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A Heathen's Approach to the Holidays
Article ID: 14887
Age Group: Adult
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Author: Ehsha Apple
Posted: December 25th. 2011
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I find that the best part of the holiday season is gauging my progress in regard to the harvest wheel. In the fall I like to stop for a minute and thump the melons. Find out which one to reseed next year. Take a look at the garden and see what was worth the trouble – and what wasn’t. (You should know that this year, I had a garden that took a lot more than it gave – though it did give me more than many of my neighbors’. There’s a lot of that going around. I’ve had some culling out to do here.) By winter, it’s time to check provisions and make sure we didn’t overindulge in the first portion of the dark half. It’s like my momma, half-Creek, born to sharecroppers in North Alabama, always said, “Can’t never tell how dark it’s gonna get ‘til you’re in it.”
This kind of yearly evaluation helps me thin out the herd, so to speak. My ancestors, both European and Native American, knew the benefit of keeping populations manageable. Animals, for which winter did not bode well, were slaughtered in sacrifice. It’s symbolic of course; Gods don’t need dead sheep. This kept the natural resources accessible to those animals from which human benefit will be obtained come spring. Because we can’t hang on to everything, it’s best to have off with the resource drainers. Like my daddy always said, “If that mare ain’t thrown a foal by now, she ain’t gonna.”
Because I seem to be bred to it, let me make an extended metaphor. Let me start with a few words about the traditions surrounding blótir (Heathen sacrifice) and its relationship to harvest cycle. Besides, one of the most important parts of Heathen ethics, to me, is remembering to take everything with a grain of salt. Not only does life taste better with seasoning, it’s always good not to take ourselves too seriously.
1.) The blót is a gift intended for the gods and is symbolic. This is religious. It is separate from magickal galdr. I’ll save the differentiation for another article, if you don’t mind. Blótir is made to gods, to Elves (a race of powerful and beautiful beings) in Álfablót, to the disir (benevolent female spirits who controlled Wyrd) in Dísablót. There are “mediators” that are not unlike Angels, spirit guides, and intercessory pantheonic-gods.
As a Heathen, for me, gift-giving, worship, and kinship are rather tied-up in each other like a Gordian knot. If I give you a gift, you are my kin. If you are my kin, I will undoubtedly give you gifts.
Both are a form of worship. I’m not worshiping *you* mind you, I’m worshiping the gods and paying tribute to my ancestors by obeying the rules and assuring the prosperity of my kinfolk.
A note about Heathenism: Many people misunderstand Heathenry or Odinism as a racist movement. The truth of the matter is that when considering “kin, ” many Heathens look to “affinities” rather than actual agnatic ancestry. Those who don’t, in my opinion, place too much value in the past and not enough value in the present and future. Don’t get me wrong, I value my lineage. I know it well; I have their names inscribed in my memory, I visit their graves and have rubbings of their headstones and some earth from our family cemetery.
2.) Gebo is one of the most important laws of Heathenry: a gift demands a gift. Something for nothing and free-entitlement are not Heathen paradigms. Neither is “demanding” the gods. If you have something in your garden, out in your pastures, hanging around in your social circle, eating out of your crockpot, that isn’t giving back at least as much as it’s taking, it needs to be culled out. That’s not to say that it has to reciprocate in kind. As a matter of fact, it’s often better to “share” those things that the other has not. For instance, if I give you flour for baking, it’s because I have flour for baking. I don’t need you to give me sugar in return. That actually makes no sense.
I do not expect human beneficiaries to be as reciprocal as gods. On the contrary. I’m just cynical enough to expect humans to take more than they give. Sure, I have unequal relationships where I give more than I get – from that relationship. But the gods replenish me where humans fall short. The gods give back; often humans often do not. It is here that I rely on Wyrd. I know that I know that I know that I am as blessed as I am in my life based on the blessings I have given to others. If I were selfish or parsimonious, I would expect to have financial troubles; if I were withholding in regard to affection, I would expect to find myself either alone or surrounded by people who are only interested in exploitation of my time and resources. Gift-giving, which some people save only for Yuletide, is a year-round thing for me. If you know me, you can attest to the truth of this statement.
