Christmas Inside San Angelo's Pagan Community
Dancing naked in the moonlight, devil worshipping, spells and black magic: the world of the Pagans is one often misunderstood. Television shows depict witches throwing fireballs, dressed all in black with daggers, black cats and an evil warlock short on the heels. The reality is quite a bit less dramatic, and even locally, Pagans celebrate the holiday season much in the way the rest of us do, if only with different meaning behind the age-old traditions.
“[People often think] we’re Satan worshippers,” says Tessa McIntyre, founder of San Angelo Pagan Pride on the stereotypes that come with her religion. “That’s really kind of laughable to any one who is Pagan because Satan is purely of Christianity,” she explains. “We believe in balance and in harmony, no good without bad, and vice versa.”
McIntyre, as with over 100 other local Pagans represented in various local social groups, explains Paganism as a belief centered on a deep respect and unison with nature, with the single law that no harm be done to others or the Earth. The belief also revolves around the idea of Karma, reflected in the Threefold Law, that whatever one does, good or bad, will be returned to him threefold.
“We do not believe in sin,” she says, explaining a difference in how the Pagan moral compass is guided as opposed to other religions. “There’s no such thing as sin. We believe in karma. Sin is based on a set of rules that we don’t have. Christians have the Ten Commandments, but we have one commandment: if it harms none, do as you will.”
McIntyre says that Paganism covers a broad spectrum of paths, many of which are combined or followed to suit the particular beliefs of individuals.
“A lot of people call themselves eclectic because they may be interested in something and in something else. People will take something from the Native American path and something form the Wiccan and kind of combine it,” McIntyre says as example. “These days there are a lot of people from the Christian belief and have melded them (beliefs) in with Wicca. It’s what you believe that makes it true,” she says.
McIntyre describes herself as a Druid and a Kitchen Witch, meaning in essence that she honors nature and makes healing potions and teas from various herbs. While McIntyre herself is polytheistic, she says many Pagans are monotheistic or that they believe in multiple gods whom all bear the same Christian name of Jesus.
Locally, there are several groups of practicing Pagans that follow different paths, but that meet with one another for rituals and celebrations, such as Yule, which occurs on the winter solstice Dec. 21.
“The solstice is the longest night of the year,” explains Cheryl, a Crone in San Angelo and leader of the Pagan Pride group. A Crone is a female Pagan that has reached menopause and has advanced through the hierarchal tiers to the status of a leader and teacher in the community. “Solstice means the sun stands still,” she continues. “[Yule] is a celebration of the rebirth, renewal of the sun. That means that the days start to lengthen and get warmer.”
Cheryl says Yule is what is called a high holy day, one of four that mark the changes of the seasons throughout the year. There are various traditions that revolve around Yule, and in San Angelo an anticipated 30 individuals will gather for a night of ritual with feasting, gift giving and chants.
“We celebrate with a ritual,” Cheryl says, “and our rituals are nature-based. At our rituals we…cast a circle. We always feast, feast, feast, we do a potluck. Each one does a traditional thing.”
Some of the traditional menu items include wassail, borscht, braided breads, acorn squash and things of the winter, Cheryl says. A drumming circle may also take place during or after the ritual and there will be a gift exchange as well.
“You can either buy it or make it (the gifts), but we try to do something traditional,” Cheryl says. “We exchange gifts to symbolize hope for the future. [It’s usually] something that you can use as a tool on your alter, or in a ritual, or as decoration, for listening pleasure if it’s music…It’s a great time for socializing because a lot of us work and some of us are retired, and some of us are basically homebound that don’t get out too much.”
Cheryl made her own gift this year from a twisted piece of driftwood her son found at Lake Michigan. “Me and my son go look for crystals together,” she says, noting a few sparkling pieces of crystal that embellish the wood. Four tea lights dot the piece that has been painted over in brown.
Other gifts received over the years include books and music, plus a handmade wooden box painted in Celtic Pagan symbols. Motioning to the Christmas tree set up in her living room, Cheryl notes that many of the traditions celebrated in homes across the world actually stem from Pagan history.
“We decorate our tree to symbolize the continuing of life through the long hard winter,” Cheryl says.
“We tend to deal a lot with trees,” McIntyre adds, then paints a historical image of the Christmas tree’s past. “Odin—he’s one of the gods—he rides a horse with eight legs. While he’s out, he sees the good and the bad,” she continues. “If you’re bad, you wouldn’t wake up, so kids left out grass for the horse,” she said, explaining that keeping the horse happy was believed to ensure survival. “People would decorate evergreen trees and light them so Odin could see his way.”
Eventually, the tree was moved indoors and the eight-legged horse became eight reindeer, pulling Santa’s sleigh. Where Odin would leave treats for the good, Santa now leaves gifts, and Santa’s somewhat less macabre lump of coal replaced Odin’s never-ending sleep.
Even that decorative log that seems to serve no purpose next many fireplace hearths this time of year has roots in Pagan tradition.
“The Yule log represents increasing light and warmth of the Earth as winter eases into spring,” Cheryl says. “It is burned to inspire blessings of warmth and sunshine for great harvests in coming seasons.”
Traditionally, the Yule log is harvested from one’s own land, decorated and put in the fireplace, McIntyre says. The log is lit from a burnt piece of the log from the year prior, and a bit of ash is given to everyone in the family to bring light.
“Now, we have a log and decorate and drill 3 holes in it, and we put three candles in the holes, white, red and black,” McIntyre says. That represents the sun gods, winter and the great goddess,” she says. The candles are lit from the previous year’s stubs.
Be it a Yule log or a Christmas tree, the basic symbols associated with Christmastime span a spectrum of faiths that otherwise have little to do with one another. Although they are often chastised to the point of fearing for their jobs should their religious paths be discovered, McIntyre and Cheryl say that Pagans are just like any other person—you wouldn’t necessarily know one at first sight and they’re not covered in warts or dressed in witches’ costumes.
“I love the earth, I’m very passionate about the things I do, and I’m very outspoken, personally, on women’s, and environmental issues,” McIntyre says. “You can’t look at them (Pagans) and know that they are Pagan. We do a lot of the same things that everyone else does. I do a lot of volunteer work, it’s part giving to the community,” she says.
And while some live more openly than others with their beliefs, Cheryl says it’s the little things that let one another know they are Pagans.
“There are people that have different stores, or that have a pinnacle on or a ring. We say then ‘Hi, brother, are you part of a group, or do you want to be?’” Chreyl explains. “You can’t just look in the phone book. Some people wear big things. If you don’t know what this is,” she says, showing a necklace with a star held up by a woman whose arms encircle it, “you don’t know what it is. A Pagan would know exactly what this is.”
Like Christians, Pagans also do a sort of prayer, in which they chant and send their energy out into the universe, Cheryl explains. Dependent on the person, those prayers may be directed to different gods.
“I can’t speak for all Pagans, but this Pagan prays to God,” Cheryl said. “When I know they’re Christian, I’m sending love and prayers and I mean it.”
Both Cheryl and McIntyre reiterated that Paganism is different for each individual, and that beliefs may vary from person to person, but the core is an affinity to and respect for nature, people and the Earth.
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