Old-Tyme Religion

Run, two, three, jump, slap, run, two, three, jump. I can’t believe that I’m Molly dancing on a January afternoon with total strangers and it’s just over freezing out. And my big brother’s on the side watching me mess up every step. It must be wassail season again. In a festival that always reminds me of The Wicker Man (1973, please!), I visited the 16th annual wassailing of the trees at Terhune Orchards on Sunday. Molly dancers and Morris dancers, or Mummers, from Philadelphia help make this occasion festive. The ceremony of wassailing the trees clearly has deep pagan roots and is influenced in some respects by Christianity. We sing a wassailing hymn (one that many would recognize from Christmas time), say a wassailing prayer, make a loud noise to drive the demons from the trees, dunk bread into a pail of cider and hang it from the trees. Another festivity involves writing a wish on a slip of paper and burning it in the fire. My wish from last year came true—I can’t say what it is here—giving it a success rate better than some prayers.

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Watching this year’s wish rise up in the smoke, I have high hopes for the apples and dreams.

Christianity owes much to various pagan traditions. Often we don’t see it because Christianity (and many religions, actually) tends to absorb former beliefs and practices, “baptizing” them when it can’t expunge them. Pagan gods have often become saints, whether they want to or not. When the Christianity is peeled back there is a very human charm underneath. We worry whether the fruits will return, whether the days will get longer, or whether the cold will ever break. There are powers that exist outside our grasp, and call them Christ or call them spirits, we want them to be on our side.

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Throughout Europe and much of the rest of the Christianized world, the pagan traditions are called “the old religion.” Religions like to claim antiquity as part of authenticity. In fact, the earliest religions were surely shamanistic and very earth based. Revealed religions claimed to supplant much of what people did to ensure the continued regularity of nature. Even though we know the earth is spinning around the sun and that the tilt of its axis makes for seasonal change. I know that whether or not I dip bread into cider and jamb it onto the bare branches, even if I don’t shake the noisemakers to frighten the demons, the apples will grow. But we are all human too, and I’m only too happy to join the Molly dancers if only next summer the apples will come.

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