Coffee, Tea or Mead?

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.

As the night wore on and the mead levels got lower in the enormous Igloo jugs, the mood turned into that of any bar on any Saturday night. Drunken boasts were made, pickup lines used ("Hey, you look really hot in that wizard suit") and provocative talk was tossed around the campfire about who was going "skyclad" (naked) later. A noticeably drunken woman in a satin bustier was attempting to get people to dance with her.

"Come on," she said, pulling The Spike's arm. "I can't get this party started all by myself."

The Spike wanted to argue with her, as she was doing exactly that -- dancing around the fire in bare feet and a flame-printed skirt, hair flapping like a sail in the brisk wind.

Suddenly, a man who had complained of back pain threw himself through the fire before the pole holding the scarecrow had fallen down, singeing his elbow on a flaming apple. Soon, everyone was jumping over the fire as the desert became a tavern, and the pagans became rabble-rousing barflies.

After a while, The Spike became cold and disenchanted, so packed up its camp gear and the still-living Chihuahua and went home.

What had felt for a few hours like the Old World had suddenly become the same old everyday world. Maybe it's the Internet networking, or maybe it's the fact that everyone had to be back at their desk jobs on Monday morning, but something magical was decidedly missing -- and missed.

But The Spike thinks it's nice to still see pagans in the world today. Even though the costumes were more Harry Potter than Mists of Avalon, and the mood a little more Sam Adams than Samhain, The Spike appreciated that they tried to create something more meaningful.

After all, it hasn't been long since Christians and pagans couldn't exist in the same city without someone ending up barbecued.

The Spike's pretty sure that's a reason to be thankful.

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Quetta Carpenter