Ah, those nativity scenes outside churches this time of year are pretty aren’t they? The little baby, the cattle, the quaint little manger. I think they’re lovely – yet I don’t actually believe the nativity story for a moment.
And I’m not alone. We live in a multicultural society where this holiday season means different things to different people. That’s a good thing. Cultural and spiritual differences can add richness and relevance to a society. And if we choose to embrace that, these differences can be unifying instead of divisive. If someone says “Merry Christmas” to me, I’ll say “Merry Christmas” back, even though to me there’s no “Christ” in the Christmas season.
No one “owns” Christmas. In fact, the pagan origins of many Christmas traditions — decorated evergreens, gift-giving, merry-making, even the date of December 25 — are well-documented and accepted by all but the most stubborn or uninformed.
Despite the beauty of this season, many people — particularly those who identify as spiritual but not religious — are beginning to seek new ways to bring meaning to it. They’re looking for new traditions and new rituals that resonate with their personality, lifestyle and values. While those nativity scenes are pretty, they just don’t hit home — in fact, they only amplify one’s non-belief.
This kind of feeling is especially common for people who are drawn toward the comfort and beauty of spiritual ritual, but reject religious doctrine. Many people want to express a sense of reverence for life; however, the religious themes they see around them seem empty and foreign. If this resonates with you, who knows? Maybe something old can offer you something new.
In antiquity, Vesta, goddess of the home and hearth, resided in the household fire or in the flames of candles placed on the family shrine, called a lararium. At meal-time, offerings of salted-flour or libations of olive oil or milk were sprinkled into her flame. For a thousand years, she was honored as one of the most important and beloved goddesses in Rome, until the first Christian emperors criminalized her worship, even in the privacy of people’s own homes.
Today, Vesta’s flame is once again illuminating lives and homes and families are honoring her with offerings sprinkled into her flame. This sweet, simple ritual nourishes the family unit and creates a sense of family solidarity. It’s a fundamental ritual that hasn’t changed in over three thousand years. And considering today’s rate of divorce and family break-down, this ancient tradition has a lot to teach modern families.
To honor Vesta — and your own home — this holiday season, add a Flamma Vesta candle to your kitchen table. Set offerings of salted-flour, powdered sugar or wine beside it. The idea is to symbolically sustain your family unit by “feeding” the flame.
Better yet, create a modern lararium or family shrine near the entrance to your home — to symbolically bless the comings and goings of family members — and adorn it with a candle and meaningful family mementoes. Place branches of decorated evergreen on it. This represents the hope and promise of life in the dead of winter, and welcomes the upcoming winter solstice.
Instead of decorating your home with red poinsettias, look for those gorgeous white ones. Their white colour pays homage to the “purity” of this virgin goddess, as well as the white marble of her temples and the white robes worn by her Vestal priestesses.
Like any faith or custom, the Vesta tradition has evolved over the centuries. And if it can survive — indeed, once again begin to thrive — through the years and the changes, perhaps it can teach us a thing or two about the nature of change. Change isn’t bad. It isn’t a thing to be feared. It’s inevitable. And funny enough, “change” often means a rediscovery of the past.
Perhaps it is part of the human experience that everything old tends to become new again. That, combined with the freedom of religion we enjoy in our society, may be the reason that many people are re-igniting ancient traditions that are remarkably in-tune with modern values, and which bring new meaning for them to the holidays.
So Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. Pax tecum.
The Author: Debra Macleod
Debra Macleod, B.A., LL.B. is a couples and family mediator, a top-selling marriage author-expert and a popular resource for major media in North America. She is the leading proponent of the New Vesta tradition and order. Her New Vesta book series and Add a Spark women’s seminars “spread the flame” into modern lives and homes. You can visit Debra’s private practice at DebraMacleod.com or her Vesta website at NewVesta.com.