Townsend and I travelled to New York City one Advent / Christmas season. He wanted to see “my” N.Y.C. so one visit was to The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine. Manhattan is full of terrific gothic church architecture. The cavernous nave and it piers were decorated with 6’ diameter evergreen wreaths, facing into the nave, each with pinecone, burford holly berry, red bow, and a set of white stag antler, which was placed atop the wreath. The wreaths were large, festive, restrained for their scale and setting, and lovely. I’d never seen the stag antler / wreath decorative fusion before; I liked it and I was intrigued.
I’ve researched my intrigue and I’ve come on an explanation I enjoy; it hearkens to Celtic & pagan celebratory solstice decorative images and traditions. I’m ever intrigued with pagan and Celtic spiritual traditions. Here is a brief cobbled mythology of what little clarity I discerned.
Cernunnos is born as the stag at the winter solstice. “The Horned One” is a Celtic god of fertility, life, animals, wealth/gold, and the underworld in the fused Gallo-Roman traditional 1st century religious practices. He was worshipped all over Gaul and his cult spread into Britain. He is born, marries the goddess (an unnamed Celtic Diana-esque huntress?) at Beltane and dies at the summer solstice. The Horned One is depicted with stag antlers; his depiction was popular and pervasive.
Our St. Eustace, nee, a pagan known as Placidus, was a Roman general serving Emperor Trajan. While hunting Placidus’ conversion began upon seeing a vision of a glowing Christ between a stag’s antlers, while a voice prophesied Placidus would suffer for Christ. Placidus, along with wife Theopistas, and their two sons, was instantly converted and baptized.
St. Eustace and his families’ troubles had only just begun, which included loss of social, political, and military standing, financial and material destitution, familial separation, religious persecution, and public sacrifice. Eustace, later reunited with family, refused to bow to pagan gods. He and family were placed inside a brass bull and roasted to death.
Suffering and sacrifice are depicted in Roman, Eastern Orthodox, and Episcopal catholic traditions as behavioral models and some are now cast aside. In our era Eustace is saintly no longer. Real human sacrifice is no longer an orthodox western religious model. Yet, at least for one Episcopal Advent and Christmas liturgical season, in the nave of The Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in New York City, which is, arguably, a center of multiple pagan spiritual traditions, the celtic White Stag antler mythology was symbolized.
Pagan fertility and rejuvenation, Christian conversion and baptism, and our human suffering and sacrifice for our families and others, were simply and quietly lifted up and referenced to us all during the transformational season of diminishing light and increasing light, by stag antlers atop evergreen holiday wreaths inside the heart of one great Christian cathedral.