Coffee, Tea or Mead?

Whatever happened to good, old-fashioned human sacrifice? Pagans today are such wimps.

On a weekend trip to Walgreens, The Spike noticed scads of tinsel decorations littering the aisles, and candy overflowing corpulent wire bins adorned with an obese man in a red suit.

Oh, goody, goody, gumdrop, it's Christmas.

The week before Thanksgiving, and it's already here: Holiday-Palooza, the old Yuletide, baby Jesus' birthday. The time of year when good folks pray for peace on Earth and goodwill to men (except for those Iraqis) and celebrate the three wise men who saw Starbucks in the East and came to greet baby Santa Claus with gold foil chocolates, frankincense and a Menorah.

Ho, ho, hum.

The Spike hates Christmas. Mainly because of the never-ending and vaguely fascist begging to spend, spend, spend until the cards are maxed out -- because nothing says "American" like deficit spending. It used to be folks were spared the marketing frenzy until after Thanksgiving, but now it starts right after Halloween. The Spike doesn't care so much about the religious aspect of the holidays going aground, but is upset by the grotesque commercialism of the consumer products industry as it brazenly steals the whole shebang.

Of course, since the holidays were all stolen in the first place, The Spike supposes that's as it should be. The poor pagans got their holidays co-opted by the Christian church, and now, 2,000 years later, the Christians are getting their holidays co-opted by Hallmark and SpongeBob SquarePants.

Karma is a bitch.

The Spike has taken a sudden interest in pagans lately, as they seem to always get the short end of the maypole. They lost Easter, Christmas and even Halloween -- the one holiday they should have without question. But not being a pagan, The Spike wasn't sure where to find pagans -- or if they even still existed. So The Spike turned where all those who seek and do not find eventually end up: the Internet.

The Spike stumbled upon a Web site called "Witches of the World." Here, techno-savvy pagans can search a huge repository for all things pagan. The Spike found "Pagan's Night Out," "Pagans on Vacation -- Cruise 2003," and a local gathering for Samhain (pronounced Sow-en), the festival celebrating the death of the Goddess and the birth of the God.

This was it -- a chance to see real, live, honest-to-Goddess pagans without even leaving the Valley of the Sun!

The Spike started packing.

Not sure what to bring to a pagan ritual, The Spike brought everything that might possibly be of use, including the Idiot's Guide to Paganism, and a Chihuahua in case of ritual sacrifice.

The gathering was being held by a local Phoenix group called "Clann a' Choin Fhior" (Clan of the Upright Hounds). The Clann itself is two years old and has its own legal clergy. It has an eclectic membership of different types of pagans who meet for the eight sabbats (Yule, Imbolc, Ostara, Beltaine, Midsummer, Lughnasadh, Mabon and Samhain) and social events, and holds open gatherings for both Samhain and Beltaine (May Day). All are welcome at open gatherings, so The Spike was allowed, even though it needed an Idiot's Guide to fully understand what was going on.

The Spike pulled into the gate at Usury Park at the base of the Superstition Mountains just before sunset, and 16 three-point turns later, was in one of the most beautiful places in Arizona. After parking and setting out the camp chairs, The Spike watched the sun set over the saguaro and cholla fields as it sipped leader Dave the Younger's tasty raspberry mead, and waited for the festivities to begin. They were about 30 members strong, plus around that many curious observers who, like The Spike, wanted to see what their parents had warned them about.

A family arrived a short while later in a blue minivan with a license plate reading: "Pagan." Somehow, The Spike didn't expect pagans to drive minivans. Actually, The Spike didn't expect pagans to drive anything, preferring instead to imagine them scuttling about in horse-drawn carriages. But the modern-day seepage wasn't absolute. A little girl ran by in a black velvet cape, carrying a lantern to ward off the approaching night, as the boys played with Damascus steel swords by the hanging pentagram. Aside from the minivans and Gore-Tex tents, it was like being transported to another time -- a time when "pagan" wasn't a dirty word.

The ritual was to begin at 8 PST (Pagan Standard Time, which is one to two hours before or after the stated time), so The Spike joined the small circle around the fire. Surprisingly, these pagans weren't good at fire building. The Spike figured that people whose rituals involved a lot of fire would be especially adept at getting one going, but even with two bottles of lighter fluid, they had trouble.

After a "smudging" (waving burning sage ceremonially on each visitor), a solemn ritual was held involving incense and offerings (of food, not Chihuahuas) and followed by the lighting of the Balefire (big bonfire). The fire burned around a posted scarecrow wrapped with magnesium wire, and blue flame licked its face as everyone settled around the fire, speaking in hushed tones.

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