An Earth-honoring religious path rooted in science

Old Ways, New Days

It is midnight on the 29th of December. I have just returned from the Sebastopol Wassail, which is conducted annually by the Apple Tree Morris dancing team in my local area.

Wassailing is an old English tradition. Poor people going from house to house begging became conflated with people going from tree to tree in the apple orchards, making offerings in the deep winter in the hopes of bountiful harvests in the coming year. There are many songs, many dances, many traditions.

And we hope you prove kind with your cakes and strong ale
Or we’ll come no more nigh you until the next year

Tonight, I sang the songs, in rich and aching harmony. I visited with friends and strangers, and drank the strong stuff of the wassailing bowl. And in the dark of night–at 7, and 8, and 9:00–I felt time melt, and the history of people connected with soil and trees and cycles and fruit welling up, still alive despite our smart phones and automobiles.

How well they may bloom, how well they may bear
So we may have apples and cider next year

It’s a thing some Pagan folk wonder about, with Atheopaganism: but if you reject the idea of Ancient Ways, where then is the magic?

It’s not that we’re not in love with traditions, because we are. We love our Maypoles and balefires and wassailing bowl, our flaming cauldrons and corn dollies and Yule logs and glowing solstice trees.

We love the old songs, the hints of things we did, we humans, back far before even there were words to write down. Even into the painted caves, the Neanderthal flowered graves, the days we can only dimly surmise about.

Hatfuls, capfuls, three bushel bagsful
And a little heap under the stairs: hip hip hoorah!

No, it’s not that we aren’t in love with traditions, because we are. We’re just not addicted to them. We understand that they all started sometime, and we can create new ones with just as much power and validity. We understand that we’re all cherry-picking traditions from old times…even the Reconstructionists, who somehow never quite get around to burning oxen as sacrifices, as well they should not.

Atheopaganism is about understanding the world through a modern lens, while carrying forward the rituals, the practices, the traditions that help us to feel connectedness and meaning. We cast our eyes up to the cold winter stars and know that humans have done so for tens of thousands of years, hoping for spring and survival. We stay up to see the May morning sunrise, awash in joy that that time has come at last.

Mari Lwyd, Lwyd Mari
A sacred thing through the night they carry.
Betrayed are the living, betrayed the dead
All are confused by a horse’s head.

All of it. All of the things that fill a life with joy and sense of place in the world and among people. The old–a hobby horse made of a horse’s skull, ushering in a battle of wordplay before a welcome in to hospitality and kindness–and the new: modern, inclusive, sensible values; critical thinking; a science-based cosmology.

Just because we don’t believe in gods and supernatural and magical phenomena doesn’t mean we can’t have the experiences such ancient traditions carry with them. We are not cold and bloodless technocrats, as Dawkins and his ilk would have us be: we are heart-pumping animals with minds, filled with passions as evolution made us.

We are alive.

In the glow of this year’s Yule tree, bright Sun gazing down from the top, I wish you:

Waes hael!


  1. Yeah, well…. That creating “new ones with just as much power and validity” is a tricky one, since most of the power came from a beseeching hope and belief that we humans could, magically, affect events, and we say we’re done with that.
    So many of the customs we find charming and evocative evolved (or devolved, if you will) from acts we would (hopefully) never consider performing. Burned oxen, yes, probably replacing humans, and those many strangled corpses in the bogs. We find them revolting and horrifying now, and settle for leaping over a bale fire. I doubt that those far-off people enjoyed them either, but they had to be done because it was the only way they knew- or thought they knew- to ensure their crops in the coming year, so they wouldn’t starve to death.
    My point is, we don’t believe that, any more. We live in fear, yes, but for most of us it is no longer fear of fickle gods or goddesses- but it was the fear, that great motivator, that created all the charming and picturesque customs many of us still follow. I don’t believe we can create lasting customs out of an informed, intellectual understanding of “the way things work”. I can’t think, offhand, of a single, seasonal, custom we’ve created that feels like it’s going to survive more than a few generations, if that, but I’m open to suggestions. Festivus poles and this year’s Starbuck’s cup make for pretty thing gruel, compared to the Cutty Wren and, yes, the Wicker Man.

    1. Take, for example, the Yule tree. It’s old, but as a tradition in modern times it really only dates to Prince Albert. Most of what we think of as “ancient Christmas traditions” were invented in the 19th century, and they’re doing fine.

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