Like many people in America, I was raised in a Christian household. Christmas was the biggest and most anticipated holiday of the year when I was growing up, and it’s a holiday that’s been difficult to avoid even after leaving the church. Not that I personally wanted to avoid it– while my emotional experience of the holidays has varied widely over the years, it’s been a source of empowerment and spiritual peace to relate to Christmastime on my own terms and reincorporate it into my personal practice as an adult. My choice to do so is often met with confusion by friends and clients at first (“but aren’t you pagan?” “I thought you celebrated the solstice?” “don’t you have religious trauma?” “but y tho???”) …but yes, I am an eclectic sorcerer who celebrates Advent and Christmas in his own ways.
For me, Christmas is inseparable from the Evergreen and the Light– two concepts and archetypes which form the foundation of my own current practice. My cultural concept of Christmas feels like an Americanized version of much older traditions– and I don’t mind using such modernizations in my practice and owning my own modern day experience and social culture. In a lot of ways, this feels more affirming than trying to celebrate Yule in old timey ways that feel stilted or unnatural to me, and trying to insulate myself from modern Christmas culture or my own ancestral Christian traditions.
One of the earliest rituals I remember performing was what my childhood Baptist church called “the hanging of the greens,” where the congregation would gather by candlelight and hang garlands around the sanctuary, bless the advent wreath, sing hymns, and set the nativity altar for the coming season. I always wanted to be on candle and garland duty during that service– I had no fear of hanging over the balcony banisters to hang greens, and I’d been an altar acolyte since I was old enough to be trusted with the candlestick. These are holiday actions that have always felt intuitively right to me, so I wasn’t going to let negative Christian communities take away or tarnish something that is personally meaningful to me, even if I do not identify as a “Christian” specifically these days.
I still observe “the hanging of the greens” in my practice at home– it happens the weekend after Thanksgiving in our house. I go for a walk and cut fresh pine branches (from trees that are healthy and seem energetically willing), make offerings to the trees and the land, and then I craft wreaths and garlands for our home altars. You can find more details about how we collect greens and set up seasonal altars in this post. Most of these greens are dedicated to the Tree of Life and Knowledge (my primary spiritual patron/focal point) with specific intentions for celebrating what I personally call the Evergreen, the persistence of life, the source of growth and healing and creativity. In my practice, the Evergreen is what “springs eternal,” and always grows back from the root and the heartwood– it represents life, hope, benevolence, and the creative spirit. It feels correct to honor this natural force of renewal around the time of the Winter Solstice, when the earth reaches its farthest angle away from the sun, and then begins its return back into brighter growing seasons. Humans have observed this natural shift in light and natural energy in lots of ways– I go into more details about the “why” of some of these traditions in this post.
Preparing the winter altar with evergreens similarly aligns with magical work done with the assistance of plant spirits over the course of the season. I often work with conifers, holly, greenbriers, ivy, and ferns over winter, as these tend to stay green year round here. While there are lots of spiritual/symbolic meanings that can be ascribed to the colors red and green, if you go gathering in nature during the winter season, these are simply the colors you are most likely to find– plants are not blooming, berries like rosehips and holly are bright red, the only awake plants are evergreens and hardy groundcovers and weeds. Christmas is red and green because nature says so– humans chose to enhance our experience of this phenomenon by associating intuitive spiritual meaning, such as how Christians use holly leaves to represent the crown of thorns and holly berries to symbolize the drops of Christ’s blood spilled by it. Nature is a neutral ally for almost any spiritual practice– we can engage with nature’s symbolism in whatever way is fitting for our own chosen path.
I sometimes use a modified version of the hymn “The Holly & the Ivy” for household blessings and solstice rituals, as well as “In the Bleak Midwinter.” Sometimes I use the traditional imagery of the Holly King– if I’m using Santa Claus images for my own purposes, I always prefer ones that more directly echo images of the Holly King. But I also have a variety of typical “mall Santa” figures that have been given to me by friends over the years, or old family ornaments that have found their way into my hands, and these hold value because of the personal connections, not because it’s “Santa” or some other specific icon– some ornaments I use as talismans simply for honoring the friends who gave them to me!
I enjoy putting up a Christmas tree each year. In my own practice, I only use an artificial tree indoors for decorating purposes, although I typically also designate a living evergreen tree outside somewhere as the live Christmas tree for ritual purposes over the course of the season. I leave offerings suitable for wildlife to eat around the outdoor tree and think of this as the place where I leave gifts/tokens of gratitude for nature and nature deities that we work with, and this living tree is an altar for stewardship and interconnection with nature. The artificial indoor tree is treated more like an extension of our ancestor altar, where we hang ornaments from friends, family, and noteworthy occasions on it. We make offerings to ancestors near the indoor tree, and gather around it to exchange our gifts to one another on the Winter Solstice and again on Christmas Day. (We typically exchange spiritually/magically significant gifts on the Solstice, and secular gifts on Christmas.)
I craft a specific wreath for my own observation of advent, and set up a small modified nativity. Most years, I only use the figures for baby Jesus, the stable animals, and the angel… because I’m kinda lukewarm about humans in general, and prefer my experience of Christmas to involve minimal human noise. I prefer my setup without the myriad racial problems inherent to most nativity sets, or the gendered layers of Mary and Joseph’s posing, or the economic and cultural tone-deafness usually seen in the depictions of shepherds and wisemen. My modified nativity scene feels much more homey and interactive for this reason– I and my family bring the earthly human presence. We can choose to take on the archetypal roles of shepherds and wisemen in a conscious and positive way each time we pay respects at the altar, reorienting ourselves to our personal paths of following/seeking the Light in our own ways, bringing our own gifts and talents to offer to the path and whatever we find along it. I occasionally place other deities’ statues in and amongst the nativity figures when it suits my purposes as well.
This arrangement of figures allows me to focus on my own experience with the Light and the Evergreen and its messengers, my relationship to nature, my stewardship of the earth and animals in my own care, and how I’m relating to my social communities. My own understanding of and relationship to Jesus tends to be extra flexible as well– I find myself connecting with and giving thanks to many deities associated with the Light and nature around this time of year, and in some ways, Baby Jesus is like a concierge who receives and facilitates the intuitive interactions I am having with the Light and nature around this time of year, and he represents the ways I can choose to let my own spiritual practice and relationship to the divine be reborn again and again– he is the new year being born, and all the fresh opportunities for change, awakening, and divine closeness that come with it.
This description of my own practices is meant, as always, to serve as examples rather than prescriptions. For people who have different personal histories with Christmas or other winter holidays, what you choose to do may look quite different. I believe we can each create our own meaningful traditions, keeping familial or cultural elements we enjoy and appreciate while choosing to engage with them more consciously, and giving ourselves permission to re-imagine or leave behind that which no longer serves our spiritual path.