by Matt Toussaint
Have you ever wondered why in modern Christmas tradition we do the things we do? What is the origin of the Christmas tree, with the star on top, decorations about, and all the brightly wrapped presents beneath? Or the idea behind Santa Claus who jets around the globe in a magic sleigh with flying reindeer – defying both time and space – to deliver the world’s children a bounty of Christmas gifts? And since when did Santa and the birth of Jesus have anything to do with each other? Where do these stories come from – and better yet: what are we actually celebrating on Christmas morning?
There are answers to these questions. And the history is not so farfetched or even that hidden. You just have to know where to look. And the first place we look is the North Pole; seriously – in ancient Siberia, near the top of the world. The story of Santa and his likely origins begins where he supposedly lives: the frigid North.
In this wintry-wonderland, if you go searching for Santa, you may not find him or his Elvin factory – but you will find groups of indigenous people native to what we know as Siberia. Among these cultures are the northern Tungusic people, known as the Evenki. The Evenki were predominantly hunter-gatherers as well as reindeer herders. Their survival depended largely upon the health and vitality of their domesticated reindeer. The reindeer provided the Evenki and other northern tribes with everything from clothing, housing material, wares and tools from the bones and antlers, transportation (yes, they ride reindeer!), milk, as well as cultural and religious inspiration.
THE TRUE MEANING OF PAGANISM
by Ryan Stone
The word “paganism” has come to refer to various pre-Christian religions belonging to a number of ancient cultures—those from Greece, Rome, Egypt, Scandinavia, and so on. It has come to also represent, in some circles, the modern ideology of Wicca and the followers of revived versions of the old practices. The truth about “paganism”, however, is that it is a historically inaccurate phrase in the context of these aforementioned faiths. Although it is now the accepted term for these religions, it is important to examine where the word truly came from and what it initially meant, allowing for a better, all-inclusive understanding of the world’s religious past.
The term “paganism” was revived during the Renaissance when writers were trying to differentiate the old traditions from their contemporary Christian faith. The term itself stems from the Latin paganus translated loosely along the lines of “country dweller” or “rustic”; thus it was initially a word describing a person of locality rather than a religion. However, because of its usage in ancient texts, medieval authors mistakenly believed it referenced a religious sect and thereby gave it the corresponding connotation. In actuality, there was a different word used to describe the “pagans” as they are called today, and that word too stemmed first and foremost from the location of the religious supporters.
According to scholar Peter Brown of Princeton University, “Hellene” was initially utilized in place of “paganism”. “Hellene” was a reference to Ἕλλην (Hellas), the native ancient Greek name for what is now called Greece. Brown explains that when Christianity started making appearances in the eastern communities, “Hellene” was used to differentiate the non-Christians from the Christians. Those from Hellas tended to remain faithful to the old religions, but with the strife between Judaism and Christianity beginning, the Jewish faction needed to ensure they were not incorrectly associated with them. As they were not from Greece, “Hellene” became the perfect title.
In the Latin west, it was more common for the various religions to refer to themselves by their ethnic origins rather than by the gods they worshipped—they simply referred to themselves (in their own language) as Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, etc., simultaneously insinuating their religious factions as well. This form of labeling was largely due to the fact that the political and religious aspects of life were a unified entity. Thus, the tradition of ethnic titling appears to have been continued by the early Christians. As far as ancient sources can tell, it wasn’t until the Late Roman Empire that the term “pagan” began to be used instead, as it was an easy way to lump all the non-Christians together in conversation, decrees, etc. It rose to popularity as a matter of convenience rather than of accuracy and respect.
It is important to note that “paganism” is not intended to differentiate the polytheistic religions from the monotheistic. The number of gods does not apply to the term because many so-called “pagans” would have not considered it important to differentiate themselves based on the number of gods they worshipped. Followers of the ancient religions did not necessarily have anything against Christianity based on its preference for a singular deity—many cults within each sect had a primary deity at the center of the religion, beneath which subordinate deities were also worshipped. “Paganism” as a title was intended only to reference the non-Christians (and the non-Jews), isolating them into one solitary category that could be more easily destroyed and replaced.
This effort of combining all non-Christian religions under one umbrella was, in fact, a clever strategy by the early Christians to remove the “pagan” faiths altogether. Using the Norse traditions as an example, the Vikings of the early medieval period had no true name for their religious following. In truth, the word religion would have been an unknown, foreign term to them. The Nordic tribes preferred the word “customs” as—like the Greeks and Romans—their rituals, beliefs, and traditions were undefined and fluidly interpreted, orally passed down rather than rigidly studied. There was no all-encompassing word for the belief in the Aesir and Vanir, and the various other beings and deities the ancient Norse worshipped, and there was no written text discussing their practices until the Christian author Snorri Sturluson wrote their mythology down in the 13th century.
According to Gareth Williams in Viking: Life and Legend, what is now considered the Norse religion is actually the “legacy of the Christian missionaries”, their textual product a “concentrated target” that is much easier to remove and erase than the amalgamation of gods liberally worshipped. Consolidating the various Norse—and every other “pagan”—tradition into a simplified faith with recorded rules and codes provided the early Christians with a more straightforward target to remove and replace.
