Tag Archives: pagan

St. Lucia’s Day Sweden

Main Piece:

The following conversation is transcribed from a conversation between me (HS) and my co-worker/informant (SC).

HS: So you have some particular traditions that you celebrate here in the United States that you got from your Swedish heritage, is that right?

SC: Oh yeah. Lots of stuff that we do and when I tell people they’re like, really? I’ve never heard of this before! So we celebrate Santa Lucia or St. Lucia Day- it’s kind of like a pre-Christmas holiday. It’s a really big thing back in Sweden where my family is from and we’ve kind of carried it on out here. It basically commemorates this girl who died while bringing food to Christians that were trying to escape the Romans. My daughter dresses up in all white to represent the purity of Saint Lucia and there’s a big feast after. Lots of amazing food. You’ve gotta try saffron bread.

Background:

My informant is a co-worker from my job. He is a Relationship Banker, and so we work a lot less closely than my other co-workers on the teller line. Regardless, he is a great guy and we enjoy a little office rivalry- he went to UCLA. Yuck. His parents immigrated to the United States from Sweden, but because he still has a lot of family living there, he visits a lot and in the process has brought back a lot of Swedish traditions to his family here in the United States.

Context:

We had gotten all of the pre-opening work done that we needed to get done, and it just so happened that our Branch Manager brought in some Dunkin Donuts to rally the morale of the troops. And so my co-worker and I sit there, grubbing some glazed donuts, going about the usual surface-level conversation. The typical weekend updates, customer complaints, all the good stuff. I decided to shift the conversation to talk about a tradition that my family and I had done the past weekend and asked if he had any that he did with his family. He was delighted to hear the question and started elaborating immediately.

Thoughts:

It was interesting to learn about this tradition and how important it is in Swedish culture. According to some brief research that I did about the holiday, it is supposed to mark a time of light and happiness in a time of a lot of darkness. A lot of schools end classes early so that families can prepare for the festivities. The aspect of the holiday that I found most intriguing was how it incorporates both pagan and Christian traditions. This has to do with an inherent struggle between light and darkness that Pagan culture elaborates a lot upon, as the geographic location of Sweden leads to long periods of light and darkness instead of the typical day. Scholars have gone as far as to say that St. Lucia is simply the Norse goddess Freya “dressed up” as a Christian saint.

Source of Pagan “dress up” theory:
https://www.norwegianamerican.com/victory-light-winters-dark-gloom/#:~:text=Some%20scholars%20believe%20that%20the,up%E2%80%9D%20as%20a%20Christian%20saint.

We Are A Circle- A Pagan Chant

Background: My informant (M) shared with me her experience with a song we learned growing up. We attended a daycare, which was run by our grandmother, from infancy to 5 years old, and would frequently stay there during summer breaks. She shared with me her perspective on a ritual we performed daily. Neither of us had ever thought too much about this ritual until we got older, but talking about it now we could tell there was probably more to this chant than we realized as kids. Our grandmother always talked about the importance of being kind to the Earth and thanking it whenever we took something from it, like food. As kids, this was just part of growing up, and the chant was part of our daily routine, we agreed that we never thought about the words or meaning until we got older.

M’s Perspective on The Ritual: 

M: “I guess it was a way for all of the daycare kids to come together and bond and be calm. We would sit in a circle with a candle in the middle and we would sing childhood songs and tell nursery rhymes. At the end of the “circle time,” as our grandmother called it, we would have a closing ceremony of sorts where we would stand up and join hands and we would sing this one song. She played it on a CD, but we all knew all the words and we would look at each other and sing. There were a couple of verses to the song that I don’t remember very well, but during the chorus, we would all sing loud and join hands and walk in a circle. Then it would be another verse and we would stop walking. The verses all had to do with the elements, you know fire and wind and stuff. And with each new chorus, we would walk faster and faster until it got a little crazy and we were screaming this song (laughs). I don’t think she does it anymore because it started getting a little aggressive. But anyway the closing line had something to do with coming “FACE TO FACE” and we would all get really close to each other- you know face to face- and we would throw our hands up and someone would blow out the candle and that was it (laughs and pauses).