3.) Likewise, the quality of a gift given defines the quality of that which is received in return. Using the metaphor begun above, what I most likely need in return for three cups of sugar is a little yeast or a pinch of salt. And while I may have loads of flour, enough to give away, I only need a little yeast and a little salt. So amount given in return is not the point either. The point is the quality. Please don’t give me dead yeast in return for flour. This has nothing to do with monetary value, by the way. We all know that well-thought-out, handmade gifts are far more valuable than mass-market sweat-shop goods.
If we wait until we have almost nothing left to give before we decide to share – does that make any sense? Like our ancestors who believed in the last sheave (or the “last man” in Celtic lore) , there is something to that last bit of life remaining in the field. It’s sacred. Cutting the last sheave is bad luck because it is an act of oferm – prideful, or at least selfish; to take the last for yourself in a communal society is detrimental to those around you. Cutting the last sheave should be communal.
Further, because of the horseplay, which is common to ensue after the last sheave is harvested, the last sheave of your life’s energy should be cut with someone you trust. When I feel like I have little left to give, I don’t hoard it; I throw a party. You’d be amazed at the stores of energy a supportive crowd can bring. Supportive being the operative word. This is not the time to surround yourself with vampires.
4.) In a Heathen blót, the sacrificial mead or wine is passed around so that the energy of each member of the community could symbolically pass into the material sacrifice before it is poured out in libation. This is where the tradition of passing gifts around a circle (like at a baby-shower) is derived. When we pass a gift, our intangible vigor and tributes are symbolically passed into the tangible item. Thus the gift becomes communal.
To refrain from physically contacting a sacrificial item or a secular gift (say, at that baby shower) is to refrain from sharing your quintessence and blessings. In a Heathen environment (and many other Pagan environments) , this would be an affront. Can you imagine saying, “No thanks, ” to a peace pipe or refraining from toasting a new bride and groom? It’s like that.
When the ones we love are blessed with good fortune, this should be symbolically passed around the social circle so that a little of our blessings can be added to the experience.
The German language has some fabulous compound words. My favorite is: Schadenfreude, “joy at someone’s misery.” There is not really a word in English for “misery at someone’s success” aside from “jealousy” or “spite” or “envy.” Envy, we know, can ruin a soul. There’s nothing in English; but, yup, you guessed it, the German language has a beautiful compound: Gluckschmerz, “the idea of being in pain when someone else experiences luck.” If we can’t derive joy from someone else’s success, we won’t be granted our own successes. It’s Wyrd.
5.) The blót is a time to celebrate kinship (with both the living and with our forebears) . Especially during the long, dark season, memory becomes more important than foresight.
As for the importance of memory during the dark half of the year, we have to realize that patterns don’t change. Often, looking backward is the same as looking forward. I have a friend who likes to remind me that the best way to predict future behaviors is to look at past behaviors. Likewise for all natural patterns.
Looking carefully at the past can reveal subtle influences that got us where we are now; more importantly it can help us avoid the pitfalls of the future.
Remembrance of loyalties is as important as recompense of wrongs. To accept loyalty and never openly acknowledge it or to be duplicitous is treachery of the worst kind. To feign kinship is the ultimate betrayal. According to Tacitus, under Barbarian laws, capital crimes included sedition, desertion, and cowardice. Being two-faced encompasses all of these. Traitors under this rule were cursed to die.
Like I said at the outset, the best part of a holiday is gauging the harvest cycle, observing the behavior of the heard, and saving only the seed we hope to plant in the spring – only from that which gave yield.
In a complicated life, superimposed with Christian values, it’s hard to say who or what to cut. There’s just supposed to be enough of us to go around, right? In such a paradigm, if you don’t have enough energy to keep up, you are supposed to ask Jesus for more. Heathens know that, sometimes, it’s fine-and-dandy to ask for less. It makes sense. No one judges harshly when we sell-off investments that don’t pay.
I plan to cull out my life’s endeavors, narrowing down my vast array of time-sucking activities to those that actually enhance my life. I plan to winnow out my social contacts, and my DVR recording schedule, both of which have offerings that provide distraction and entertainment but very little in the line of life-enhancements. If the harvest didn’t yield this year, it’s not getting any manure in the spring. After all, what is the chaff to the wheat?
It’s going to be difficult to kick some habits, some perpetual behaviors. It’s going to be hard to say goodbye to some old attachments. But that’s why we call it sacrifice, right?
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