Lives in: Oberlin
Who’s in your family?
My wife, Kim, James, 7,and our daughter,Alexandria, 1.
What got you interested in those fields of study?
I’ve always been meta-physically minded, and those were the things that interested me. When I was an under-graduate, I started to go the anthropology route,but studying the people wasn’t as interesting to me as studying the stories, so that’s why I went into the literature part. I like to look at religion not as a theology but more as this expression of humanism.
Clyde Holbrook at Oberlin College talked about the idea of religion as a humanistic field or as an expression of humanity. Then with the creative writing as my master’s, it wasn’t so much that I wanted to be a poet or a novelist, but I wanted to study the creative process — how do you experience the world and express it. Rhetoric is how do we structure our imagination so that other people can understand it.
Sounds like someone should take one of your courses. Where do you teach?
I teach at Robert Morris University, which is just outside of Pittsburgh.
That’s quite a commute. How do you handle that?
This is the first year that I’ve done it, so it’s tough, but I teach two classes per semester so it’s not that bad. I taught at LCCC from 2000 until 2007, and I taught religion and folklore there. I guess we’re having the solstice coming up later in the week.
Many cultures had celebrations that were inspired by the winter solstice — do you know anything about those cultures, where they were?
One of my primary areas of interest has always been the Northern European solstice celebration and how that’s influenced how we in the West — the United States — celebrate Christmas ...Going back, the winter solstice ... there was the sense that since October the days were getting shorter and our ancestors saw that as Darkness gaining power in a cosmic war between the powers of Light and Darkness. There were priests who took care of sacred groves and that was where the life seed for everything resided. That’s kind of where we got our Christmas tree from. As the days got darker and the powers of darkness were getting so strong, you would go to one of these sacred groves and you would take a part of the grove into your home and spread it around. You’re extending your battle line. You throw some light on it, light some candles, build a fire. You become part of the army of light. That ritual grows until the winter solstice, when all of a sudden the days become a little longer. That’s where Odin on winter solstice eve, about midnight, would lead this legion — it was called Odin’s wild hunt— he would chase the herd of darkness across the sky. Now, Odin becomes Santa Claus and instead of chasing the herd, the herd is pulling the sleigh. He comes down the chimney like a good spirit.
And the herd animal of the North is the …
Reindeer, or the caribou in the big hunt. It’s an interesting thing. If you look at those really old depictions of Santa Claus, he — Father Christmas — is this Odin figure. He’s got this Odin staff, the lantern — he’s the light bringer and that bag of plenty, again, is a seed bag essentially to start the harvest season —planting. All of our presents are little seeds.
What about the Yulelog?
The Yule log is the same thing, it was meant to be burnt — you keep that burning all night long and that’s how you help jumpstart the powers of light. One of my favorite things to do is the candlelight service when they turn off the lights, pass the candle around and everybody lights their candle. You illuminate the darkness and you’re a soldier in the army of light. We win ever year.
Any other cultures that celebrate the solstice?
All do. One of my wife and my primary interests is the Navajo. Their entire culture is centered around the sun —“heliocentric” is the fancy word. The more traditional ones begin their morning by running toward the sun so that the sun will recognize them as one of its children. The solstice is the scariest part of the year, you stay up all night long, burn the fire. All cultures have this idea about pushing back the darkness at that time of the year.
What about gifts?
St. Nicholas — this Christian bishop —threw coins through a window that landed in stockings that were drying by a fire — again,that’s the folklore tradition of that. There are the gifts that the magi brought Jesus, so you have all of that, but if you want to go back again to Odin, the presents are the seeds that made it and that gave you life for the next year. You go into battle with the Father, with Odin, and you celebrate victory in the spring with the sun, and oddly enough, the sun is Robin Hood, he’s the May King, he’s Odin’s son. Again, that very monomythic narrative arch fits into the whole Judeo-Christian tradition of Christmas. Jesus is born as a child — the seed — in the winter time and the victory comes in the spring Mass — Easter time.
How has our holiday season changed in America since the Pilgrims landed?
You can become cynical— that it’s become very commercial — but the fact that we’re still doing it, we went out to the sacred grove, brought a tree in, the kids decorated it. We had a nice time doing it. I think the big change is it’s more psychological — we’ve become so commemorative — we put this tree up in remembrance of and insert your mythology paradigm or your religious leanings — we don’t think of it as being revelatory. These symbols are meant to reveal deeper truths and to inform the way we behave. That’s the whole connection between Christ and New Year — that’s why we make the New Year’s resolutions. That old part of me has died, it got lost in the battle, and now there’s this new me. ... The Navajo think the same thing, that every night when we go to sleep we die and every morning is your birth day. You can start all over again, it’s a whole new day.