The holiday season isn’t over yet, not with New Year’s Day in a week, but three holidays involving the return of the light (literal or figurative), the giving of gifts, and the copious intake of sugar and fat have concluded. This December, I’ve put up one tree and decorated it, and helped with another. I’ve exchanged presents with friends. I’ve made it to a few holiday parties and sung carols. I’ve made a sweet potato and cranberry side dish and a cake for a holiday dinner. I’ve given out foil-wrapped chocolate coins for prosperity in the year to come. I’ve sent cards and received a few. So, which of these activities did I do for Yule and which for Christmas?
Chocolate coins notwithstanding, nothing in my upbringing, cultural background, or current religious preferences has ever led me to celebrate Hanukkah. But my Yule traditions are pretty much the Christmas traditions I grew up with. Sure, I know that there are differences between the two holidays, and I have an interest in those astronomical and astrological associations of the winter solstice that just aren’t there for Christmas. All that, and it’s still hard for me to not think of Yule as “Christmas Lite.” I think about this a bit every year, but this year a Jewish acquaintance asked what I’d be doing for the solstice. I listed out my proposed activities (very few of which I actually did, but that’s another tale), and wondered if she was thinking, And this is different from Christmas, how? Confusion on this point would be understandable. If I’m in the same city as friends or family, I end up celebrating both Yule and Christmas. It’s so easy: no one I spend the holidays with does a Christmas that’s purely religious any more than my Yule observances are, so it’s about sharing those traditions that I copied over to Yule. And if we all want to do the same thing and we want to do it together, then the sheer gravitational pull of Christmas means we’ll be doing everything on December 24 and 25.* Since it seems likely that I’m going to be doing this for some years to come, it would probably behoove me to have a more positive attitude toward the whole thing.
During all this, I wandered over and read Jason Pitzl-Waters’s post for On Faith about the winter holidays being for everyone. Judging from the comments, I’m not the only person who celebrates them both. Reading through those comments, I was reassured that other Pagans are hanging onto their traditions as well. And the comments got me thinking: sure, Christians probably copied things like decorating trees from Pagans, although maybe it was more like newly-converted Christians all those centuries ago just kept doing what they’d done every year for the winter holidays. Now doesn’t that sound pretty much like what I’ve been doing, only in the other direction? Because we can all say those “Christmas” traditions are really Pagan, but…okay, I gather most of us aren’t from Pagan families who went underground for generations, carrying the old traditions forward. We didn’t learn these traditions as Pagan practices, we learned them as Christmas traditions—then we relabeled them when we switched religions. But somewhere under all the labels, they’re just the things we enjoy doing at the holidays, whichever ones they are, which keep us close to our loved ones. Heck, if everything I do for Yule feels like a Christmas tradition, and sounds like a Christmas tradition when I describe it to non-Pagans, what could I do that would only seem like a Yule tradition? And would I want to do it, or would it be the sort of thing you do on principle and not because you actually enjoy it or have any sentimental attachment to it?
*I freely admit that having four fewer days to get your holiday preparations done is a drawback to celebrating the solstice.