We’ve recently celebrated Thanksgiving, when I hope that, like me, you gave thanks to the deity of your choice for the wise and thoughty blogs we’ve been reading on this site. Now we’re well into the holiday season, which seems (at least in the malls) to start earlier every year. No matter what you call the December holiday, its origin lies in the winter solstice, which is the tipping point of the year’s dark season. The solar gods—Adonis, Amon-Ra, Apollo, Attis, Baal, Horus, Jesus the Christ, Lugh, Marduk, Mithra, Shamash, Sol Invictus, and the rest—are born or reborn now. These are the gods who live for a season or a year in great honor, after which they’re sacrificed, spend a season underground, and are then reborn. This happens every year at the winter solstice. (Just so you know: if Jesus was a real man, he was probably born in the spring or fall between 7 and 4 B.C.E. In 354 C.E., Bishop Liberius of Rome moved his official birth date to December 25 to match the birth date of the popular Roman god Mithra.)
Also born and reborn at the winter solstice is the light itself, the solar light and the temple light, too. We can think of the reborn light as literal light—a lamp in a temple that burns for eight days when it has fuel for only one—or metaphorical light, that is, learning, wisdom, and generosity. Hanukkah (which usually comes in December but which coincided with Thanksgiving this year) embraces both literal and metaphorical light.
All those solar gods have mothers. (Who can doubt it?) That’s why December 24 is Modranicht, or Mothers’ Night, a term we get from the English monk known as the Venerable Bede, who wrote that the Angles began their year on the night of December 24–25. We don’t know if he was reporting on a custom that honored three goddesses called the Mothers or referring to Christmas, newly arrived in Germanic lands. In 706, the medieval church forbade believers to follow the old Roman ceremonies honoring the confinement of the Mother of God, which included the distribution of cakes called placentae (the Divine Mother’s afterbirth). Christmas Eve thus became the “silent night, holy night” of the Virgin Mother.
We didn’t invent holiday shopping, of course, nor the long season of celebration. The Romans had a series of rural festivals combined into the Saturnalia, which gained civic importance when a military defeat in 217 B.C.E. inspired a religious revival. After the religious ceremonies of the Saturnalia came celebration, feasting, merriment, and presents. There was a suspension of civic work, courts and schools closed, and commerce and warfare stopped. The old Roman god Saturn (we’ll see his image on New Year’s Eve as the personification of the dying year) was conflated with the Greek Titan, Cronus. Saturn was an ancient Latin agricultural god whose name may derive from satur, “stuffed,” or sator, “a sower”; in either case he stands for abundance. He was a working god who oversaw viniculture and farming, the king of Italy during the golden age. When Jupiter conquered him, he hid himself (latuit) in the region that came to be called Latium. The Romans said Saturn’s body lay beneath the Capitol in Rome. Because his reign brought prosperity to the city, the state treasury and the standards of the Roman legions were kept in his temple when the army was at home. They also bound Saturn’s statue in woolen strips to keep him from leaving Rome.
When we go shopping, the idea seems to be to spend as much as possible on opulent gifts for relatives and friends. We get our word “opulence” from the name of Saturn’s consort, the grain, fruit, and harvest goddess Ops, whose sacred day is December 19. I once edited a book about “affluenza.” Advertising teaches us (just watch half an hour of TV) that shopping is not only a major pastime but an almost religious rite/right. Except, my author said, now it’s a disease that has metastasized throughout the body of society. Let’s remember that affluenza isn’t a new idea. During the Roman republic, the senate passed sumptuary laws setting limits to what Romans could own (and show off). The laws didn’t work. Medieval monarchs, including popes, tried passing similar laws, and we know that one motivation for the Protestant Reformation was to protest against the Vatican’s wealth and greed. The robber barons of late 19th century were also great opulists, and we see how opulently their descendants—The Donald, the Kardashians, the folks who build the McMansions—live today.
Let’s agree that holiday shopping doesn’t have to be just for goodies. We can emulate Lucina, an early Italian goddess of light, who merged with or became an aspect of Juno or Diana. She became St. Lucy, a fourth-century Sicilian girl who consecrated her virginity to God and vowed to distribute her family’s wealth to the poor. “Her largesse,” says the Catholic Encyclopedia, “stirred the greed of an unworthy youth.” He arranged their betrothal, then denounced her to the Roman governor. When they tried to burn her—here’s the light connection—God put the fire out. So they beheaded her, and her body was eventually taken to Venice, where she came to symbolize the light of faith that shines in the darkness. It’s said that Vikings or pirates took her to Scandinavia, where it’s nighttime for half the year. People parade on St. Lucy’s Day (December 13) by parading with candles. They’re bringing the gift of light to their neighbors.
In this holiday shopping season, therefore, let’s begin by writing our Santa letters. Did you know, BTW, that Santa Claus, who lives at the North Pole and flies through the air with the aid of reindeer, is a shaman? He wears the sacred colors of the Goddess, white, red, and black. (The Saami who live in the Arctic region still have real shamans.) Shamans climb the World Pole as part of their work, and reindeer are magical creatures, as we can tell by the energy sprouting out of their heads in the form of antlers.
After telling Santa Shaman what we want, let’s do some metaphorical shopping to bring light and peace to a dark world. Consider this fact: wealth per se is not bad. We need stuff to live. But I think you’ll agree that we also need to spend our money wisely. We can, therefore, emulate the bringers of light as we celebrate the Saturnalia. Let’s be Opulists! Keeping in mind the teaching of Jesus that it’s more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35), we can do magical Opulistic work. When I walk, for example, I pick up any coin I see lying on the sidewalk. When I get home, I lay the coin on my altar to Dame Fortuna (who is often conflated with Ops) and say, “For those in need.” One penny isn’t much, but, yes, pennies add up. What other Opulistic work can we do? We can donate things we don’t need to shelters for people who do need them. Ops was a goddess of grain and fruit, so we can also make donations that feed people.
Here’s the top of my metaphorical shopping list:
- For Grandpa: peace on earth, which eliminates the need to recruit young men into armies.
- For Mommy: an end to misogyny and the rape culture, which makes the world a happier place for mothers and daughters.
- For my cousins: an end to hunger in the world, because no child should starve.
Start your shopping list now. Cost is no obstacle. You can “buy” anything for anyone. What three things will you put on your list? To whom will you give these gifts? Post your list as a comment and let the giving begin!
BOOK GIVEAWAY: In the spirit of Opulist, Barbara is giving away two copies of her most recent novel, Secret Lives, a book about grandmothers who do magic. All you have to do is share your metaphorical shopping list in the comments below, and in two weeks from the original posting date, Barbara will choose her top two favorite lists, and those FAR readers will receive a copy of Secret Lives.
Barbara Ardinger, Ph.D. (www.barbaraardinger.com), is a published author and freelance editor. Her newest book is Secret Lives, a novel about grandmothers who do magic. Her earlier nonfiction books include the daybook Pagan Every Day, Finding New Goddesses (a pun-filled parody of goddess encyclopedias), and Goddess Meditations. When she can get away from the computer, she goes to the theater as often as possible—she loves musical theater and movies in which people sing and dance. She is also an active CERT (Community Emergency Rescue Team) volunteer and a member (and occasional secretary pro-tem) of a neighborhood organization that focuses on code enforcement and safety for citizens. She has been an AIDS emotional support volunteer and a literacy volunteer. She is an active member of the neopagan community and is well known for the rituals she creates and leads.