Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Wisdom of Rite Aid: A Spring Story

I remember being a kid and gaping at the Easter decorations that filled the local drug store walls. I can clearly remember being confused. Why were all these happy chicks, ducks, bouncing lambs, and brightly colored eggs all over the place? I had been raised Catholic and nowhere in mass did they mention anything about rabbits or painting eggs? Nope, no fluffy bunnies or jelly beans filled those hallowed halls, instead murder was all the rage! The weeks leading up to Easter Sunday were some of the goriest stories I ever heard as a kid, far more brutal than anything R.L. Stine had to offer. I went to mass and listened to stories of a man being lied to, beaten, tortured and murdered and then being shoved in a tomb behind a rock. Three days later he came back to life, and no throngs of pink rabbits exploded from the tomb with him carrying chocolate eggs. So what was with all this bright and happy pastels and anthropomorphic baby animals at Rite Aid? April was not about plastic-grass baskets left by cartoon characters. It was miserable. It felt like my entire culture had it wrong and was confusing April with May, which was going to be green and lush, bright and alive, and full of the promise of summer.

I kept asking about all these things and my mother explained it all with the kind of patience only a person who raised me could attain. She had a big white book in the living room bookshelf and it was a revelation. It was called Celebrations, and it was located in the same section as a string of family photo albums and the Bible. This put it on par with god and family and as a Woginrich, that was pretty much as high as it got. Celebrations was an entire book explaining the history, folklore, and reasons behind the modern holidays I knew. It explained why Jack-o-lanterns were lit on Halloween and about the ancient Celts and their bonfire rituals at Samhain. It talked about where Christmas trees, Yule logs, and mistletoe kissing came from and the tales of St. Nicolas. And it talked about Easter and that complicated and scary month of April. I quickly learned that egg hunts, rabbits, and even lambs were Pagan symbols of fertility and spring and as society turned more and more Christian the customs simply rolled over as folk traditions and decorations while the rites and churches changed.

Some people might have read about these folk beliefs and recycled customs and felt duped, like the old symbols were damaged goods. I felt inspired. I’d been given this gift of explanation now. A depth of purpose to all these Holidays that even then as a child were turning into commercial slogans and cartoons. Now I had this big, white book that explained all these symbols and ideas like a legend on an old map unfolding before me. I learned how the tin smiths in the British Isles worked underground and the rabbit became their symbol (another animal that burrows for a living) and tin rabbit molds became popular in their villages and filled in with chocolate and hard candies as gifts in the spring when life and fertility are all around us. You don’t have to be a robe-wearing druid to be thinking about Nature’s rebirth when buds and bunnies are all over your cottages and cobblestone streets. Over time the chocolate rabbits became a part of the holiday of Easter. And countless examples like this lead me to read even more books. I devoured television specials on the history of cultures and holidays, too. By the time I was fifteen I could explain to any poor kid who wanted to listen about how Valentine’s Day wasn’t just something created by greeting card vendors but was in fact based on a real man, St. Valentine, and he was just the most recent incarnation. There were even older festivals dedicated to love and sex in February. Lupercalia, for example: a Roman feast named for the God of the Shepherds, Lupercus, and his temple’s birth and finding. People of Rome celebrated by sacrificing small livestock or a dog and ran through the streets naked save for goatskins mockingly hitting women in the streets with “shaggy thongs” as a symbol of purity and fertility. And while I wasn’t interested in wearing nothing but a goat skin and killing any dogs, I liked knowing how far back something as sterilized as Sponge Bob Squarepants perforated paper Valentine box sets started as a bunch of horny Roman teenagers running through the streets naked smacking people with sticks.

My interest in the history and anthropology behind modern holidays had nothing to do with proving modern religions wrong or older religions right. My goals were not that conspiratorial or lofty. I wasn’t on anyone’s “side”. I was equally touched and inspired by stories of Pagan Bonfires on Halloween night to welcome home the spirits of lost love ones and by the tales of medieval Christian martyrdom, where brave believers died at the hands of those who didn’t share their grace. I was equally appalled at modern acts of forced celibacy and ancient acts of dog slaughter. It seemed like every story, no matter the age or culture, involved weird ideas and rituals based on what values were considered moral at the time. I found this fascinating, and kept up with my amateur studies with gusto. It made me feel more important and part of something than any church service, school play, or Girl Scout badge ever could. In fact, I couldn’t help but sit down at church services, school plays, or Girl Scout Ceremonies without realizing that this was just a modern construct of social evolution and one day a little girl of the future is going to read about Santa Claus on Coca Cola cans and look at pictures of Merit badges on green sashes. I was witnessing history in the making and preparing for my own nostalgia. It was a weird way to see the world when all your friends seemed more interested in what brand name their tank top was at volleyball practice.

