Originally published in Arthur No. 25 (Winter 2006)
THE NEW HERBALIST
By Molly Frances
The holiday commonly called Christmas brings with it general feelings of dread and depression, as well as the intrusion of traffic, crowds, family, chocolate-covered everythings, large rectangular boxes, turtlenecks, and relatives with weird hair giving even weirder gifts. Well friends, I’m here to tell you: It has nothing to do with that!
Whichever winter holiday you choose to celebrate, from the Winter Solstice on down to Kwanzaa, I think we can do it better. We can make new rituals and traditions to define what these holidays are really supposed to reflect: faith, love, and rebirth.
The recently published Pagan Christmas: The Plants, Spirits, and Rituals of Yuletide by Christian Rätsch and Claudia Müller-Ebeling (Inner Traditions Press) is a fascinating resource to explore the origins and varieties of our holiday traditions. If you thought Christmas was a time to lay low the libido and close your heart for the season, this book begs you to reconsider. Resist the mood-killing family gatherings and neutering woolen sweaters and breathe in the seductive aroma of the ages. The very spices, plants, and incense that make us cringe when encountered in uncomfortable holiday environments have been used for hundreds of years to invoke fertility, love, and magic during the winter “feast of love.” Nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, anise, saffron, ginger and vanilla were used in ancient Roman kitchens in baking and beverages, and many of these spices were considered to be aphrodisiacs. The authors instruct that “in medieval times festive meals were sprinkled to the thickness of a finger with spice powder, most often pepper, nutmeg, and cloves.” So gather the freshest ingredients you can find and get to work on those gingerbread houses, cookies, and spiced ciders to rekindle ye olde ancient holiday magic.
The greatest burden of the holiday season is of course the madness surrounding the selection of gifts, but it needn’t be this way. Why not offer your friends a bowl of steamed kale greens garnished with olive oil, lemon juice and a festive toss of dried cranberries? Tell them you offer this bowl of nutrient-rich greens to open their heart chakras. They will be so overcome by your gesture of goodwill and caring that that marshmallow santa will be thrown to the ground in favor of real nourishment. Give your beloved a pomegranate, the symbol of Aphrodite, the goddess of love. This deeply romantic gift will sweep away all previous longing for that iPod or riding lawnmower they were expecting. Traditional and modest gifts of candles, plants, and incense are often the most potent and symbolically rich. Frankincense is described in the book as stimulating feelings of intense sensual joy and, due to its THC content, can create “pharmacological effects.”
When we decorate and give gifts of green plants and flowers we are maintaining an ancient connection to faith and the hopeful message that winter will pass into spring. This is a time to celebrate the cycles of life, the light that we know will follow the dark winter days. Pagan Christmas reminds us that the Christmas tradition contains many holdovers of pagan rituals that were adopted by Christianity due to their undying presence in the popular mind. The disconnected presence of the living room tree can bounce back to a joyous significance when you consider that “pines are a symbol of immortality and resurrection. The idea that lucky children could find treasure hidden under them may come from the tree’s long history as an object of pagan worship. Like fir and spruce, the perfume of the pine needles and pine resin was considered forest incense.” The beauty of nature can thrive even in the dead of winter—or the suburban horror of Uncle Frank’s den.
Let’s not allow the manufactured and cynical distractions of the winter season to bully the magic from our thoughts. Creativity and passion can inspire us to cultivate new ideas about sharing time and and gifts with the people we love most. The authors of Pagan Christmas point out that even normally bummed-out Nietzsche would perk up in anticipation of Christmas approaching. Instead of dredging your defeated soul to the mall, pay a visit to your local farmers market and browse the bounty of the fall harvest. Spread nature’s sweetest gifts of tangerines or bags of pecans. Plant a tree in someone’s name (http://www.americanforests.org/planttrees) to celebrate the proliferation of nature. Break out of your Jello mold and create a spicy new holiday dish. And If you find yourself alone this winter, as all of us do one time or another, why not adopt a cat or dog? They will keep you warm, and if you feed them they will love you forever. Isn’t that what it’s all about?