Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Shamanism and Christmas?
I’ll be honest: I never liked Christmas.
When growing up, I always found there was a huge inconsistency between the holiday movies or television shows and what was actually going on at home. It seemed passive/aggressive behaviors, addictions, regrets and jealousy were always more predominant during the holidays. Whatever was left unresolved all year through was sure to be triggered during the family festivities. No matter how much we hoped for the perfect Bing Crosby white Christmas, we always ended up with something more like Roseanne Barr’s dysfunctional Christmas. Lets face it the New Year just wasn’t a New Year if we didn’t have something to apologize for. I learnt real young there was no such thing as “being able to handle one’s liquor.” No matter how nice we decorated our home or how fancy we dressed up for Christmas dinner, we never seemed to embody the love, the generosity of heart and soul that we saw in the holiday, American films.
A little over a decade ago, I remember sarcastically telling EC, a Passamaquoddy traditional elder, teacher and friend who simply loved the holidays that I adopted the Bear as my Christmas totem because I could literally hibernate December through January. EC laughed at my statement. I think it was at that point EC gave herself the challenge to “change my mind and get me to like the holidays.”
Believe me when I say it was not a small task.
I was a long time cynic when it came to the Holidays. At the time, I believed people liked the idea of Christmas; but had no clue how to create the essence of love, joy and peace in their lives. Raised Catholic, I understood the day was meant to celebrate the birth of Jesus; but aside from singing in the choir and participating at the midnight mass I didn’t understand the value of many of the other traditions.
• Why eat turkey?
• Why decorate the house with lights? Or decorate a conifer with ornaments?
• What about the advent calendar?
• Why exchange gifts?
• And how do Santa, the reindeers and the North Pole come into the picture?
Since paganism was basically a taboo at the convent we were never told that many of the Christian traditions were based on pagan rituals and beliefs. I was glad to finally get some answers to many of my questions once I explored Religious Studies in University. By then, I had moved out of my parent’s home and had the room to experiment with different perspectives. Both ET and I agreed there was no use celebrating the holidays if we didn’t feel the celebration vibe.
It was the beginning of something new.
Gifts may have been great when I was a child; but as a teenager all I remember is listening to adults argue about money; and feeling pressured to give when their hearts really weren’t in it. Money, jealousy, resentment, competition, bitterness, intimidation and humiliation were words that became synonymous with the holiday season no matter the subliminal messages about love, hope and peace. Why were we spending so much time organizing family dinners and Christmas parties when we had nothing charitable to say about anyone?
One of the first most memorable Christmas was in 2001 when EC invited G and I to spend Christmas in November at her house, in Back Bay, N.B. EC had invited us for the holidays; but we couldn’t make it for Dec.25th because of family commitments.
“No problem,” she said, “if you can’t make it for Christmas – then, Christmas will make it for you.”
EC taught us to cultivate the holiday spirit all year through. It wasn’t just a “motto” for her it was palpable attitudes, behaviors and actions. As far as she was concerned you could celebrate Christmas any time … All EC needed to become contagious with holiday spirit was some country music, some Christmas decorations, a special holiday meal and people ready to sing, dance and be merry. She gave us (E, me and the kids as well as some close friends) the recipe we needed to bring our little group together under a new perspective of what it means to celebrate the holidays. Rather than waiting until the last minute to ask ourselves the question: “What are we doing for Christmas?” We spent every New Moon for approximately two years discussing the topic of “celebration.”
• What does it mean “to celebrate?”
• What do we consider crucial to a celebration?
These questions seemed so much simpler for kids to answer.
I know KT and CT came up with the most amazing responses; all of which literally guided us to invent new traditions and organize the most magical holidays for years (all through the kids’ childhood and adolescence). What we understood with Spirit and EC’s help as well as the Medicine Wheel teachings is that celebrations are meant to express gratitude towards the gifts (abundance, beauty, learning and healing) we receive all year through from the dream time, the cosmos, the ancestors and the Great Spirit etc…
“If you can somehow manifest how you felt; or what you’ve seen or sensed through these gift-related-experiences you’ve received through the year,” EC explained to us while pulling out some coconut-covered-chocolates from the clothes dryer, “then, you can call a dinner, a party or a moment – a CELEBRATION!”
‘Til this day I can’t come across a Christmas tree without thinking of EC’s butterfly and dream catcher filled pine tree. In EC’s presence you literally laughed all the time. She had a knack for making people giggle. It was the way she told stories and the way she looked at life. I never laughed so much then on that November Christmas day. My cheeks and jaw literally hurt for days. We had such a great time that when it came time to leave none of us could find the words to say “goodbye.”
The following Christmas in 2002 EC had already passed away.
