My family was never very religious. Dad's side of the family is Catholic but we never attended Catholic church. Mom's side is Presbyterian and when we were visiting the grandparents we'd go in to church with them sometimes. I remember some Sunday school classes that I think must have been while visiting grandparents as well. Before dinner we'd say grace in what I think is a standard Catholic manner. "Bless us O, Father, and these, thy gifts..."
I consider myself a spiritual person but have defined myself as agnostic for many years. I think that there is some kind of power in the Universe that tends to promote life and generally intends that intelligent life should be well cared for by that which is around it. I have no idea what that power is. I think that many, many people have had direct experience with that power and that their attempts to describe it are at the core of the world's religions. I think I have had direct experience with that power but I can not prove that I have and can think of many alternate explanations for those experiences. So I retain, paradoxically, a healthy scepticism and a deep faith.
Wait, isn't this supposed to be be about holidays?
Late in high school I began the process of estranging myself from my family. By the time I went to college, I was this bundle of anger and resentment for what, I see now, were pretty trivial reasons. I stopped getting excited about Christmas during this time. It didn't hold any fascination for me anymore and, in an effort to define something about it, I came to actively dislike it. Christmas meant family and family was something I was angry about. Perhaps I believed I could strike back at them all by being unhappy at the family gatherings but I know now I was just hurting myself.
I eventually got better but Christmas never became part of my life again. I built a family of my choosing and was introduced to Twelfth Night. That and New Year's Eve became the celebrations of my tribe. This made more sense to me: they were distant enough from the Winter Solstice that the lengthening days could be noticed. The celebrations, however, were never tied into my spirituality. They were celebrations of camaraderie, of the joy of having each other around, of being alive and the end of the long, cold nights.
Then I came up with a meaning of the season that felt right to me on a spiritual level. Something that fit into the cycle of seasons on this planet but that also spoke to me on a spiritual level. I've written about it before, but wanted to put it down again; a remembrance of an observance never held.
On the night of the Solstice, as the darkness closes around me, I light the fire I laid carefully during the daylight hours. The wind whispers coldly through the pines and the snow crunches loudly under my boots. The night is clear and dark and here, far from the lights of the big cities, the stars burn brightly in the black above. The swaying trees that surround me blot out pieces of them for fleeting moments, but their fire is distant and eternal.
The light of my close fire grows and dances on the dark shapes of the trees before its warmth can be felt. There is a stack of wood nearby and I hope it will be enough to last until morning on this longest of nights. I watch the fire for a while, letting it burn out its youthful enthusiasm and build mature coals. The yellow light becomes a deep red and it is time to begin.
I settle on a stump near the fire and wrap my heavy cloak around me. I think first of Grandpa Matheny. He died while I was still angry with my family. So angry that I couldn't weep for him. He was a fine man and I have no memory of him ever being cruel to me. He deserved a better remembrance and I give it to him now. I brush the tears that fall from my eyes and hang my head. I think of his jokes, of his cursing in "Finnish," and of him working in his garden. This clears my head and sets me in the mood for the task of the night.
One by one I go through my dead. The ones closest to me that have passed mostly peacefully. I meditate on the impact I have had on the lives around me. How many have died because of my actions? Because of my inaction?
If my belief is that the mysterious power of the Universe wants us to live and wants us to live happily, have I been acting in accord with that belief? What have been my failings and what have I learned from them?
Through the night, I add more wood to the fire as the chill grows. Wisps of smoke conjure up shades. Fire licks the new fuel like a demon's tongue. The wind creeps around my collar, accusing whispers from those that are cold tonight and for evermore. For all the long night I think on death, the dead, the cold that draws us all inexorably to its embrace.
My wood has run out and the fire is naught but a bed of coals and ash. It still gives off some heat, but I have to huddle close to feel it. The wind blows bits of smoke to sting my eyes now and again. Slowly, I become aware of the differences between the trees and the ground from which they spring. Looking up, I see the sky has lightened and the distant, cruel stars are slowly obscured by the growing aura of our own star. The dawn has come again, as it must. Once again, we have survived the night. I have survived the night and will go on living. I will do my best to act in accordance with my beliefs for another year until it is time to examine them once again.