It took me a long time to puzzle out the difference between my culture and the one I live in now. From the outset, they are similar, modern, Western cultures, with noticeable differences, but not so much as say, moving from Finland to Japan, or Eritrea.
For me, the culture shock of living here, developed gradually. Sure, I was always upset by the self-centered-seeming, individualistic bent of American public life, and found the lack of common sense, and interested in common good in governance disturbing, but ultimately it is the lack of shared ritual that bothers me the most on a personal level. There is something particularly dissonant about it, something that explains so much of why the culture can't seem to pull together, to truly embrace its diverse origins.
Of course, Finland is a homogenous monoculture of sorts, and the US is a diverse, new nation, eager to shed its own history, as well as the history of its inhabitants. It may not seem fair to compare them, but it does shed a light on what I consider a truly American dilemma: rootlessness. The sense that one can do anything, move anywhere, experience whatever kind of spirituality, lifestyle, culture, bioregion, is emblematic of the American experience, and yet, the "freedom", the endless amount of choice doesn't seem to make people happier, or even create a more diverse culture. Many, if not most people here seem lost, wandering to different places every generation, and the dominant culture, for the all the diversity on offer, seems strangely mono-cropped, and constrained...
I was lucky to move into an island culture that honors many of the same traditions that make up the Finnish year; observing the Equinoxes and Solstices, living seasonally, doing things together, but still there is still this lack of depth to practices that are self-made, new, without bio-regional anchors.
Naturally, I understand that America has it's own rhythms: seasons of sports, or national holidays, seasons of politics. As an immigrant though, a child of a different culture, they have left me cold.
Christmas/ Yule season is when I feel it most acutely: the immigrant illness; one part homesickness, sure, but another part dissonance with one's surroundings. The feeling of not belonging.
Strangely, I don't think I'm alone in this.
A few years ago I wrote a piece on my old blog about Finnish Christmas, and it got a huge response among my reader friends, folks who'd never even experienced the customs of another land. It occurred to me that perhaps this was because we all long for a deeper, slower, darker, more joyous experience of this holiday time.
In the land of 350 million immigrants, this makes perfect sense. The conversation I often have with people in my classes centers around the indigenous identity of Americans. One of the questions I like to ask is "Who are your people?", or "Where did your people come from?" and folks have surprising responses to that. Often they are vague, or dismissive, confused about the nuances of the many regions of the Europe, Eurasia, Middle East, Asia, Northern Africa...the topography of places that gave rise to their coming here. The further the original culture, the point of entry, the vaguer the sense of one's own ancestry and its customs.
It's been my experience, particularly in conversation with folks the predominantly white alternative, and new age community, that people often associate indigenousness exclusively with Native Americans, and are wont to appropriate the customs, beliefs and rituals of those cultures in search of an authentic, land-based spirituality.
A question I often hear asked, in half-jest is: "Well what am I supposed to be? Just white?" And the answer to that is: "First and foremost you should be of wherever you are, and wherever you came from. And whoever you are, you are the child of an ancient, beautiful culture, with all the magic, ritual, and mystery you can ever dream of. You just have to go out and seek it, relearn and reclaim it." (Obviously there is a much bigger conversation in the wings there, but this is the starting point of reclaiming your own ancestral right to ritual, spirits, and plant medicine.)
Gradually, it has come to me, that this is part of my work, as a natural-born-and-raised child of a culture that's retained much of its indiginousness. It's part of my work as a folk herbalist, writer, and a witch, to help others, more removed, to reconnect with the Old Ways, of the places they came from.
Of course, Finnish is not an "intact" culture. In medieval times, we were forcibly converted to Christianity, but like so many other cultures, we adapted. We began to blend and mask our indigenous traditions with the imported ones. The indigenous knowledge continued to exist, ambient, half-hidden. It hid itself in a "fairytales", in recipes, songs, seasonal customs, sayings, in place names, charming folk traditions. My friend, teacher, co-conspiritor Eve makes the excellent point, that this is exactly where the Old Ways hide: in places where the empire, the dominant patriarchal culture, doesn't care to look for them, because it sees no value in the interests of women, children, marginalized groups.
The fact is there's no such thing as "intact" cultures. Cultures have always been a shifting thing, rubbing up against each other, in love, war, trade. They have traveled far and wide, in different orbits, shifting climates, and changing bioregions. They have been made and remade time and time again, yet to this day, many contain building blocks from as far back as the Iron Age or further. It is this idea that a culture must be "intact" in order to have value, that gets in the way of people's reclaiming their heritage.
When we look at traditions, even contemporary ones, we can detect traces of the original, ancient cultures in them. For a few years now, there's been some articles in circulation, discussing the Shamanic origins of the Santa-myth: the red-clad, Amanita-outfitted medicine person, descending into the snow-blocked Siberian hut, trough the smoke-hole to bring merriment and magic into darkness of midwinter in the arctic. Even more simply, consider your cookies and a glass of milk for Santa. To my Finnish mind, they instantly conjure the offerings we leave out at Yule-time for the Tonttu, the small spirit that lives with you; whom w brought with us from the forest when we first domesticated ourselves, and started living in permanent homesteads, and then transported to the modern times as Santa's elves. See? An ancient tradition, shifting and changing, resilient and mythical.
