It is a rare event indeed when one is invited to observe or participate in a decidedly taboo religious celebration. I could hardly call myself a commentator on all things credulous if I declined such an extension; besides which, the only blasphemy I could ever put to words would be the refusal to spend time with good people and deliciously strong waters. Since the last twelve months have hardly been the annus mirabilis for me, anyhow, what possibly could one have to lose? If nothing else, I would learn something. So it was that against all odds I attended a Yule celebration in the company of various cloaked and beshawled pagans of a plethora of denominations.
West of Kalispell, the Yule celebration in particular was to begin at sundown. A couple of glasses of absinthe were a prerequisite for myself but those about to give homage to the Holly King abstained until the opening ritual was completed (for both social and dogmatic reasons, as I was later to discover.) I stood quietly in a wide swath of snow, a shoddily louched cup of absinthe in my hands (a nearly redundant description, since the verb for adding iced water to the verdant spirit and sugar in a cup is also an adjective for something shady or unkempt) while a congregation of people ranging from ages under a decade to their middle years entered a circular sacred space and called the corners, praising the corresponding elements that represented them as well as the cardinal directions. While modern clothing was prevalent one could also glean the sound of a trailing cloak over the crispy snow and the occasional click of a staff on stone. The praises and adulations both to the goddess and the Holly King, thanking them for an end of the darkness of winter and the return of the light of spring rang soundful and full of purpose through the setting shadows. One thing that must always be said for polytheisms: those participating never seem to let themselves sit in the spiritual doldrums of the average Sunday mass or dreary midnight matins - there was an unmistakable air of gratefulness and dedication that seems at best feigned in other religious circles. Perhaps it is because such sabbats are chronologically rare in comparison to the weekly times and tithes of the Christian schedule, so they were simply making the most of it while it happened. I think, however, that the necessary invocations might require a spirit more vocal and passionate rather than the tempered, quiet prayers of a congregation whose most sapient metaphor aptly compares the followers to sheep. Either way, as the songs were sung and the circle traversed I could not help but feel as though I was witnessing a rite that was far more purposeful than most others I had watched - though that is not to say it resonated with me any more. My typical stoic skepticism made up my own mask for the evening, though it was tempered with genuine politeness for the generosity of those who had accepted both my witness of their worship and my partaking of their alcohol. It may amuse most to know that while the ritual was performed, a nimble and friendly cat did indeed leap onto my shoulder and perch there as though I were a bust of Pallas on a chamber door and watch the rite with wide amber eyes. A rattle of Hogwartian irony did pass through me.
For those unaware, Yule is the ritualistic foundation of the more commonly accepted holidays of this time of year, in which pagans celebrate the return of the light to the land after the Winter Solstice, and many elements which we find intrinsic to Christmas such as Yule logs, holly wreaths, red and green and white floras and the giving of gifts are all tropes of a tradition much older than those which we have cozied up to since the calendar made the coin-toss shift from B.C.E. to C.E. All of these themes were, of course, manifest in this particular Yule ceremony, as well as the lighting of an all-night fire in tribute to the sun god or Holly King. Beyond this, merry-making and general frivolity were the hallmarks of this particular coven's way of giving thanks and ringing in the new year, as it were. While I didn't expect blood to be shed or unfortunate fowl to meet its occult end, the talk that pervaded the both the fire-area and the dining room spoke as if another occasion might have merited either, and I was promptly informed that Yule was a much more dogmatically relaxed occasion. I must say, I think in these cases the foreboding statements were more of a joke at the expense of the only unbeliever in the group --- a failed one, in any case, since I am lucky enough to have a scant but passing familiarity with general sabbat themes and know they typically contain none of these macabre elements. Nonetheless, I cannot disappoint those hoping that there was some eerie presence or power that was strong or perhaps lewd enough to arouse my senses and make me consider the premise: there was a moving portent to the things I witnessed. However, this was merely theatrical in its potency --- the watching of a ritual of any kind has always inspired the moving thrill of a stage presence in me. It would be remiss of me not to indulge the moment any more than the mild wonder that I inhabit when observing a baptism or listening to the call to prayer undulated from the throat of an imam in a towering minaret. Of course, none of this has ever tipped me further than an academic interest or in many cases repulsion --- those hoping for a theistic convert, even to paganism, can move along with breath unbated.
Incidentally, I found myself enthralled with a marvelously social point that was particular to this religious tribute that I cannot say I have experienced in any other. Wholly different from the attempted prolonging of the point through pacified conversation that so often ensues post-mass or service (i.e. "Wasn't that a lovely sermon? God truly does speak through Reverend So-and-so..."), the mood instantaneously shifted to all topics and actvities engaging and delightful. Nor, I hurry to point out, was I barraged by a slough of questions or concerns regarding my non-faith, which I found most refreshing (the fact that I was an outsider was at least evident given that I had literally stood outside of the entire procession during their ritual). I hesitate to admire this outright as an intrinsic quality of the character of these strangers and near-friends, as that would be a little naive of an appraisal. Rather, I am sure that the subject of anti-theism is at least as taboo and inherently contrarian as paganism to the grand scheme of the world, and these people were no doubt paisan-like with the concept of ostracisism, and wouldn't wish to inflict it on another. I was touched and grateful, to say the least. I was a reminded of a good many Christian friends whom I cherish that are hell-bent (if I can use so low an irony) to make sure I never feel persecuted and who will always remain in the highest of accord.
All in all, those who have never attended a Yule might do well to appreciate the near-secular quality of the holy day (it seems trite in this case to make the conventional contraction to the quotidian "holiday") much as I do now of Christmas. As one can begin to blur away the mangers and archangels of one brand of mythology to see the much more palpable and worth-celebrating virtues of family and thankfulness and friendship, so too can we find these traits abundant sans Holly King or circle-casting or corner-calling. I was reinforced in my small contingent of pagan friends, young and old, who have never uttered a piece of their faith that bordered discriminatory or particularly dark, and again I can only assume that this nature has evolved from an ideology that was itself discriminated against for so long. It is difficult to imagine a widely persecuted philosophy to make itself a vehicle for persecution (though the Zionist movement seems to be the grandest and most heartbreaking exception), and it showed, at the very least, in this instance of Yule. Obviously, I have attended many a Christmas party, even mass or service, wherein the same rather enjoyable experience occurred, in which no deity of any particular flavor played a single part. I should think, given the spirit of the season (as well as the spirit residing in my sanguine constitution) that this solidarity and brotherhood and companionship is in itself worth celebrating. A glass of mine is raised to anyone who is grateful for the same excuse, standing in church or circle!