[This article originally ran in Greenmantle, Samhain 2005.]
What phrase would you like to go on entire month without hearing?
The answer to that question might well depend on what might be called your state of life, with answers ranging from “Do something about this room!” through “Could you look after your grandchild tonight, please?” Perhaps your phrase to do without concerns overtime, or job prospects, or relationships.
Mine is nothing so vital, but it is nonetheless annoying. I would love to go an entire month without hearing, “The Christians stole X from us!”
This article is being written in the space between Solstice and Christmas, and of course the air is thick with the earnest denunciations of celebrations which go back 500 years or more as being stolen, counterfeit, or plagiarised. The same will happen at Easter and for some (who never miss an opportunity to feel aggrieved) at Imbolg/Candlemas as well.
Such denunciations always make me cringe – then thoughtful. They raise a number of questions.
The first is that of ownership. Let’s take Christmas/Yule/the feast of Mithras/any other takers? as an example. The usual explanations trotted out are that the Christian celebration is a midwinter festival “stolen” from Pagans.
Now the general definition of stealing goes something like this: to take, or appropriate something which rightfully belongs to another, without their permission.
Can one steal a festival, then, particularly one which celebrates a natural event such as the midpoint of winter? Admittedly, the birth of Jesus isn’t thought to have happened “in the bleak midwinter,” but that hardly means that it is “stealing” to celebrate it then (any more than it is “stealing”, for instance, to celebrate the queen’s official birthday on a day other than that of her birth).
Secondly, there is a claim that motifs – light from dark, virgin birth, birth in a cave – have been stolen. I’d ask the same question – can these actually be “owned” by a group? Are they not perhaps something to do with being human – qua Jung’s concept of archetypes* – rather than being “Pagan” or not?
It’s reasonably obvious that Pagan groups will have used these motifs first – if nothing else, because they (the Pagan groups) predate Christianity. Does use equal ownership?
If so, why does it do so only for Pagans and not for the Christians who have been using them for centuries by now?
Need the ownership (if that’s even possible) be exclusive, one or the other?
The second question which arises for me is one of identification.
Quite often the claim is made, “The Christians stole these from us”. Now, either those making the claim can rival Lazarus Long in terms of time on this planet, or the claim assumes some sort of connection, some organic fellowship, with pre-Christian Pagans.
It’s an interesting claim, and one that investigation has found to be malleable in the extreme: the connection appears and disappears almost on a whim, it seems. It is there – and rock solid – when we like or approve of what the ancients did, whether this is seasonal ritual, founding the academy, or building healing temples.
It is not, however, quite so often claimed in relation to rituals involving human or animal sacrifice, pillaging and laying waste swathes of inhabited countryside, or indeed, with those who offered Socrates a cup of hemlock.
Yet surely, one implies the other? If we claim such association with our forebearers that their rituals and festivals were ours, then surely all the rest cascades to us as well? Societies founded on war, slavery, oppression of minorities (and majorities, when one thinks of women …) and so on? Or are we heirs only selectively, choosing to inherit the silver but not the debts or the tacky ducks on the wall?
None of which – even the inconsistency – explains why the phrase grates so much on my ear.
Partially, it is because it is such a waste of time to go on in this fashion. Even if one could “prove” that these things were “stolen” (for whatever value of those words), what good would it do? Is there some esoteric court of law where the “stolen” articles could be returned? Is someone going to fine 2000 years of Christians for appropriating ideas from elsewhere?
There’s a much deeper discomfort, however. In constantly saying, “The Christians stole X, Y and Z from us” are we not – still – using Christianity as a standard against which to gauge Paganism?
Is it not, perhaps, time to get beyond building up Paganism, Pagan practice, Pagan ritual, by tearing down someone else’s beliefs? Can we not merely celebrate Yule for Yule’s sake, Samhain for its sake (calling them ancient if we like) rather than having to constantly refer to Christian practice as we do it?
*Jung, K. (1968). The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious (2nd edition). 2nd. first in England 1959, Routledge.