And we did this for probably ten years or more. It was a little strange now that I’m thinking about it, like what was that even about? We never really anything else that I can look back on as being out of the ordinary.         

Main Text:

We are a circle within a circle

With no beginning and never ending

You hear us sing, you hear us cry

Now hear us all you, spirits of air and sky

We are a circle within a circle

With no beginning and never ending

Inside our hearts there grows a spark

Love and desire, a burning fire

We are a circle within a circle

With no beginning and never ending

Within our blood, within our tears

There lies the altar of living waiter

We are a circle within a circle

With no beginning and never ending

Take our fear, take our pain

Take the darkness into the Earth again

We are a circle within a circle

With no beginning and never ending

The circle closes between two worlds

To mark this sacred space where we come face to face

We are a circle within a circle

With no beginning and never ending

Analysis: I looked up this song to find the lyrics we remember from our grandmother’s. I also wanted to see if I could find an explanation for it. What I found was the song has strong ties to paganism and Wicca, relating to a spiritual bond with the Earth and magic. The song is written by Rick Hamouris in the 80s so I’m not sure when or where our grandmother learned it. It seems like it’s been adopted by Wicca and other pagan religions and some say it is a song for festivals or a full moon chant. The book Casting Circles and Ceremonies by Oberon Zell-Ravenheart and Morning Glory Zell-Ravenheart explains how circle chants like this one are effective for “casting circles” and “calling quarters.” These terms refer to creating the circle, which is the safe and sacred space and utilizing the Earth’s quarters-the four elements and the four directions. 

You can read more about this here: http://www.egreenway.com/wands8/envoke1.htm

Origin of Chinese New Year Fireworks

Informant:

M, a 21-year-old, Chinese male who grew up in Beijing until he turned 17 before moving to the United States. He now lives in Los Angeles, California, and attends the University of Southern California with his girlfriend who is from Southern China.

Background info:

M’s first language was Mandarin. His family spoke Mandarin and he only learned English before moving to the United States. Because he grew up in Beijing, he believes himself to be fairly knowledgeable about the folklore that every day people participate in. This is one of the Chinese traditions in their household.

Context:

This is a Chinese tradition that M’s family would participate in during the Lunar New Year in Beijing. Because he was close with all his family, he and his younger sister would often have to do these traditions twice a year, once with their mother’s side of the family and again with their father’s side. This was told to me during a small get-together at his house. The following is a transcript of the piece as told by M.

Main piece:

“Lunar New Years is a big deal in China, so my grandmother… my grandmother on my mother’s side… has three daughters, and each other my cousins all come back for Lunar New Years, so we are all pretty close. So… traditions, right? Lots of people know that China does fireworks during the Lunar New Year celebration, but like here and Japan people get together to watch the fireworks that are like set up by some organizations. Uh, in Beijing, people set up their own fireworks, and everyone in the city participates, so it sounds like the city is in the middle of a war. Millions of fireworks go off from like midnight until like five in the morning and you won’t be able to sleep. So, the folklore behind firing off fireworks is that in Chinese stories about Paganism, there is a monster that is called Nian, which has the same sound as the word year. Nian, year, New Year, you know? So like this monster goes around eating people and stuff and the people don’t know what to do. They decided that they are going to launch explosive fire-powder into the sky to scare it off. It worked, and now that is why we call a year a year, because it is named after Nian the monster. Now, it has become less about that and more people do fireworks because they are fun, but my mother would always tell us that before we could go out and light them. We had to know that there was a reason to like play with explosives.”

Thoughts:

I like that his parents would make sure that the kids knew why a tradition exists before allowing them to participate in them. I think that it is interesting that they place a lot of importance on the folklore behind this tradition, while in the United States, the average parent does not explain why we celebrate the fourth of July. Kids learn about it in school, but that almost takes away from the tradition because it is taught institutionally, rather than organically. I was most intrigued to learn that the word year in Mandarin is pronounced the same as the creature in the story. It shows just how much society takes from folklore.