I hated volleyball.

This is what I took away from my childhood adventures in ancient customs. I was a part of a very long story. And since I was so late in the story, I had this wealth of tradition behind me. I saw no reason not to celebrate the customs and stories in my modern life that made the most sense to me, that brought me a sense of participation and peace. So as a young adult I started to incorporate ancient ideas into my modern Holidays. I went to visit my grandmother’s grave every Halloween and tell her about the last year and what happened, what she missed. I would buy chocolate hares at Easter, but I would set them in my kitchen next to a small glass jar of earth as a memory of the tin miners. At Christmas time I read modern pagan stories of the Oak and Holly Kings, and older tales of the Forty Days of St Martin, and how that turned into Advent and the rituals of candle wreathes of holly on our Catholic family’s kitchen table. I remember looking at that holly and pine wreath at Christmas Mass and thinking of how the Holly King has defeated the Oak King at last, and about the feast of Epiphany of the Middle ages, and St. Martin’s Days and how it all ended up for me in a small brick church in Palmerton Pennsylvania but in truth, has circled and morphed throughout time and experience into a whirlwind of culture and song.

I never lost this whimsical combination. As I became an adult and live on my own, I never stopped observing things like the solstices and equinoxes, even with just a nod at the calendar when I wrote down meetings and vacation plans. And when I started farming, those old agricultural festivals and stories came back to me with the rush of the newly indoctrinated. I was now a fervent believer of something for the first time in my life. Farming.

I suppose you’re thinking of me out there in a robe chanting under the full harvest moon? Not quite. Heck, not at all really. I didn’t express devotion in ritual and ceremony, but in the practical skills I was learning. My growing relationship to living seasonally was the practice. When you wait all winter to plant a garden, finally get out there to hoe up sod when the ground thaws, see seeds burst forth in May and harvest sweet corn in the fall…. All those old songs and stories based on past agrarian culture and religion seem more realistic than ever before. So I learned the old songs. I’d play my fiddle with a bit of Celtic flair thrown in, and the old folks songs like Jon Barleycorn ended days of collecting chicken eggs and picking zucchini and I felt timeless and whole.

I fell in love hard with living by the Agricultural year; I even learned to tolerate April. Eventually It stopped being a time of rotting lilies, funerals and ghost stories and started being a wild new world of lambs in my arms and seeds in the earth. It also started to look a lot more appealing weather-wise when home heating wasn’t my day’s goal and I could focus on things like seedlings and banjo strings.

Farming healed that broken connection in me, that unfair correlation between misery and four weeks of the year. April still confuses me with her irrational weather and long rainy days—and I sometimes can’t help but curl up with a good horror or mystery novel on those days—But it isn’t with rotting-lilly-colored glasses that I see this time of the wheel any more. For one thing, there simply isn’t time for it. There’s too much life and work being jotted on lists. That, and I tend to go to fewer funerals these days. That cycle will come again, as we all know too well, but for now my April is about the dirty reality of new life. It’s an annual holiday of mud and birthing fluids, rain showers and seedlings, and little chicks and bunnies in my warm open palms.

I had to go back in time to find my place in April. It was hiding in that big white book in my parents house. There you could read a story of Pagan fertility, a Christian savior risen from the dead. My current story is really just about the baby animals, though. Now when I walk into those drug stores and see chocolate bunnies and marshmallow chicks next to a section of greeting cards with white crosses I can’t help but grin from ear to ear. It pains me to say it, but Rite-Aid had it pegged all along.

You could call me a lapsed Catholic, a lazy Buddhist, a Cafeteria Pagan, or an Agnostic with a fiddle case. I’m all and none of these things. I’m a girl who just likes the whole story, and that is how I live. When I pass out of this world anytime soon, I hope my gravestone says:

Jenna Woginrich.
Lived mostly in the 21st Century.
Believed in all of them.

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