If you are looking to infuse your Western-style midwinter holidays with a more ancient mythology, quiet down amidst the hubbub, and start seeking meaningful ancestral traditions as a part of your celebrations, here are a few traditions you may as well keep/ reappropriate:
1. Offerings to Santa, offerings to spirits and animal familiars:
As I mentioned above, Santa's penchant for cookies is a remnant of an older tradition of sacrifice and offering. In Scandinavia, one of the things that comes up during Fall and Winter holidays, is kindness and offerings to animals, both domesticated and wild. Sharing the abundance of the feasts with the beasts, is an important custom. Giving your pets and farm animals extra treats during this time, as well as leaving out grain for birds, or opening watering holes in the ice for wild critters, part of an ancient pact we have.
Leaving out plates of Christmas food (sometimes referred to as a "spirit plate" ) is an important offering whatever Spirits we interact with, whether plant, animal, fairy, or the Tonttu, or Tomte, Santa's Elves. It teaches all of us that gifts are an exchange, not a list of demands, and that there are laws of reciprocity and respect at play.
Bringing in the forest in the form a Tree, is also essentially an act of worship, directly stemming from Scandinavian/ Finno Ugric/ Slavic folk tradition, of worshipping the Spruce as a mighty spirit, full of medicine and forest spirit.
2. Offerings to the Ancestors:
Another modern Scandinavian custom I've discussed here, is visiting the graves of our relatives who've passed. In this time of dark, it is customary to bring in small lights to guide all of our way. Candles symbolize not only the promise of returning of light, but the Stars, the Heavens which in this season seem to hang ever closer. As the night and day draw closer to each other, so too do we get closer to the other realms, and if there ever was a time to consider one's heritage, lineage, and family lines. If like me, you live far from your ancestral home, one way offer to your ancestors, is to simply light a candle and speak to them. You can ask questions, or simply listen to what comes through. Some put food and drink on their family altar, or bring out seasonal pictures or keepsakes. Others burn incense, or arrange mandalas, or make small offerings of flowers, or evergreen branches. Your imagination is the limit of this practice.
3. Visiting and singing:
Caroling is not just a modern anglo-saxan practice, it is actually an ancient tradition, a visiting offering, where in exchange for songs, we receive something to eat, something to drink, warmth and communal cheer. To consume another's bread and salt, is in old magic traditions considered a renewal of familial bonds with the people and the household, and this is what's exchanged for the blessing song of Carolers. In the tradition of Wassailing in the spring this kind of visit is extended to orchards to bless the trees and help them be fruitful. Besides singing, there are countless European folk traditions of visiting: with boughs, with goods, costumes, animals, fire being brought from house to house. The ultimate point of these practices in ancient and modern societies is the exchange. A gift freely given and freely received, binds the community together.
4. Costumes and dressing up:
It's not for nothing that we don our best clothes for special occasions. And it's not for nothing that this season has been all about costumes for a long time. The dark days yielded themselves well for all kinds of play. From Santa Lucia, with her candle-crown, to the goat-faced "Santa" of Scandinavia, to elves, Nativity scenes, Angels, caroling outfits, and even the modern St. Nick himself, wearing special costumes, and special clothes, is an important part of the season. Consider creating a tradition that combines costumes and visiting. If nothing else, go the extra mile and choose your celebration clothing with more care and joy.
5. Ritual Food:
That's what folks keep saying this season is all about. But whether it's gingerbread houses, Joululimppu, Stollen, Challah, Yulelog, pudding with an almond, or some other hidden trinket, all of those foods have origins stories filled with magic and ritual. Creating a food ritual carefully repeated year after year, is one of the ways we can all have more intention in our celebrations. Making stories around cooking together, blessing our food, remembering their origins is way to honor the abundance many of us here in the West are blessed with. Giving food, especially handmade, homemade food as gifts is a great, beautiful way to give personalized things that don't create waste, or require plastic wrapping. Adding decorations, and seasonal elements to those gifts to create holiday traditions makes the season that much more special.
6. Time and space.
One of the things most antithetical to the Solstice season to me is the traveling frenzy around these holidays. At a time when we should be slowing down to tell stories around the hearth, eat food, sing, and meditate on the stars in the dark, we jet around and drive down freeways instead.
The antidote to this, is being present when you arrive at your destination. Instead of experiences and travels, try to wind down, and focus instead on the small, grounding acts of making. Making food, making presents, making decorations, making time and space without devices, clocks, agendas, and expectations. Turn off lights and phones, and embrace the quiet, the dark, and the candlelight, together.
I could go on and on, but these little traditions are good start for a more grounded, old world holiday season. And luckily for you, more magical holiday tips and traditions are at your fingertips form my girl Asia Suler's enchanting video "Infusing Mysticism into the Holiday Season". Dim the lights, grab a mug of something warm, and relax.
May your days be merry and bright and your nights long, dark, and full of starlight!
Happy Winter Solstice Season Northern Hemisphere folk, and enjoy that light Southern Cousins <3
Please do share something of your family's traditions and customs, ancient and modern, and especially what part of the world they hail from.