Saint John’s Tide

Content:
Informant – “Saint John’s Tide is on Midsummer, the eve of June 21st. There’s a big fire. Everyone gathers around the fire and one at a time they throw their intentions for the new year into the bonfire. Where you want to be in the coming year, what you want to do, whatever. Then you leap over the fire.”

Context:
Informant – “It has very pagan roots. It’s the longest day of the year. After this, the days get shorter. As winter approaches, our thoughts move away from the external. We begin to self contemplate more. It’s a good time to think about your plans for the coming year.”
The informant learned about this ritual in the 70s, but she doesn’t remember exactly where. She thinks she was invited to one.

Analysis:
Throwing your intentions into the fire is very reminiscent of Greek prayer burning. Jumping over the fire sounds like a trial, a way to prove yourself worthy of your desires. It sounds like a test, a purging of old weaknesses and fears before the dark, scary winter comes.

Wooden Shoes for Sinterklaas

The informant is a 66-year old mother, step-mother, former poverty-lawyer, property manager/owner, and is involved in many organizations and non profits. She was born in the Netherlands and immigrated to the United States with her family when she was four years old. She grew up in California, where she also attended college and law school. She lived in the suburbs of Chicago for a short while with her husband and family, and now they live in Pacific Palisades, California.

 

Informant: “St. Nicholas Day there is like December 7th or 8th. It was a secular holiday. I mean everybody, all the Jewish people (all 10% of them, the few left after the war), we all celebrated St. Nicholas day. So, your dad is in the Netherlands with us on St. Nicholas Day, we call it Sinterklaas there, and he looks out the window and says, ‘Oh yes, really secular holiday.’ There’s the St. Nick, whose you know, this cardinal. White haired cardinal all decked out. And then, Swarte Piet, which is Black Pete was a little black guy with him. On St. Nicholas Day in Holland we always put out our wooden shoes. We’d put out the wooden shoes because then they’d be filled with chocolate. They would do it really literally though. So if you were “bad” that year, you would actually get coal in your wooden shoe. Not like they do here in America with the stockings and presents. Even in the United States early on we would always get packages from the Netherlands before St. Nicholas Day.

 

Interviewer: “So could it be any shoes?”

 

Informant: “A wooden shoe! Instead of stockings it was the wooden shoes. If you were a bad kid, then St. Nicholas would put coal in your shoe as opposed to, you know, chocolates.”

 

Analysis: I remember in class we talked about most Christmas traditions being based on older Pagan festivals, and many religious holidays’ links with earth-cycle rituals. St. Nicholas Day being a secular ritual in the Netherlands could be an example of a Christmas tradition’s origins being based in pagan tradition, or it could also be an effect of Christianization of the area where the Netherlands is now.

 

The figure of Black Pete, or Swarte Piet as he is called in Dutch, really fascinates me. I did some research on him and found that there has actually been a good deal of controversy surrounding “Santa’s Black-faced Helper”, as a writer for NPR refers to the figure. It’s not just that there is a statue of a little black man next to the more favorably-sculpted Saint; each year, there is a Sinterklaas parade, during which several individuals in black face dance around as St. Nicholas’s helpers.

 

There are different stories as to why Swarte Piet is swarte. Some say it is because he was once the devil – this in and of itself is problematic in the context of blackface minstrelcy—that black is associated with the devil goes to support racial supremacy theories. Some say that Swarte Piet was a slave of Sinterklaas. Others say Piet is just dirty from sliding down too many chimneys helping St. Nicholas.

 

Regardless of how Piet became Swarte, in recent years there have been more and more people upset by the blackface tradition associated with Sinterklaas parades. It will be interesting to see how the controversy plays out. As of now, the Dutch courts have refused to intervene.

 

For more information on blackface in Sinterklaas celebrations see: http://www.npr.org/blogs/codeswitch/2014/12/01/367704573/santas-black-faced-helpers-are-under-fire-in-the-netherlands