Though the phrase “paganism” is widely used to describe followers of the various ancient religions, it is important to understand from where the term originates and the misconceptions behind its usage. Too many centuries have passed now—the word “paganism” will continue to label these supporters despite its original meaning. But it is never too late to be informed of the origins of the term, thereby allowing a better comprehension of the history of the ancient followers.
Brown, Peter. Late Antiquity: a guide to the postclassical world (Harvard University Press: Massachusetts, 1999.) s.v. “Pagan”.
Cameron, Alan G. The Last Pagans of Rome (Oxford University Press: New York, 2011.)
Davies, Owen (2011). Paganism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press: New York, 2011.)
Robert, P. & Scott, N. A History of Pagan Europe (Barnes & Noble Books: New York, 1995.)
Swain, “Defending Hellenism: Philostratus, in Honour of Apollonius,” in Apologetics, p. 173
Williams, Gareth, Peter Penz, and Matthias Wemhoff. Vikings: Life and Legend (Cornell University Press: New York, 2014.)
York, Michael. Pagan Theology: Paganism as a World Religion (New York University Press: New York, 2003.)
Dear Compassionate Gardener, how do I keep negativity, bad news and bad vibes out of my life? I’m trying to do a 180 turn and find the right path for me. How long did it take you?
Great question! Thanks for asking. My intention is to keep this blog straight-forward and simple so I’ll let those two principles guide my response.
Your question sounds like you are changing…or at least wanting to change. Congratulations! My years have taught me repeatedly that we’re always changing. Its all about change. I’ve come to believe resisting change is one source of suffering (Buddha thought so too). Bluntly: its all change. Sometimes change hurts.
I truly think and feel that living is change. Its kind of like we’re created to change…born to change…live to change…and die to change as well.
Change is a process. While catastrophic events can initiate change, most of us change one moment at a time, an hour at a time, a day at a time. Pretty soon, those days turn into weeks, weeks into months…and alas…I’m changed!
I change. You change. Everything changes – including our relationships with ourselves, each other, our jobs and our environments.
I counsel that baby steps of change are just fine. They also tend to produce less dramatic results. As I’m allergic to drama…gradual change is OK for me. Think: ITS ALL PROCESS. One action…one reaction at a time.
Embrace change. Resistance is futile.
Psychologists suggest that awareness is the first step of change. So you might begin by asking: What needs to change?
Recognizing the negativity and its pervasive allure is not good for us is a big change for many because its counter-cultural.
Once recognition of the extent of negativity happens…it can be a bit of a jolt because we’re overwhelmed with negativity but we didn’t really understand its scope or its depth. This stuff is overwhelming.
For me negativity and fear are almost always hand in hand. That’s a toxic friendship.
Clarify your values. What is important to you today? Write it down. Start small. The list is going to change. Expect the change…add/subtract to the list as you go. I keep several lists in my smart phone: values list, goals list, forgiveness list, peace list. They’re there when I need to remind myself.
While I continue to judge myself (sometimes too critically), I work daily to stop judging others. This is very hard for me. I grew up in a family, religion and profession that not only values evaluations and judgments…judging was rewarded and reinforced repeatedly. We live in a judgmental world.
Less judgment…more acceptance is a value. Tolerance is a value. Compassion is a value. Forgiveness is a value. Live and let live is a value. We are one is a value. We are all interrelated is a value. Let your values be your guide.
Change is an inside process that manifests outside.
External changes that are not mirrored internally are smoke and mirrors. I call that calling a spade a spade. My sister who is developmentally challenged would look at me and simply say: “Bryan, it is what it is.” She’s right.
Knowledge is power. Use Google. Sift through the propaganda for accurate, reliable and accountable information. Once I truly began to really understand the methods and affects of the American diary industry… justifying my milk or cheese consumption became increasingly more difficult. Its called cognitive dissonance. It’s a real social psychological construct and it is VERY powerful if you pay attention to it. (Think: Psych 101’s Leon Festinger).
Ask questions. It’s always wise to ask: who says so? Challenge responses.
Recognize what you can change. Release what you cannot change. Think small bites… or else you will choke.
Pay attention. Wake up. Don’t believe everything you read. Fox News is not divinely inspired. All media is about the spin. That’s the way it is.
Practice gratitude every single day. Then practice forgiveness everyday.
Whenever possible imitate nature.
We are integrally interconnected with nature. We’ll never control nature. We are nature.
Consistently move toward the path of least resistance. Think rivers…think flow.
Be prepared to recognize that the opposite may also be true.
Stop hanging out with negative people. This is really hard for some. Its a choice and you get to decide. I prefer to be alone than mingle with toxicity.
Some really quick “get down” suggestions to consider:
Sell or donate your television. If you choose to keep it, choose not to watch it one day a week.
Limit social media including email to short intervals. Use a kitchen timer or your smart phone alarm if that helps.
