Having Not a Christmas Tree

“Blessed Midwinter, my friends, keep we now a vigil for the sun.” I am alone when I speak this aloud, because there is no one else save my roommate around me who keeps the eight holidays of Paganism (and he has fallen dead asleep), and no one else nearby who celebrates it in the same way I do. I am speaking to spirits unseen because there is no one to whom I could wish a blessed Midwinter.

I’ve flippantly stated that this time of year makes me uncomfortable. Last year, I escaped Christmas by hiding in a Jewish neighborhood in New York. I think my reasons bear expounding upon, the reasons I felt the need to flee. This year it is not different, except maybe they strain harder on my nerves. This year I am working in retail.

I am a craftsperson in every sense I can think of. I must carefully craft my response from all my skill at the craft of wordsmithing, to cover my association with the “Craft of the Wise.” Every transaction from open to close: “Merry Christmas.” This sounds different from well-wishing on my ears; there is nothing merry about it when my response is forced. There is an assumption in it: we are all Christians here, right? Right? “Happy Holidays!” I said once or twice. “No! Merry Christmas,” and there is spittle in the hiss. Why is it so threatening, to even half-heartedly acknowledge that other faiths exist?

“What are you doing for Christmas?” It’s a loaded question. I am walking in a mine field. I lie. “Oh, not much. I’m going to spend it with family.” “What did you get for them?” The real answer is nothing. Gifts feel strange, this time of year. But I will craft another lie, keep up the status quo.

Can I get Midwinter’s eve and the day after off from work? Will I have to work back to back with no sleep to keep the vigil? Yes, I am able to reserve the day, this year. I can sleep after I greet the dawn with an orange offered in my hand to the disk of the sun as it creeps over the horizon. I do not pretend this is a unique dilemma of being a Pagan; too many Jewish friends have been accorded no consideration for the High Holidays. And I’ve heard a response to these complaints, too. It is not very sympathetic. “Well you were the one who chose to go against everything that’s normal. Deal with it.”

I am a Pagan today because that is where my soul rests easy. I have no better answer than that, but yes, it is in some ways, I suppose, a choice, so far as needing to belong to a faith which heals one’s own soul is a choice, or that the habit of breathing through one’s nose is a choice, or the need to make sense of the world around you is a choice for most. It’s the same kind of choice as being a Christian– it is the soul’s answer. If I must justify being a Pagan to the Christian who asks, why does not the Christian have to justify their faith to me? I know the answer. I know you know it, too.

I have been a Pagan since my fifteenth year. I wrote a year ago of my “homecoming” as a teenager (as some Pagans think of their conversion). I’ve spent almost half my life in a tradition which doesn’t think of things in the ways I learned to take for granted as a child. I was born into atheism, but I was still part of the mainstream, still part of the Christian majority, in that it was Christmas, and I celebrated it.

As a wishy-washy atheist, my experience of American atheism was to just go along with the flow of consumerism, and Christmas was simply a thing which one celebrated. It meant presents. It signified winter. There was a fat man in a suit of red velvet. There was no church-going to contextualize it until I hit eleven. There were no rituals that I could see at the time that encapsulated the idea of “sacred” or “holy,” though now I would say “dinner” is ritual, “balloons under tree” is ritual, and so is the gift-giving dance… but I didn’t see these things then. I could eat anything placed in front of me that I wasn’t too finicky to handle, as I had no dietary restrictions based on religious law or spiritual conviction. I was a part of what people called “normal.” Given things are not often questioned. Normal is unspoken.

But here in this country as a Pagan, I am shut out of the “normal” that once embraced me, and it is cold outside those arms. I learned very quickly what it is to lose a privileged status (it is privilege to be able to assume everyone else is like you; it is privilege to be able to expect to be greeted “properly” on the right days and in the right season). It hurt. It was very easy to find myself the target in conversation of bullying. I was the “crazy Pagan.” I took the name as my own, self-deprecating, “I’m the crazy Pagan.” I think they found me threatening… Is it that my presence made people consider that there were folk in the world who didn’t do the same things they did? That people worshiped differently than the way that they were taught to worship, people who did things other than what they learned is “right?” Perhaps that is its core.

After digesting all these thoughts, I am still a craftsperson, and I have crafted my responses carefully at work. I do not know who among my customers is Buddhist. Jewish. Muslim. Pagan. Christian. Atheist. There is no way to know unless they wear an outward sign, mark it for the world to see… mark it for the world, and in turn, for the world to know what that mark means. I never say “Merry Christmas,” now. I don’t cop out to feign a glossy multicultural glow and bubble “Happy Holidays.” No. Instead I tell them this: “Have an excellent day.” And I mean it, every time it leaves my lips.

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