Ah, those nativity scenes outside churches this time of year are pretty, aren't they? The little baby, the cattle, the quaint little manger. I think they're lovely -- yet I don't actually believe the nativity story for a moment.
And I'm not alone. We live in a multicultural society where this holiday season means different things to different people. That's a good thing. Cultural and spiritual differences can add richness and relevance to a society. And if we choose to embrace that, these differences can be unifying instead of divisive. If someone says merry Christmas to me, I'll say merry Christmas back, even though to me there's no "Christ" in the Christmas season.
No one "owns" Christmas. In fact, the pagan origins of many Christmas traditions -- decorated evergreens, gift-giving, merry-making, even the date of December 25 -- are well-documented and accepted by all but the most stubborn or uninformed.
Despite the beauty of this season, many people -- particularly those who identify as spiritual but not religious -- are beginning to seek new ways to bring meaning to it. They're looking for new traditions and new rituals that resonate with their personality, lifestyle and values. While those nativity scenes are pretty, they just don't hit home. In fact, they only amplify one's non-belief.
This kind of feeling is especially common for people who are drawn toward the comfort and beauty of spiritual ritual, but reject religious doctrine. Many people want to express a sense of reverence for life; however, the religious themes they see around them seem empty and foreign. If this resonates with you, who knows? Maybe something old can offer you something new.
In antiquity, Vesta, goddess of the home and hearth, resided in the household fire or in the flames of candles placed on the family shrine called a lararium. At meal-time, offerings of salted flour or libations of olive oil or milk were sprinkled into her flame. For over a thousand years, she was honored as one of the most important and beloved goddesses in Rome, until the first Christian emperors criminalized her worship, even in the privacy of people's own homes.
Today, Vesta's flame is once again illuminating lives and homes, and families are once again honoring her with offerings sprinkled into her flame. This sweet, simple ritual nourishes the family unit and creates a sense of family solidarity. It's a fundamental ritual that hasn't changed in over 3,000 years. And considering today's rate of divorce and family breakdown, this ancient tradition has a lot to teach modern families.
To honour Vesta -- and your own home -- this holiday season, add a flamma vesta candle to your table. Set offerings of salted flour, powdered sugar, or wine beside it. The idea is to symbolically sustain your family unit by "feeding" the flame.
Better yet, create a modern lararium near the entrance of your home to symbolically bless the comings and goings of family members. Adorn it with a candle and meaningful family mementoes, from plaster casts of your children's little hands to heirlooms to the collars of beloved pets. Place branches of decorated evergreen on it. This represents the hope and promise of life in the dead of winter, and welcomes the upcoming winter solstice.
Instead of decorating your home with red poinsettias, look for those gorgeous white ones. Their white colour pays homage to the "purity" of this virgin goddess, as well as the white marble of her temples and the white robes worn by her Vestal priestesses.
Like any faith or custom, the Vesta tradition has evolved over the centuries. And if it can survive -- indeed, begin to thrive once again -- through the years and the changes, perhaps it can teach us a thing or two about the nature of change. Change isn't bad. It isn't a thing to be feared. It's inevitable. And funny enough, "change" often means a rediscovery of the past.
Perhaps it is part of the human experience that everything old tends to become new again. That, combined with the freedom of religion we enjoy in our society, may be the reason that many people are re-igniting ancient traditions that are remarkably in tune with modern values, and which bring new meaning for them to the holidays.
So, merry Christmas. Happy holidays. Pax tecum.
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