Reclaiming the winter holiday, Santa Cruz-style
Here in the winter holiday season, we take time out to honor our loved ones, cultivate camaraderie and compassion and huddle together for warmth during the darkest, coldest part of the year. But what to do when the nonstop barrage of elevator-friendly Christmas tunes and falsely perky TV commercials dampens our holiday cheer, and the true song of Yuletide joy is drowned out by the clinking of coins and the beeping of barcode scanners?
Thankfully, there’s no shortage of Santa Cruzans who have found inventive ways to combat mall-culture consumerism and rediscover the original meaning of the holidays. A prime example is “An Altared Christmas” (altared.com), which made its sixth annual run at The Rio on Dec. 11. In this offbeat yet heartfelt Christmas celebration, an assembly of world-class musicians performs traditional Christmas numbers, but with a unique twist: The songs have all been transposed to minor keys. Rather than being a mockery of these tunes, this fresh take on well-known seasonal standards offers listeners a chance to hear songs to which they’ve become numb due to endless repetition in mercantile venues in a new way. In the process, many audience members receive a much-needed reminder of what the holidays are all about.
There’s more: On Sunday, Dec. 19, a man dressed as Saint Nick stood in front of the downtown New Leaf, handing out warm clothing, blankets, hot cocoa and cookies to passersby. He did not represent any particular organization, nor was he seeking donations; his motivation was simply to lend a helping hand and spread a little holiday joy.
Santa Cruzans have even been known to celebrate New Year’s Eve in alternative style, as you know if you ever experienced the Last Night Santa Cruz DIY Parade (lastnightdiy.org), a decentralized, by-the-people-and-for-the-people festival that consisted of local musicians, artists, jugglers and other performers before it bowed several years ago.
On a quest for the authentic spirit of giving, love, family and community, GT decided to speak with three representatives from local organizations that are celebrating the holidays in unorthodox ways. Each presented valuable insights on the import of the winter holidays, as well as tips on how to shift our focus from the gift box to the real, internal gifts that the holiday season brings.
Here Comes Santa Cruz
For more than a decade, a small group of locals has been convening in downtown Santa Cruz during the winter holidays and regaling passersby with Christmas carols whose lyrics have been rewritten to reflect their non-materialistic values. “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” has morphed into “God Bless You Very Wealthy Men” (“God bless you very wealthy men/Good news I have to tell/The market’s up, you’re making more/Each time you buy and sell”), and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town” has been retrofitted with lines like, “You better watch out/You better not cry/Better not raise those prices too high.” The carolers, who number about a dozen, perform a repertoire of somewhere between 45 and 50 songs in spots like Farmers Market and Pacific Avenue. The Gap is a favorite site for the carolers, who have been known to park a car across the street from the store, mount a projector on top of the vehicle and project the words to the songs onto a space above the building, enabling spectators across the street to sing along.
“I don’t find that some of the traditions of Christmas necessarily resonate for me, but these rewritten songs are a great way to reclaim Christmas to an environmental/social justice/humor amalgamation of what has meaning to me,” explains Grant Wilson, who founded the group in 1999.
Wilson, a Scottish immigrant who has lived in Santa Cruz for more than 30 years, serves as a publicist for visual artists, performance artists, musicians, dancers and theater people. He is the cofounder of the local guerilla theater group Art and Revolution, which staged its first community action in the 1989 Santa Cruz Holiday Parade: Three or four members of the group operated a giant puppet whose mouth swallowed willing bystanders. “There was this whole transformation that happened, symbolically, from the harried consumer to the creative celebrators of the spirit of Christmas,” Wilson explains.
On Dec. 4, Wilson and his friends brought an offbeat element to this year’s Holiday Parade in the form of a bicycle rickshaw bearing local musician Alan Brown, who played East Indian sitar music for the crowd. Also on hand were revolutionary elves in union suits. Wilson describes the display as “another fun, playful way to be creative and expressive around the holidays, and to reclaim traditions in a way that’s not solely to sell products.”
Wilson likes to think of his stance as pro-community rather than anti-consumerist. “I think for me, a lot of the [holiday] traditions over time have gotten hijacked,” he says. “In some ways, I think Santa is not necessarily a consumer symbol; he’s actually much more of a community, communal character. What I value is my family and my community, and that’s what I love to celebrate, more than running around trying to figure out if I’ve gotten enough presents for this person or that person.”
