An Atheopagan Life is a monthly column about living an atheist, nature-honoring life.
November and December certainly don’t lack for observances and holiday celebrations. In the temperate zone of the planet, pretty much every culture has had some way of celebrating the winter solstice, and the accumulation of many of those traditions lives with us today in the form of Christmas, Chanukah, the Pagan Yule, newer traditions such as Kwanzaa and even Festivus.
For Atheopagans, navigating this season in a manner free of theistic and supernatural overtones can be a bit of a challenge. We’re besieged with well-intentioned messages from relatives and friends rooted in their credulous religious beliefs. Exasperating as it can sometimes be, the main thing is to remember that those expressions are meant kindly and with love, by and large, not to try to shove religious credulity down our throats.
Meanwhile, our own opportunities for observances are many and rich.
The true midpoint between Harvest and Yule typically falls around the 6th or 7th of November. That is the actual astronomical date of Hallows, so the first weekend of November is when I always celebrate it with my circle, Dark Sun. We’ve been together for 23 years now, and Samhain/Hallows has always been a high point in our year, when we follow a similar ritual each time and do an overnight gathering so we can enjoy each others’ company. Our membership is far-flung geographically, so this isn’t possible very often.
Our ritual is held every year at the home of circle members who live surrounded by wilderness. It begins by gathering around a Focus of seasonal symbols—a jack o’ lantern, bones, skulls, pictures of ancestors, ritual tools—in a fire circle with a fire laid but unlit. We ground ourselves to develop Presence, and invoke the Qualities we hope will be with us as we go through this year’s Sabbath ritual.
And then we turn our back on life, and walk off into the darkness, to the Land of the Dead.
When we arrive at the designated place, we speak to those who have died in the previous year. We speak of our feelings about their deaths, we wish them well (or, in some cases, not)—we play “let’s pretend” in a psychodrama that allows us to seek and find closure with those who have left us.
And when it is done, when cold is seeping into our bones and the Land of the Dead is starting to feel a little too comfortable, we make our way back, light the fire, sing and pass wine and chocolate, and celebrate being alive.
It’s a simple ritual, but a powerful one. And with each iteration, the depth of its power grows as we realize how many times we have done it, how many years we have passed together.
Later in the month comes Thanksgiving: a belated Harvest celebration which, in my part of the world, marks the ending of the grape harvest. We gather with friends on this day, enjoy food and drink as others do, give thanks that we are not alone in the world.
Yule, of course, is a big deal in the surrounding culture, and so it is for us, as the beginning of the new year’s cycle and the moment the Sun begins to reemerge from the deepest of winter’s depths. Our Yule tree is surmounted by a Sun, and our ornaments are mostly of natural creatures and symbols: a moon, a salmon, a bat, an owl, mushrooms, apples, trees, even an octopus. We also have a small collection of very old ornaments from the 1940s and 50s which remind us of our childhoods, which are always so present at this time of year.
On Yule night, one of our traditions has been to make ourselves hot cider, turn off all lights in the house and go to sit outside in silence, contemplating the cold and darkness, reminding ourselves of the blessings we enjoy that keep us warm and loved and fed and safe at this bitter time of year. After a half-hour or so, we return indoors, light candles to bring the light back and burn our Yule log, which is a section of the trunk of last year’s Yule tree decorated with pyrocantha and holly and mistletoe. We drink a toast and dig into a rich dinner, sing songs and enjoy one another’s company.
I leave you with a pair of Atheopagan carols. A joyous holiday season and happy new year to you all.
Oh Darkest Night (tune: O Holy Night)
Oh darkest night, the stars are brightly shining
It is the night of the dawning new year.
Here in the dark, for sun and warmth we’re pining
But we are cheered by our friends and family here.
The cold bright stars: a trillion worlds above us
As here on Earth we gather loved ones near.
Raise up your eyes, and see the Cosmos’ wonder
Oh Night sublime
Oh night, oh darkest night
Oh Night sublime
Oh night, oh night sublime.
Axial Tilt (Tune: Silent Night)
The way the world’s built:
Sun is north, then sun is south.
Axial precession makes seasons occur;
Sometimes bikinis and other times fur.
Insert metaphor here!
Insert metaphor here.
Things that stay alive, you see.
Meanwhile freezing and darkness reign
We’d much rather have fun than complain.
We are still alive!
We are still alive.
We’re so hoping
Soon will come Spring
Meanwhile let’s eat, drink, and sing!
Friends and family convene by the fire
Cold and darkness don’t seem quite so dire.
Pass the gravy please!
Pass the gravy please.
(repeat first verse)
Mark Green is a writer, thinker, poet, musician and costuming geek who works in the public interest sector, primarily in environmental policy and ecological conservation. He lives in Sonoma County on California’s North Coast with his wife Nemea and Miri, the Cat of Foulness. For more information on Atheopaganism, visit Atheopaganism.wordpress.com, or the Facebook group at facebook.com/groups/godlessheathens.21.