tree (which is, yeah, pretty much the same as a Christmas tree, but that's one borrowing from Christian tradition it's hard to feel shy about, since it fits so much better with Pagan mythology than with Christian...) and, for some reason which I don't think I ever understood, we got into the habit of bringing out all the dolls and stuffed animals in the house, and setting them up around the tree to keep vigil, too. I would make my family's traditional cinnamon buns and oyster stew (a pairing I could invent a Pagan iconography for, but, with your permission, I won't bother.) At sunrise, we'd heat up mulled cider, and, after waking up the earth with the loud banging of pots and pans, pour out cider to the trees, go inside, and make with the presents. Big feast later. Not too different from the Christmas traditions I grew up with, but different enough. The connections to family were there, but so was the connection to the seasonal mystery of the Pagan wheel of the year. It was an unapologetic blend. (Real, rich religious traditions are always syncretistic in the corners, anyway.)

I liked this way of celebrating quite a lot.

I especially liked, in the days after the solstice, on Christmas day, wandering around downtown in the city where I live, and seeing the streets empty and quiet--being able to hear bird song on Main Street, where traffic and crowd noises had been dominant so long. And we'd typically truck on out to a Chinese restaurant (the only places open on Christmas) for a kind of counter-celebration.

I loved the quiet of that. This time of the year really seems to need some hush, some kind of a pause in the craziness of daily life. Isn't that what winter really is?

Unfortunately, these traditions were always difficult to maintain. Peter's parents, Sheila and Ed, always join us for the vacation week, driving out all the way from Ohio. As busy college professors, it wasn't the easiest thing for them to arrive on time. Sometimes they'd miss the Solstice-night dinner. Sometimes they'd miss the Solstice morning, too. Some years, I tried to make the traditional feast foods both times--for Yule and for Christmas--and wound up exhausted. One year, I remember, I didn't do that, and Sheila and Ed celebrated _their_ holiday all on their lonesomes, opening their gifts to one another sitting in the living room on their own, and then sitting down to a rotisserie chicken afterwards. It was just too sad...

And how does _that_ way of treating one's in-laws suit a religion that emphasizes respect for the ancestors?

So we changed. We moved Yule to Christmas.

It turns out that the ancients, who learned to mark the solstices with their megaliths, didn't have such miraculous aim as I had once imagined. Maes Howe, for instance, the great chambered cairn, is in darkness for most of the year, but at sunset at the winter solstice, the rays of the setting sun make their way down the long, dark stone passage to strike directly on the back wall of the tomb. For that one moment, everything is gently and warmly illuminated by the dying and reborn sun. Which is lovely and inspiring... but it does turn out that that "moment" actually repeats over the course of several days.

Turns out, megalithic stone clocks aren't as accurate as modern quartz-movement timepieces. Go figure.

We began to celebrate on Christmas, when everyone's work gave them the day off. We left off trying to stay awake all night on solstice eve, or clanging our pots and pans at daybreak. But still we kept up the tradition of the sun candle that burned all through the night, and we even extended it, so that, in addition to lighting the candle before sunset on solstice eve, we kept a seven day candle burning right through Christmas, symbolically "moving" our holiday to join it's older/younger sister holiday.

But these last few years have been a challenge beyond even that. Given our commutes and the hours we work, Peter and I both typcially arrive at work and leave work in darkness. It has become logistically very difficult to get that sun candle lit.

This year, both Peter and I promised one another to _try_ to get home from school in time to light that candle in the sunlight. I knew that, even trying to leave early, the prep for the next day's classes would need to be done, and I might well run late, so I brought a votive candle with me to work. Alas, I could not find anything to light it with. Furthermore, we were out of seven-day candles.* Clearly, a stop at the supermarket after school was in order.

I made it out the door at the end of my work day as shadows were beginning to lengthen, and the sun's rays to shade toward gold. I made it over the mountain, across town, and into the supermarket parking lot as the sun's light took on an amber cast, and as the spindly shadows were turning amber. When I came out again, laden with lighters, candles, and gingerbread men for my advisory kids' party in two days, shadow had engulfed the parking lot, but I could just see the reddish light of the setting sun reflecting from the very top of the nearby cell-phone tower. Good enough! Diving for the votive in the cupholder of my car, I touched flame to the wick, carefully sheilded the candle from the breeze, and drove home, bearing the sunfire with me.

I reached home to learn that Peter had, in fact, been delayed at work. Good thing I'd rushed, I thought! And I brought my votive into the house, set up our altar with the seven-day candle in the cauldron.** Somehow or other, despite the rush and the stress, or maybe _because_ of it, _because_ it had been difficult and something of an ordeal, lighting that sun candle felt much more satisfying than I'd imagined it could.

I will spare you the comedy of errors that followed, except to say that it entailed finding that we lacked any clean altar cloths, that, as is traditional, our strings of lights and electric window candles were missing or burned out, and that, somehow, in the following family festival of decorations, I managed to douse the light in our sun candle. Damn. Damn, damn, damn! All that fuss, all that rushing, all that trouble--for what?!? Fortunately, while I was busy freaking out, Peter and my daughter were efficiently solving the problem for me. Flame gone out? No problem--think of where we have a perpetual flame. Stove is electric, so no help there, but--aha! Pilot light on the gas hot water heater! Voila! Peter created a long handled taper out of a screwdriver and thin little Chanuka candle, Hillary pulled out backup lights in case the 7 day got doused again, and hugged and comforted me, and, sure enough, the flame was rekindled... possibly before the wick had quite lost the last glowing ember at its tip.

The effect of all of this was, wierdly, to make Yule seem more real, and more like a family celebration, than it has in years.

And now it's Christmas morning. Breakfast is being served, my daughter is awake, and soon we'll be unwrapping our gifts to one another.

Simple it is not. But I think that perhaps there are times when confusion and complexity are an important part of the process of getting on with life.

*Those who knew us back in our coven leadership days would have been appalled. No Wiccan priest or priestess is _ever_ out of candles: we had cornered the market on inexpensive, useful candles for all occasions. Incidentally, in case you were wondering, the very best purveyors of Pagan all-occasion candles are stores that sell kosher foods. Because they also sell affordable yartzeit candles, sabbath candles, and Chanuka candles--ideal for 24 hour candle-magic, full moon circles, and short, individual rituals respectively. 7-day candles, however, are best purchased wherever Hispanic foods are sold. Marketed both to Santerians and Catholics, they are found near the tortillas in our local Stop and Shop, just as the Jewish candles are located near the jars of matzoh ball soup. Of such esoteric knowledge are the inner mysteries made.

**More esoteric mysteries: for safety's sake, a careful Witch puts any long-burning candles in the bottom of something flame-resistant. Cauldrons are excellent for this, and, frankly, not much good for anything else. Kitchen sinks and bathtubs also work well, but they lack a certain je ne sais quoi...
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