Wilson sees the recognition and celebration of community as an important way to counteract polarization. “We all live here,” he notes. “We may not vote the same way, and we may not have the same belief systems, but we are brothers and sisters to each other. I think [the winter holiday] is an opportunity to recognize that and step beyond just one’s own personal community, personal family, personal friends and do that sharing. In the rewritten Christmas carols, it’s a chance to do that sharing, that sort of a playful interaction with the community at large.”
To Drive the Cold Winter Away
Makai Powell is the president of Community Seed (communityseed.org; 469-0336), a nonprofit spiritual organization that presents several pagan rituals per year. In addition to monthly circles, the group holds four annual Sabbat (High Holiday) rituals, all of which are open to the public. Powell explains that the events are “mostly for people who celebrate the same way we do, but we’re open to people who want to come in, as long as they participate and aren’t there just to sit and”—she mimes a spectator looking through a pair of binoculars—“ogle the strange pagans.”
According to Powell, most celebrations of Yule—the pagan counterpart of Christmas—take place on Winter Solstice. (Being a solar event rather than a specific date on the calendar, Winter Solstice generally takes place sometime between the 20th and the 22nd of December.) A Yule ceremony might include the enactment of old pagan stories about the Oak King, who rules from midwinter to midsummer, and the Holly King, who rules the dark half of the year. “A lot of paganism is based on dual theism, where you have a God and Goddess,” Powell elucidates. “The God, who also must represent nature itself, will grow and die, grow and die, grow and die. The old king dies, and the new king gets his place.” She adds that many pagan winter holiday celebrations include the dramatization of Mother Earth giving birth to the Sun God.
Many people view paganism and Christianity as opposites, but when it comes to celebrating the winter holidays, there’s plenty of common ground between them. As with traditional Christmas rituals, Yule celebrants exchange gifts, and, as Powell puts it, “trees are still on the menu. And the reason the old pagans did bring in live trees was to bring life into the home: to remember that the freshness of the earth is still in existence, even if it’s covered in snow outside. In Santa Cruz, we don’t have that so much, but a lot of pagans still bring in trees.”
Another Yule tradition is to hold an all-night vigil. Powell says that she and 50 or 60 of her friends get together in one person’s house (“This is crazy-making,” she laughs) and stay up all night. The idea behind this is to acknowledge the darkness of the time. “We’re celebrating the rebirth of the sun: s-u-n, not s-o-n,” Powell notes. “And the rebirth of the sun is when it rises the next morning after the longest night of the year.” At daybreak, Powell and her comrades journey to a mountain range top such as Quail Hollow to “watch the sun come up and sing songs to the sun [to] help bring it back—bringing back the light.”
Powell says Christmas is an amalgamation of Winter Solstice traditions and the Christian mythos of the returning Son. “A lot of what Christianity did was to place their holidays as close to pagan holidays as possible to get attendance—Easter being one of them, Christmas being another one,” she states. “Now, what I think is funny, which is not exactly as old as Christmas and not exactly as old as Yuletide, is the newfound celebration of Father Christmas: the father bringing gifts, the all-father. I don’t know what that represents, personally, but that is the new celebration that comes out with commercialism: people gift-giving.”
Powell and various members of her social circle do their part to counteract holiday commercialism by shopping locally and giving homemade gifts, as well as by being especially thoughtful about what they give to one another. Powell recommends that people select gifts that they know will hold special value for their recipients. She adds that this year, some of her friends are buying nothing but gift cards from the Heifer foundation, a nonprofit charitable organization working to eradicate hunger and poverty (heifer.org), while another of her friends is giving donation cards for the wolf in Yosemite.
Consumerism aside, Yule and Christmas may essentially be two different ways of expressing the same spirit. “In true moral celebration of this particular Sabbat, it’s about life, generosity, bringing back the light, being with family—how can you argue with that?” Powell offers.
God Bless Us, Every One
Like Powell, the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Santa Cruz County (uufscc.org; 6401 Freedom Boulevard, Aptos; 684-0506) sees no particular conflict between Christmas and Winter Solstice celebrations. In fact, UUFSCC’s staff has chosen to hold ceremonies this year to honor both holidays.
