2016-06-30
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This essay originally ran on Beliefnet in 2003. We liked it so much we couldn't resist running it again.

You've got the keg, the TV with a screen the size of a billboard, and enough nachos to fill a silo. On the deck, the grill is gassed up, and you've got 35 friends and family coming over. Did you remember to hang the sun wheel made of grain on your front door and light candles in every room to herald the rebirth of the Sun? If not, then you aren't really ready to celebrate Super Bowl Sunday--our national midwinter pagan festival.

Of course, the Super Bowl is not officially our midwinter pagan festival. But let's look at the facts: All our religious feast days are rooted in pagan celebrations. Take Christmas. Roman pagans had celebrated the winter solstice, the darkest day of the year, on Dec. 25 long before Jesus's time. Pope Julius I, who declared it the day to commemorate the birth of Christ in A.D. 350, knew conversion to Christianity would go more smoothly if it didn't mess up the big solstice feast. Easter is Christianity's version of a spring festival, inaugurated by second-century missionaries who combined their observation of Christ's resurrection with the Pagan festival Me'an Earraigh, which marked the beginning of spring.

These pagan traditions, it seems, will out. It's no coincidence perhaps that the world's faiths provide plenty of chances to burn candles. Just as Christians are decorating their houses and dragging fir trees indoors, the Jewish festival of Hanukkah features a menorah burning brightly. Even Muslims have begun celebrating late-year Eids by stringing lights in the shape of crescents and stars.

That's fine for solstice, but sadly, we Americans lack a day that corresponds to the Pagan rites that followed six or so weeks after solstice, halfway to the Spring equinox. Groundhog Day, when Punxsutawney Phil bobs out of his hole to presage the end of winter, has been the closest tradition we have. As our culture gets farther away from its former familiarity with the groundhog's seasonal habits, the less we truly rely on Phil as a focus of our midwinter hopes and fears.

The Pagans, of course, have an answer. On Feb. 2, while the rest of us go through the motions of watching Phil, many Pagans celebrate the feast of Imbolc. (Some Wiccan sects celebrate it as early as Jan. 29, while others wait till Feb. 3.) Imbolc is the ancient holiday wherein one forgot winter's doldrums and looked forward to spring and renewal. Irish druids considered Imbolc the "festival of lactating sheep," because this was the time of year when the local livestock had just given birth and were producing the milk of life.

The Super Bowl is perfectly suited to be our national Imbolc, a midwinter hurrah looking forward to Spring. It has this same tendency to turn toward the sun--the game is always played in destinations we visit on winter vacations--and anticipates the transition of the seasons--the end of the NFL's winter run, with baseball's pitchers and catchers due at spring training a spare few weeks later.

Super Sunday has also taken on other basic features of a proper midwinter holiday. Imbolc, sources say, means "in the belly," a reference to fecundity, and its other connotation is particularly apt on Super Sunday, the day in which more food is consumed than on any other except Thanksgiving. One can readily imagine Fat Bastard surveying a halftime-sized bucket of guacamole and a mountain of Buffalo Wings and invoking Imbolc: "Get in my belly!"

Like Christmas, Super Bowl time is a balm for commercial interests. Just as retailers make half their money at Yuletide, one lucky network makes back some of the $300 million they claim they lost on televising the NFL regular-season schedule.

The hitch here is that Imbolc includes--nay, revolves around--women. You know: the 50 percent of the population that, apart from the eye-candy waving pom-poms on the sidelines, generally (female sports fans, grant me that 'generally') feels excluded on Super Sunday. Imbolc honors the Celtic goddess Brighid, as well as all virgin and maiden goddesses. It's the celebration of the Bride, the fertility of spring to come. According to Celtic lore, Brighid's pet snake anticipated Punxsutawney Phil and slithered out from Mother Earth to check on the weather. Traditionally, women led the Imbolc celebration.

This need not be the end of the question, however. You women need only grab the Bowl by the horns! Ladies, Super Sunday should be your day. Indeed, Imbolc is full of rituals that will help Super Sunday achieve its full potential as our national midwinter pagan festival.

Make NFL corn dollies.
Imbolc corn dollies honor Brighid, and they're the cutest little figures made out of corn, oat, or wheat stalks. They're placed in baskets atop beds of white flowers, and young girls distribute them door-to-door as gifts. For the Super Bowl, stick your corn dollies in the uniform of your favorite team. This year I'm dressing mine in red jerseys with a white 99 on them--the number of Warren Sapp, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 303-pound star defensive tackle. With some white and black paint, Oakland fans can fashion theirs after the famous Raiders/Chucky Doll, the scar-faced killer doll they've adopted from horror films as their mascot.

Meditate for your team.
Praying to Jesus to bring your team to victory is so nineties. Instead, gather the rooting squad on the living room floor and lead a guided visualization of burying apple seeds deep inside Mother Earth, stretching their tendrils and preparing to burst forth with life. This may not make your team the more fruitful one, but at least everyone will be balanced for the game, willing to accept that, favorites aside, whichever team is best deserves to take home the Vince Lombardi trophy.

Candles, candles, candles.
Brighid is the goddess of fire, healing, and poetry. Fill your home with a bonfire of lit candles. But be sensible. Keep the candles away from guests who get carried away with the hard stuff.

Serve seeds instead of chips.
Hold the Doritos, and surprise your guests with bowls of pumpkin, sesame and sunflower seeds, an Imbolc mainstay. As they snack during the game your friends will be continually reminded of the potential for new life they hold in their hands, plus they'll be pleased they're enjoying a food rich in protein and vitamins A, D, and E. Also, offer spiced wines, ales, and herbal tea instead of beer, which will have no place at Super Bowl parties as they become inexorably more Imbolc each year.

Chant over the chili cauldron.
Don't forget this Super Bowl favorite! Garnish with Imbolc accents: evergreen boughs, spring flowers, and sun-shaped crackers. Every time your team puts some points on the board, recite an Imbolc chant. Here's one I found on the Internet, and modified slightly at the end:

Candle bright,
Burning Fire
Keep within you
Our Desire
Listen to
The Words we Speak
And Clear a Path
To What we Seek
Let our Wishes
All come True
As they Burn
This night with you.
Blessed be the [insert name of favorite team]
.

Hold an Imbolc parade during halftime.
Shania Twain performs at the halftime show this year. Ho-hum. Why not stretch the legs by leading a procession through your neighborhood, banging pots and pans and singing joyful songs to awaken the slumbering spirits of the land? And possibly your team's and Uncle Dave's slumbering spirits as well?

Whistle while you work.
The post-party clean-up is always the dreaded part of Super Bowl Sunday. The good news is, Imbolc is a holiday of cleaning! Wiccans scrub their houses floor to ceiling to prepare for the joy of the earth's rebirth. In fact, once you've cleared away the beer cans and loaded the dishwasher, you might be tempted to fling open all the windows and dive into your spring cleaning. And remember: Imbolc is a community holiday, so don't be afraid to ask your guests to grab a sponge and pitch in. They'll have a Wicca good time.

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