It’s the holiday season again, the one that the Christians think began and ended with their “Jesus”. What’s Winter Solstice anyway? How about “Festivus ( for the Rest of Us)?
Even in the Pagan Community we have many different traditions, some claim to have had theirs handed down through the generations since the dark ages, even though Wicca has only been around for the past 60 years. So, what makes a tradition? Is it the fact that we go through a repetitive cycle of events that mark certain occasions merely because “we have always done it this way”? Should there be deeper meanings in our traditions and rituals?
Growing up Mormon, my life was plenty about ritual and tradition. Going to church on Sunday, having the communion blessed and passed in a certain way, going to your meetings and planning temple trips were all part of the Mormon lifestyle. Even within the temple itself, we mimicked and practiced rituals for our “spiritual enlightenment” . It was tradition for young men at age 19 to voluntarily serve a mission for two years. Young women are encouraged to marry only returned missionaries and start their families early. Tradition rules the way of life in that religious society.
So, how did I remove myself from a life seeped in tradition, only to find myself desiring to create rituals and traditions in my Pagan life? Obviously, some individuals enjoy having that symbolism and that comfort of tradition behind their personal practice. I have a need for spiritual portals and I design personal rituals to bring about my own spiritual growth.
If I were to meet a new family who just moved to the area and joined up with our Pagan social group, and then they shared their traditions with us, I would likely explore them, adopt what might work for me, and politely acknowledge their right to keep up with whatever works for them. It’s only when we meet up with people who insist that their tradition is the “One True Way” that I would have any reservations. It’s the main reason I have avoided joining a coven, or becoming a Guru myself… I don’t want to perpetuate the fallacy of “One True Way”. That is too similar to the system I was brought up with, so I don’t think I could be that structured and rigid anymore. For example: I like to place Air in the East in my rituals. There are essays out there by some other Pagans who have very valid arguments about why it should not be so. I read them, of course, but I don’t feel obligated to change my rituals in order to conform to True Wiccan-ism.
So, on the question of the holiday traditions. I was raised with Christmas tree, stockings, singing in the church choir, buying new special ornaments for each member of the family every year, and other assorted traditions. Now that I am Pagan, I am torn about discontinuing these traditions. I still have a tree, but I don’t put it up. (my kids did though.) I have tolerance for it being in my home, but I don’t decorate. I made a Yule log one year, but didn’t store it and re-use it again. And I generally wait til the eve of the 24th before I wrap gifts and stick them under there, (mostly so the cats don’t mess with them much). I go to the family dinner, but I don’t sing in a choir, or go caroling. I can acknowledge a “Merry Christmas” with a “same to you” without much hassle.
A tradition is the secret fraternal handshake of the larger socio-political culture of humans. It is one of the means by which we identify the differences between “us” and “them”. Ritual and tradition serve to underscore the moral authority of the masses, and it is even possible for simple acts of tradition to be the only difference between groups. See The Butter Battle Book, and Gulliver's Travels. This is true not only for Lilliputians and Christian denominations, but for Pagans as well. What is the difference between Gardnerians and Alexandrians? Tradition. The specifics of the way they perform their rituals. Otherwise, the general philosophies and structure are the same.
So what is the difference between a tradition and a ritual? Obligation? Intent? A ritual is a repeated set of actions for the purpose of accomplishing something. A tradition may accomplish something, but the purpose is usually tradition for the sake of tradition. and many traditions are simply arbitrary. Along with that, traditions can include ritual, and rituals can contain elements that are noting more than arbitrary decisions based on tradition, such as the example above, of elemental quarters. Why is Air associated with the East, Water in the West? Because it worked well for someone, and they passed on their tradition.
As an alchemist, I try very hard to distill the arbitrary out of my personal rituals. I find it is less important to place the elements in their proper directions than it is to make sure they are all equally acknowledged. I have mixed feelings about celebrating sabbats and esbats as well. Although they are tied to astronomical phenomena, the inevitability of the recurrence of the cycle makes me a little derisive of the perceived obligation to mark the dates. I don't object to participating in a ritual designed with purpose, and I acknowledge the increased power associated with the alignment of celestial bodies, but I do object to the use of a "holy" day as an excuse for social fraternization. Hey, if you wanna party, throw a party. If you want to have a spiritual experience, then that should be the full purpose of your gathering.
All that said I do still have some traditions myself. I still get my friends and family christmas presents, It's a fun way to show that you appreciate them. I don't make it about religion though. I accept it for the tradition that it is, and nothing more.