Though Unitarian Universalism is a creedless faith, its adherents hold a common set of values. As UUFSCC minister Pallas Stanford explains, “It boils down to our shared affirmation of the inherent worth and dignity of every human being, our insistence upon and celebration of the right and responsibility of every human being to engage in a free and responsible search for truth and meaning and our commitment to share, support and encourage one another in that search.” Stanford says another shared belief among UU’s constituents is that we are all related not only to one another as human beings, but to all life on the planet and to the planet itself. “And underneath all that is our conviction that love is the binding force and power and ultimate reality that demands our attention.”
Though UU’s roots are unambiguously Christian, its membership includes atheists and agnostics. “Belief isn’t really the thing that we’re interested in when we talk to one another,” notes Stanford, who was a lawyer and organizational consultant before attending UU’s Starr King School for the Ministry from 1998 to 2002. “The question that more has our attention is, ‘Where in your life are you finding inspiration? Where is your strength? What is your experience of the divine, if you’re even willing to have that conversation? What is it that is most worthy and noble in life and in human experience, and what’s your relationship with that? Where do you find it alive and at work in your life and in the world, and how does your experience of that inform who you are as a human being and what you’re committed to as a human being?’”
At 6 p.m. on Christmas Eve, UUFSCC will present a readers’ theater performance of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” The play holds particular significance for UU in that Dickens—a Unitarian himself—is rumored to have found his inspiration for “A Christmas Carol” on a return journey to England from the U.S. after visiting William Ellery Channing, America’s foremost Unitarian minister during the early 19th century. “One thing that you will note about the story is that it presents the whole heart of what Christmas is about without ever talking about Jesus or the traditional Christmas story,” Stanford observes. “And it’s not that we as Unitarian Universalists don’t talk about Jesus or the traditional Christmas story, or that we have anything particular against it; it’s just that our sense of what is the true heart or essence of that story has to do with deeper, more essential, more universal things than the life of any one person, including someone as remarkable as Jesus.”
“A Christmas Carol,” of course, is the tale of a coldhearted businessman who comes to appreciate the value of community and the spirit of giving. How can modern-day individuals follow his lead by celebrating the holidays in a way that puts an emphasis on family and generosity rather than on consumerism? Stanford believes that once you ask yourself that question, innumerable ideas will present themselves. “It’s only a matter of asking yourself, ‘What is this holiday really about for me?’” she states. “How I say it is that these holidays are about making love real in our lives. How do we make love real in our lives? Most of us who ask ourselves that question think about ‘spending more time with the people that I love; paying attention to those places in my life and in the larger community where it feels like something’s missing.’ And I’m not talking about toys and gadgets; I’m talking about a sense of worth, dignity, relatedness and kindness.”
In keeping with its all-embracing ethos, UU held a Winter Solstice ceremony on the 19th of December. “Connection to the earth and to the natural world, and celebrating the beauty and wisdom of the natural world, is really important to us,” Stanford offers. “Over the last generation or so, that’s made us a home for people who have a strong pagan, earth-centered streak in their spirituality. So we honor the passing of the seasons and the celestial events like the Solstice just as a way of reminding ourselves of our connection to the natural world and the importance of being in harmony and balance with those rhythms, and the deep wisdom of that perspective.”
But is it contradictory for a single organization to hold Christian and pagan ceremonies at holiday time? Stanford doesn’t think so. “Our community is consciously inclusive, and our sense of Christianity is that its original intent was to be consciously inclusive rather than exclusive,” she states.
After all, an important aspect of the holiday spirit is the opportunity for people to come together and to look past superficial differences. “The one thing I’ve always loved about the winter holiday season is that it feels like it’s the one time of the year when we open ourselves up as a whole people, as a culture, to the sense of possibility of who we could be as human beings, the kind of world that we could create,” Stanford muses. “It’s the one time of year that we actually have a larger cultural dialog .”
Thus, she values any winter holiday celebrations that connect us to that larger dialog: “It gives us the opportunity to actually feel joyful that we’re alive on this planet, and to have the consciousness that love actually can transform our personal lives and our collective lives.”