Pagans, artists celebrate an alternative Christmas centered on light and rebirth
Sandy • Andwyn Lay smiles lovingly on the small green tree, lit with bulbs, in his living room. The mistletoe is at the ready in a nearby pot. A freshly bought duck, nestled in potatoes, roasts away in the kitchen oven.
But the 42-year-old former television producer isn't celebrating Christmas. As a high priest who oversees what he refers to as a British-style coven, Lay is deep in the mystic realm of what Pagans call Yule.
The celebration is all about light, or the lack thereof, as the Earth's axis relative to the sun changes height above the equator to give those who live in the northern hemisphere a December solstice. Daylight recedes as the nights grow colder and longer. What the Pagan Yule refers to as the "five dark days" culminate Dec. 21, the darkest day of all. Then the Earth cycles back toward more light with longer days.
Pagan Yule ceremonies are suffused in light and darkness as spiritual metaphors that carry deep personal significance in relation to the cycles of Earth and nature, Lay said. His Sandy house is a jumble of symbols important to his religious practice. Most of them reside in a small temple he maintains in a downstairs room. This time of year, one is elevated almost above all.
"Mistletoe is very important to us," he said. "It's the seed of God, cut from the sacred tree once a year as a symbol of the return of the child of light."
If that sounds familiar to Christian ears, it ought to. In the centuries before Christianity swept through northern and central Europe, pre-Christian societies marked the darkest days of the year and the coming return of light with feasts and the burning of a Yule log. Pines, holly, mistletoe and other plant life that retained green color through the dark days were honored. For a time in England, as Puritanism surged under Cromwell's rule, all such Pagan accoutrements were banned as un-Christian. The return to old symbols was gradual, but eventually so complete that today most of us never give the Pagan roots of Christmas decorations a second thought.
"If most people knew just how Pagan their religion was, they'd freak," Lay said.
Seeing the light • Winter solstice has become so popular that many artists want a piece of its mystic action.
Nancy Holt's 1976 environmental installation "Sun Tunnels," four large tubes of concrete and steel aligned with the winter and summer solstices, is old news for those who've trekked to Utah's Great Basin Desert near Lucin, Utah, to behold them.
But this December, the Utah Museum of Fine Arts made Holt's work the inspirational center of its semi-annual Artful Afternoon event. On Dec. 15, about 500 people gathered at the museum on the University of Utah campus for this winter solstice celebration.
This event, too, was all about light, or sometimes the lack thereof, as participants constructed luminaries or crafted kaleidoscopes. Those who made luminaries could take home battery-operated "flameless" votives. Where light is the symbol of spiritual deities for Pagans and Christians, it became the stuff of visual art for the creatively inclined.
"It was about the ways different uses of light often bring us to different ways of seeing," said Dana Hernandez, the museum's development and marketing specialist. "We wanted an event true to the holiday season, but also true to the museum's mission of perspective through art."
Holt's "Sun Tunnels" are well-known to local Pagans, Lay said, but that doesn't mean they are well-used. Some do plan solstice celebrations at the Lucin installation, winter and summer, but that doesn't mean Lay is among those who take the trip. "I'm a bit of a hermit," he admits.
Gretchen Faulk, a research coordinator at the Hunstman Cancer Institute and "out" Pagan, describes her home decorations as similar to those of any Christian home. Sometimes the only difference is in names. Her Santa Claus, for example, is a "Solstice Santa."
"Mother Goddesses whose King-Son was born at winter solstice for the benefit of all humanity (a child who ultimately dies for the good of all) were usual in Pagan cultures," Faulk said. "I'd just rather sing 'The Holly and the Ivy' than 'Away in a Manger.' "
Into the holiday, hesitantly • Sarah Chorn, a 29-year-old freelance editor who lives in West Valley City, said that as atheists, she and her husband rarely celebrated Christmas, if at all.
"I always had trouble rationalizing the celebration of a humble person, who also healed the poor, by filling up my shopping cart and going into debt," Chorn said.
So during the first years of their marriage, she and her husband used holiday money to buy furniture. Two Christmases ago, they spent Christmas week traveling in Ireland.
Then everything changed, including their Christmas celebrations, when the couple had a baby girl.
Even if Christmas had lost its religious meaning for them long ago, Chorn and her husband decided the sight of lights and other decorations would be a treasure for their 16-month-old daughter. Chorn cast back to her own childhood and her Mormon upbringing. Once you're a parent, she reasoned, why not get sucked up into it?
"I had memories of Christmas lights on the tree, so I wanted my daughter to have the same," Chorn said. "I've never met an atheist who says you can't celebrate in some way simply because you're an atheist. They probably exist somewhere out there, but I've never met them. For us, now, the holiday is about pulling together as a family to recall everything that happened during the year."
Lay said celebrating the winter solstice, Pagan-style, isn't about rejecting other religious traditions or ceremonies. His living room also contains symbols of Buddhism, Shinto and Christianity. "We don't throw away something that's beautiful just because it's not part of our practice," he said.
While skeptical toward religions in general, Chorn bristles slightly at the suggestion that she somehow might be missing the "true meaning" of the holiday simply by celebrating it as she and her husband see fit.
"It's a holiday that means something different to everyone," she said. "I don't think that's a 'war on Christmas.' I think that's diversity, and that's wonderful."
'Nancy Holt: Sightlines' exhibit
When • Through Jan. 20. Tuesday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Wednesday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m.; Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday, 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Closed Mondays and holidays.
Where • Utah Museum of Fine Arts, University of Utah campus, 410 Campus Center Drive, Salt Lake City.
Info • $7 adults, $5 youth and seniors, free to U students, faculty and staff. Call 801-581-7332 or visit http://www.umfa.utah.edu.