The Holidays: Cermony for Everyone
By Patricia Nell Warren
My Filipino friend Louis goes on and on about his Christmas extravaganza for this year. As I listen, I think about the community's collective hunger for the healing that can come with holiday ceremony. Louis describes himself as a "Christmas queen." He spends these last weeks of the year making his apartment beautiful, surrounding himself with friends in a one-man Disneyland of lights, music and color. His blood relatives, who live in Manila and don't accept him, won't be there. But Louis has built a big circle of loving friends as a new family. Starting at Halloween, his artistic and culinary efforts bridge Thanksgiving and Christmas, to touch the New Year. This way, he can leave up his twinkling lights for a looooong time!
Meanwhile, a lesbian friend of mine is in the midst of similarly massive preparations for the Jewish holidays. Ina has her own vision of Judaism. This includes knocking herself out with cooking and entertaining for her partner and a vast raft of loving relatives...and being visible at her synagogue, where she and partner are equally accepted.
The word "ceremony" means "circle of the Moon." Though we humans have 10,000 years of civilization behind us, the Moon is still how we keep track of time, and the passing of our lives. No matter what our beliefs, there is a deep human need for ceremony at key times of the year. For beauty that gets tacked up and taken down, so it stays brief, magical and special. For special foods that only get tasted once a year. For gifts and laughter. For the company of people we find most special. For prayer, if prayer is our thing. Humanity has loved ceremony ever since early peoples assembled in their caves by torchlight to rub shoulders and sing and paint walls with Paleolithic versions of Louis's gala. We heal ourselves by fulfilling this need. Gay people need this and want this healing as much as straight people do.
I don't do the Christmas thing...but as a pagan I feel the need to celebrate those four great turning points of the solar year, and share this time with my own friends and family. So I am planning my Winter Solstice gala. Something with a living green tree (not a cut one). Something with candles, to light my way into a new round of 12 moons. Something to remind myself that I -- as a human, a woman and a gay person -- am part of the vaster circles of Life that move our planet through space. Something to share with my own friends and family, to remind myself that I am part of the human race and its collective journey through the ages.
For gay people, this need to celebrate our life and times does not vanish with coming out. To steal a phrase from Dickens, there are "ghosts of Christmas past" that live in many of us. These are memories of childhood holidays, lapped in warmth of family togetherness, before we found ourselves suddenly older and wiser about our sexual differences, hurled into a time of temporary (or sometimes permanent) alienation from blood family, old friends, old places, old religion and spiritual things. Sometimes those memories are painful -- sometimes they still hold joy for us. Sometimes both feelings are woven together in a wreath of contradictions. One thing is sure: children want to feel safe and cared for; we don't lose these needs as adults, no matter how old we get, or how far we travel from our roots.
For me, the "ghosts of holidays past" were holidays on a Montana ranch in the mid-1940s -- blown snow cutting the air like a knife, hoofs crunching on ice, clean smell of hay forked to the calves, struggling into the timber to cut the spruce tree ourselves, hauling it home on the truck, filling the house with its wild perfume, unpacking the antique German glass ornaments, anticipation of gift books from relatives who knew that the tomboy girl loved to read -- and the semi-pagan holiday ceremonies of a beloved German great-grandmother who honored the pre-Christian old ways.
Oma dressed her holiday table without any bows to church history. There were the same magic foods every year -- soup with marrow dumplings, American turkey with German apple stuffing, and "California pudding" made with the raisins and dried fruits that were such a staple of those times, before the advent of frozen food. We never got tired of eating them. There was storytelling around the dinner table. We never got tired of hearing her stories -- how she saw Napoleon as a child, how she heard Richard Wagner conduct his operas at Bayreuth, how she survived the San Francisco earthquake. As to her tree, she draped it in the richest Teutonic fantasy -- a forest goddess straight from Grimms' fairy tales, with elves, angels and tiny animals living in her branches.
Oma made sure you understood that the tree custom was older than churches. In her youth, she was a genteel renegade -- an educated "progressive" (as they called liberals in those days) woman who fled Prussia when Bismarck became ruler. In post-1900s Montana, Oma was one of the citizens who demanded that women be allowed to vote. In 1944 Oma must have looked studyingly at her tomboy desperado great-granddaughter, the one who lived in muddy cowboy boots, and accepted the fact that this child was going to turn out "different." Oma died when I was 9, so I never got to come out to her. All this was part of the ceremony.
Today, with all the old people in my family gone to the spirit realms, my brother and I still meet to dress an evergreen tree in our fantasy of the moment. Today it's a "living tree," not a cut one, because we live in a time when every tree counts. We share a meal that we cook together, and exchange gifts, and talk about how far we've come from kid days on the ranch. After we've worn each other out with storytelling, the tree gets planted later. My brother is straight and I am gay, and we don't always agree on things...but for the moment, the pungent smell of a pine tree holds us together in a special space. For both of us, remembering a great-grandmother who saw Napoleon is part of our differing sexual sensibilities, yet part of our shared sense of time. That "circle of the moon" is equally healing and equally needed for both of us.
For many gay people, I think, healing ourselves as self-acknowledged homosexuals must include that effort to recapture and rekindle ceremony in our lives. In fact, we have a RIGHT to ceremony. We have as much right to the holiday ceremonies as those Americans who judge us and condemn us to no ceremonies at all!
If the old family ceremonies are too painful to continue, we must create new ones -- and this renewal can heal us. It's no accident that holidays prompt sadness, sometimes suicide, for people who suddenly feel a vast void in their lives at this time of year. Many in our community have lost the family with whom they were accustomed to have their ceremony -- whether blood relatives who rejected them, or lovers and friends who died of AIDS. Older people often feel this void keenly, because our community's youth culture has marginalized them to such an extreme.
Young people feel the void too. Among the youth I know, especially those who are marginalized from their heterosexual relatives, there is a deep worry about the approaching holidays -- that they will be alone then, that no one will care. Amid the physical decorations -- lights, candles, ribbons -- the core concern is a circle of faces of people whom you can care for, and who care for you. Yes, it is true that some ceremonies must be done alone, face to face with the Universe. For young people, these life-ceremonies include becoming economically independent, finding a direction in life, discovering their true selves. But the holiday ceremonies are ones that we need to do with others.
For those who face the void, there are ways to fill it. Like Scrooge in the Dickens tale, we can step out of the loneliness. Find a gay-friendly church, if church is our thing. Take a trip somewhere, if that's our thing. Volunteer for something. Take meals to housebound PWAs, and actually spend time with them. Do something positive and responsible for needy young people. Take a tropical friend to see the snow in New England. Make something beautiful, if that's our thing, and invite others to share it. For the young, there is the chance to get acquainted with old people...life is not complete without enjoying the company of a few gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered curmudgeons! That desperate holiday reach to spend a few days in other humans' company may well become a new direction in life.
The Moon-circle of caring, glowing faces, that so many of us want to see at this time of year, doesn't happen by accident. We can't inherit it like money. We can't go out and buy it. We can't even build the extravaganza of twinkling lights and expect it to have a living magical spirit if we don't work to infuse that spirit into it. We have to earn it, more like earning respect from others. My friend Louis and my friend Ina build their spirit of ceremony before they ever light a single candle, or hang a single string of lights. The circle of beauty and love that they enjoy is created with effort, over time, by investing into others -- through many moons and many journeys of our planet around the sun.
That holiday ceremony is for everyone, no matter what our sexuality or view of life. Indeed, doesn't the Moon herself shine down equally onto all people on Earth?