This past week my husband and I were out of town visiting his family. It was a great trip, full of beautiful locations, plenty of good food and drink, and lots of family fun. The only thing making it difficult for me was the holiday of Christmas, around which the whole holiday season revolves in both my husband’s family and my own. It’s not that I have anything against Christmas as such. I retain deep respect for the religious tradition in which I was raised, and from an entirely irreligious standpoint the civic celebration of yuletide is definitely festive and heartwarming — as the Andy Williams tune has it, “it’s the most wonderful time of the year.” But when it comes to the feast of Christmas itself, I have such a welter of emotions and associations around the whole thing that I have a hard time with it.
And with our families this comes to bear, of course, since attending Christmas services is as much a family-bonding and social activity as it is a religious one, so avoiding it is almost impossible. This year we attended Christmas Eve services at a church my mother-in-law had specifically chosen for its musical reputation, and the service didn’t disappoint. The congregational musicians performed in a variety of styles and moods, and I thoroughly enjoyed them all right up until the final piece, a guitar-accompanied, candlelit rendition of “Silent Night” we were invited to join in.
I didn’t even make it through one verse before my throat closed up and I could do nothing but listen and cry. When I first began walking this path of druidry, no one mentioned to me the intense pain of conversion. Everything is “finding your niche,” “coming home,” “feeling the rightness of your path.” And for those whose prior religious convictions were weak or nonexistent, or for whom the association was peacefully severed, perhaps that’s an accurate portrayal of the welcome excitement of religious discovery. But for those of us who had deep devotion to another faith, for whom the road was filled with sizable roadblocks of our own installation, that joy can be matched by sorrow: of abandoning one’s own faith and that of one’s family and ancestors, of losing a vast and pervasive community of civic spirituality, of feeling a chasm between ourselves and our loved ones and knowing that we held the shovel that dug it.
That doesn’t mean we’ve made the wrong choices, of course. I’ve personally found great joy and deep meaning in my relationships with the old Celtic gods, but the pain of separation from a faith I once held very dear can still be raw and searingly painful. It’s a worthy pain, and a sacrifice I make willingly, but it is pain regardless. And to pretend that it isn’t is to deny my own humanity.
Sitting in that church, hearing voices raised in the quintessentially humble Christmas hymn, I cried for loss and loneliness. But even through my tears, I heard the voice of my family singing, combining with the voices of the teenage girls two rows ahead, of the elderly woman to my right, of the booming-voiced gentleman who’d commented on every aspect of the sermon in a not-quite-whisper. I don’t want to say that their mingled voices spoke to me of the accepting plurality I hope for in my community — for all that I like the pat imagery, that’s a post-hoc writerly conceit — but still, the candlelight and song lulled me, and my husband’s hand on my knee anchored me enough to wipe my eyes, smile, and sing the last strains of “Silent Night.” The congregants’ faith and joy in the birth of their god was evident, and it was a privilege to see it honored with guitar, candlelight, and voice, just as we honor our gods in our rites. In the midst of gladness, yes, there is sorrow. But in the midst of pain, there is also joy.
Coming in Part 2: Mary, the Matronae, and Modraniht.
Header image: “Candlelight Xmas Eve” by Matthew H / Flickr