Mute your cell phone during meals and stop paying attention to it during conversations. Just do it!
Host a pot luck dinner. Suggest a discussion theme that matters to you or invite a guest speaker or facilitator. Check out who shows up.
IDEA: There is a World Water Day Event coming up next month. Host a potluck and talk about water…not in Africa…in Lake Mead.
Keep your response to negativity immediate and local. Its very easy to get caught up in the escalation of visions and voices of hate broadcast 24/7. Acknowledge it. Release it. Ask gently: What can I do right here and right now to mitigate that negativity. (This relates to one of my motivations to post “Good News” pieces on social media every single day. Believe me, some days it ain’t easy to find good news).
Embrace the principle that less is more.
Decrease distractions. (Why am I so attracted to minimalism). De-clutter. Don’t stop with your clothes closet or dresser drawers. Release stuff.
Silence is my friend. Drive more in silence. Sit more in silence at home. Walk or run in silence. While I have nothing against music… silence speaks.
There is a time and place for everything.
Speaking of silence, listen more…to yourself and to others. Rehearse less.
Get back to nature repeatedly. This is huge. Don’t let is sound trite. Embrace the Mojave Desert. See the sky. Look at the moon. Discover Spring emerging all over.
Be mindful. Google “mindfulness.” Lots of people write books about it. Enough said.
Remember that past experience filter present perception.
There is a huge difference between “news” and “opinion.” I filter all opinion pieces and editorials through my own criteria. I learn to trust some. Reject others as simply not for me to read, listen to or pay any attention to.
If it pisses me off…why am I doing it?
Surround yourself with people who are open to you, new experiences, new perceptions and new opportunities.
Teach yourself to care more deeply about what matters while paying less attention to what doesn’t matter.
Say out-loud: It doesn’t matter to me.
Can I flip this person, place or thing to a positive? If not, I release it.
Let it go = delete!
Erase. Use whatever mental imagery works best for you… find it and use it. You will probably need to do this more than once. Repetition works. You might have to do it 74 times a day. It doesn’t matter. Just do it.
Change does not happen in a vacuum. In fact, change affects many things on many levels directly and indirectly.
Change in patterns yield different patterns.
Change in habits witness new habits.
Change in attitudes bring new perspectives.
Trust your intuition. What’s your instinct saying? Most of us manifest feelings in our abdomens or chests. For some, this will mean think less…feel more.
While I may be in the minority, I find satire and sarcasm distasteful, not useful and poor communication. I avoid it.
Your “180 turn” is more likely to look like gradual movement just a few degrees at a time. That’s OK. Even 90 degree right angle changes can jolt the hell out of you. The very fact that you can ask the question about change…suggests you are changing.
Quick story: The notion of “unspeakable horrors” knocked me over the head with a “2X4” while writing a paper in seminary last year. In the middle of the night with thoughts flowing freely, sentences forming and paragraphs coming together…suddenly I stumbled on the quote “unspeakable horrors.” I was typing furiously, thoughts racing…and I became very angry. The words confronted me out of a complacency. I became intensely preoccupied with defining and understanding how any horror could be considered unspeakable. The words didn’t mean anything anymore. If a person can do it…a society has the responsibility to not only talk about…but to also deal with it. This single moment was a turning point for me in my life and in my ministry. The realization is still affecting my life, my choices, my actions.
My ministry teaches me daily that the loss of a love through death is a transformational experience for many. My own father’s death, the sudden death of my best friend and the death of my favorite pet – all were profound moments of change for me.
As always, its up to us to decide whether that change is for the better…or for the worse.
Believe that little shifts in values, responses and reactions can and do have impact both short and long term impact. Think ripple affect.
Remind yourself that bad news, gossip, awful events, tales of horror and evil stories are poison.
Daily, I filter out TMZ, Fox News, apocalyptic predictions and terror propaganda. I choose not to pay attention to it.
On an index card in my bathroom, I read: “You are either part of the solution or part of the problem.”
Caution #1: My experience is not your experience. My path is not your path. What works for me may not work for you.
Caution #2: Change will affect your relationships on more levels than you expect. That can be painful.
Caution #3: At least someone in your life will accuse you of overdosing on Prozac or being Pollyanna delusional. So be it.
Caution #4: Never forget there’s always two sides to every story.
Whenever possible…and it’s always possible: Consider peace instead.
Change hurtful thoughts to compassionate thinking every time even when its very hard to imagine or feel.
Change what you can change. Make peace with what’s left.
Remember that I create my experience. I can control my experience. I can change my experience.
It’s really helpful to find a way to “meditate” or ‘pray” or simply be in the presence of what you consider Sacred habitually. Daily is optimal. Weekly is a start. Nothing fancy or complicated. Quiet. Peaceful. Whether it looks like jogging, Yoga, Zen meditation or watching trees in the wind – be mindful.
Two resources I’ve read many times and frequently refer to:
Buddhist Boot Camp by Timber Hawkeye
Love is Letting Go of Fear by Gerald Jampolsky