We were in Fredericton for the Winter Solstice then… We gathered at RT’s place and surprisingly, we were a pretty good number of traditionalists. While we drummed and dreamt at dusk many of us felt watched by the Forest Spirits. I remember how MH talked about “the ancestors smiling over us because we were honoring the ways of nature and the stars again.”
I felt blessed, humbled and touched as I often do in such circumstances when I can listen to the words of elders and Medicine people. Unlike Christmas, the Solstice was about being aware of the dark nights and our journey towards learning and healing. Magic, synchronicities and phenomenon were definitely part of the experience. After an afternoon of story telling; teachings; ritual and ceremony we ate together and marveled over the most incredible Christmas tree. RT had creatively decorated a huge pine tree; which was almost 9 feet tall with beautiful white dream catchers and white ribbons. It was no doubt a great symbol of how we can bring together First Nation creativity and culture with Christian tradition. It gave a different twist to the idea of a “white Christmas”.
To be honest, it took years of personal experiences, exploration and growth before our family was able to come up with our own holiday traditions. We asked ourselves the question: “What works for us and what doesn’t?” Ironically in our family (ET, the kids and I) I’m the only one who was brought up as a practicing Catholic. When the kids were infants and toddlers we actually went to Christmas mass with my parents. The more we committed to the teachings of the Medicine Wheel and chose to live a shamanic life the more we understood it made no sense to practice traditions; which didn’t support “our walk and our talk.” By the time CT and KT were teenagers we were celebrating the Solstice (Winter and Summer) and the Equinox (Spring and Fall) every year.
The Winter Solstice is about celebrating the end of the dark nights and making wishes for the New Year. For us it implies sharing stories about how we bravely survived the challenges of the last year, and about re-gifting (so to speak) things we no longer need from our household. If we have something in our possession for more than a year and it hasn’t served then, the Solstice is the ideal place to give it movement and share it with someone else. On Solstice evening we gather with friends and family; share a meal usually potlatch; and bring forth wishes for the New Year; which we tuck away in a medicine bundle. For some the medicine bundle has taken a modern form and is a Christmas ornament; while for others it’s the traditional red pouch filled with sacred herbs.
We build a Medicine Wheel and usually put our Christmas tree or a branch at the center of the circle where we hang our medicine bundles or “prayer bundles” (as some may call them). The gifts are left under the tree; but aren’t usually dedicated to anyone in particular. If someone feels called to a particular object then, he or she is more than welcomed to leave with it. If there is more than one person interested in a gift we always find creative and playful ways to uncover its rightful owner. We play our drums or other kinds of musical instruments all through the night. Rituals as well as ceremony often occur although they are not an absolute must. During a Solstice Circle we usually allow the moment to manifest itself. I’ve always found a Solstice celebration to be simple and beautiful.
In our family we also celebrate Christmas; but because our primary teachings are from the Medicine Wheel I stressed the notion of perspective when it came to the story of the birth of Jesus. I explained to CT and KT that we were considered “pagans” rather than Christians because of our beliefs. With indigenous dreaming we often re-enact our dreams to manifest the messages, the story line or the characters; and so to illustrate which characters we would embody in the story of the birth of Jesus I shared with the kids the story of the three Wise Men. I explained to them how Balthazar, Melchior and Caspar traveled long distances; following the star of Bethlehem; in order to find Jesus.
“Once they found Jesus” I told CT and KT, “they gave him frankincense, myrrh, and gold.”
I explained to the kids how important it was for these Kings to give valuable gifts to this poor family who had a baby in a manger. From a pagan perspective, these Kings were prophets responding to intuitive knowledge: Prophecies. They felt called to respond to natural and cosmological realities. They followed the dreaming and brought forth the message: “May all Kings fall before him.”
“We are like these Kings” I told the kids, and so every Christmas especially when they were young, we found ways to give to the poor or cater to the homeless. Whether it was through feeding the homeless or delivering sleeping bags one by one – each year we came up with ideas to embody the Kings and feed baby Jesus. I showed CT and KT how to make Christmas part of our shamanic life.
I learnt to love Christmas because it became part of the journey. Today, I count numerous (not to say an infinite amount of) phenomenal moments; which I’ve shared with family and friends. It was truly worth the time and effort to let go of the old and bring in the new. It’s a message; which is doubly important this year as Christmas falls on the Moon of Metamorphosis.
I understand today that as soon as Christmas became about love, peace and joy empirically – I was able to say: “It has meaning.” In Shamanism, we cultivate meaning and we call it: Sacredness.
P.S. The picture was taken 4 years ago when CT was in college, in music. He was part of the choir. We went to hear him sing. It was beautiful. He sang in German.