Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Shamanism and Christmas?

Jennifer Leigh Johnson: I guess I'd like to know how you and your husband incorporated Shamanism and the Solstice with Christmas traditions (if you do Christmas) while raising your kids.


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.


Suzi Smith said...

I'm so pleased you learned to love the season, lisa... and your telling of the story is lovely! I love the idea of white dreamcatchers on the tree... (hmmm... suzi starts planning for next year already, lol)

Lisa F. Tardiff said...


Thank you for your feedback.
By the way -- I love your blog on calligraphy and art with letters... Beautiful.
I've always loved calligraphy but I've never been amazing at it. You do amazing projects.
I admire your talent.


Emily said...

Thank you for sharing this story Lisa.

I am ready to create new traditions for Christmas.
I have not enjoyed Christmas for a long time. It always feels empty, and unreal.. not joyous or magical like in the movies.. and I really dislike pretending.

Plus Its a difficult time for so many people. I cant say I have ever felt overwhelmed by happiness in the air.. depression and a feeling of hopelessness yes..
I dont know how to be completely full of joy when so many people are not, there is always the universal pain.

Now I feel like I need to end this comment on a happy note.. We have your beautiful glass beaded decoration hanging on our plastic artificial tree! lol
This time next year it will hang in Montreal!

Lots of love


Anonymous said...

This year when Daemen was making his Christmas wish list, he only put 4 things on it, 3 of which were toys, and the last was to spend Christmas with me, at first I was thrown a back, because I thought to myself well of course you would spend Christmas with me, but this week, I understood what he was telling me. He asked me today what I wanted most for Christmas, and the truth is for me, the most wonderful thing about the Christmas, is spending Christmas eve with Daemen. We have a nice meal, talk about the holidays, play music, dance, and just enjoy each others company. My family, the first few years, thought it was strange, and were worried that I would be lonely for the holidays, but the truth had always been that I wanted to start creating new traditions, and memories, for MY FAMILY, and even though it is small, it is always filled with the love of the biggest family.
This year brought some money stresses, but me and Daemen agreed that next year we will make homemade gifts for everyone we feel called to. As well I get together with my fathers side of the family every boxing day, and us cousins always pick names, but I find that as the family grows, with gf/bf, and their kids, it's lost a lot of the meaning, so we will not be participating in that, and instead make a gift for the one we feel called to. This year we will be starting a few new traditions for our Christmas eve, and we are looking forward to them.
P.S( we enjoyed getting together with everyone for the solstice celebration.)

Rose said...

I often find I don't want to rush into commenting on your posts... This one more than most. The last few years F has worked part of Christmas Day and I have been a long way from my family. This year, for the first time in a long time we managed to make the trip to stay with my family, and it has been so very lovely. I had to smile when I saw a single dreamcatcher on my sisters tree and I thought of you then and your beautiful post on Christmas, so full of grace.

Hope you had a lovely holiday as well!

Lili said...

OUr family have never really had traditon as such. I always knew Xmas day would be for our own family and then we would mingle with the extension of it...
I love the idea of starting our own traditons. I would welcome those that have the xmas spirit into our celebrations.
I love your ideas of creating solstice wishes and this year for the first timeever we did this together. wE CREATED BIRD FEEDERS USING PINE CONES, SYRUP AND SEEDS ( oops caps) the kids loved doing it and so did I.

I have no idea why we eat turkey and no idea why we count down the days...advent, but we do it....and I have to remark counting down the days and hanging a star on the buttons we have each night has been really special this year...the kids have the pleasure of hanging the star on a blanket that has been made and we enjoy the process of the countdown and spending the time together cuddling whilst deciding where to place the star.
Last year I made all of our christmas gifts and I thought that eveyone kind of expected more than that so this year we did more. Its not the same. Next year I know we shall return, somewhat, to an inner, heartfelt gift...
Your post touched me.
There are a lot of times I have heard you talk of your relationshp with Daemon and I can associate with it.
For me, regardless of the gifts that have been made or bought, it has always been about the time spent with eveyone. More time shold be spent for us putting time aside for those we care for.
for me that is what Xmas is about. I have totally enjoyed the time I have spent with those I love this xmas.fOR ME mY TRADITION IS ABOUT SPENDING TIME WITH THOSE i LOVE, PLAYING GAMES AND TOUCHING THE SPIRIT OF EVERYONE PRESENT.

I am blessed

Love and Christmas greetings of joy to everyone.


Louise said...

I have always loved Christmas songs, decorations, movies. My favorite movy of all time is It's a Wondurfull Life.
Not that we had such great holiday time at my house, my parents and family played card all evening while a watched or went to my friends house when invited.
But I still love it all.
This year at Christmas the children where at their inlaws; Denis and i spent Christmas day looking at Christmas movies a pijama party for two LOL, it was great.
The soltice celebration was fantastic.