Who’s Celebrating HumanLight This Year?

Patrick Colucci explains in Humanist Network News what HumanLight is and why Humanists ought to celebrate it:

HumanLight is a secular holiday on December 23rd. It’s designed to celebrate and express the positive, secular, human values of reason, compassion, humanity and hope. HumanLight illuminates a positive, secular vision of a happy, just and peaceful future for our world, a future which people can build by working together, drawing on the best of our human capacities.

The 23rd was chosen so that it would not conflict with other existing holidays, but would still be in the thick of the holiday season, when many gatherings of friends and family occur and people might be off from work. We’ve always said that it can be celebrated “on or around” December 23, in order to avoid any rigid rules about dates.

Celebrating HumanLight helps build the humanist community. For humanist families with children, it’s very important for kids to understand that the family is part of a larger, supportive community of people with shared values.

That’s all well and good. I love that, in some cases, charitable giving is part of the celebration.

The only problem is that virtually no one actually celebrates it. Not seriously, anyway. Maybe some people who work for Humanist organizations or local Humanist groups, but that’s about it. (Prove me wrong, people. Prove me wrong.)

At first glance, it just seems like a cheesy knockoff of something everyone else just does better. (At second glance… same thing.)

I appreciate the effort. I really do. I like the sentiment. I’m just not going out of my way to do anything for it. If I get together with any local atheists over the holidays, we might jokingly call it Festivus or Solstice party… but we won’t take any of that seriously, either.

The American Humanist Association’s Roy Speckhardt adds to the call for celebrating HumanLight:

HumanLight isn’t an attempt to re-interpret or take the Christ out of Christmas, and it’s certainly not meant to be critical of the holiday. Instead, HumanLight is about celebrating and expressing what fills our lives with love and meaning. Analogous to humanism itself, HumanLight describes what one might do with the holiday; it doesn’t proscribe what one must do. So, these celebrations are the personal choice of the community and they differ from place to place. But no matter how one chooses to celebrate, either at home or in a public event, these celebrations express human values in a positive way that brings people together.

In other words, if you do anything to celebrate the people around you… or life in general… around this time of year… just call it HumanLight. The vagueness makes it that much harder to form consensus around.

Why not just celebrate being around friends or family without a special name for the occasion?

The Council for Secular Humanism’s Tom Flynn believes Secular Humanists should avoid any celebration of the winter solstice or HumanLight for a number of reasons:

… First, celebrations of the winter solstice have deep roots in a spectrum of European pagan traditions. Atheists, humanists, and freethinkers aren’t just not Christian, they respectfully reject all religions, living and dead. As I say in my book “The Trouble with Christmas,” “If we are not Christians, we are not pagans either.”

Secondly, it devalues our commitment to a clear-eyed, rational understanding of science when we attach quasi-mystical significance to what is actually a thoroughly mundane astronomical event. Yes, after the solstice the days will get longer. South of the equator, they’ll get shorter. So what?

I’m on board with that. Celebrating the winter solstice makes as much sense as celebrating 12-12-12. You can do it, but you should know there’s nothing all that special about it. (For what it’s worth, HumanLight isn’t explicitly a celebration of the winter solstice.)

Where Flynn loses me is Reason #5:

Fifth, nonreligious people make themselves disappear when they cling to a “me too” holiday so as not to be seen with nothing special to do towards the end of December. We’d further increase our visibility by ignoring the holiday and pressing our employers to leave the office open on December 25.

That’s an easy thing to say when you work at the Council for Secular Humanism. Not so much when you work just about anywhere else. (Saying “Boss, don’t give us the day off!” will improve your social life as much as saying, “Teacher, you forgot to give us homework!”)

As I said before, I don’t have a problem with anyone who (for real) celebrates HumanLight. It’s well-intentioned. But it just seems unnecessary.

About Hemant Mehta

Hemant Mehta is the chair of Foundation Beyond Belief and a high school math teacher in the suburbs of Chicago. He began writing the Friendly Atheist blog in 2006. His latest book is called The Young Atheist's Survival Guide.

  • http://www.joshourisman.com Josh

    I think I have to disagree with you when you say that ‘Celebrating the winter solstice makes as much sense as celebrating 12-12-12. You can do it, but you should know there’s nothing all that special about it.’

    In fact, I’d say that the winter solstice (and related events) are some of the few days/events that actually do have something special about them. There’s a reason that so many cultures, pagan and otherwise, have celebrated the winter solstice, and it’s not (just) superstition: it really does mark an actual event, and an important time in the year.

    Especially the further north you live (which I’m sure I don’t need to tell you about :), this is a big deal. I spent four years in Minnesota, where the changing length of the days is vastly more evident and efficacious than it was during my childhood in New Jersey and California. The winter solstice marks the beginning of the end of days with only a few scant hours of sunlight, and thus represents a real reason to celebrate.

    • Baal

       In Minneapolis Minnesota, the shortest day is around 8 3/4 hours.  Yeah, it’s a big deal when it gets longer.  The longest day is around 15.5 hours. 

      • ortcutt

         This was an even bigger issue in Europe, which is much further north than most of North America.  Minneapolis is at roughly the same latitude as Genoa, Italy.  London is further North than Calgary.  Winter Solstice might not mean anything to people in Barbados, but it’s a big deal to people in higher latitudes.

      • http://www.joshourisman.com Josh

        And those 8 hours feel like even fewer as it’s 8 hours in which even at it’s zenith the sun remains pretty low in the sky. Much of those 8 hours of ‘daylight’ are actually a very much extended dawn and dusk.

        When the sun sets at 4:30 (in Minneapolis, even earlier further north!), it just makes the day feel even shorter (and confuses the hell out of those of us form much further south!).

  • ortcutt

    There’s already a holiday that falls on December 23rd, Festivus.  This is all part of Humanism’s ongoing War on Festivus.  Keep the Airing of Grievances and Feats of Strength in Festivus.

    • Bill Haines

      Whatever floats your boat — or cooks your pasta, as the FSM followers say. :)

    • drakvl

       There is also Agnostica, the attempt at a holiday dreamed up by Darren Bleuel of the webcomic Nukees.

    • Pat

      Google “Festivus” for a nice treat.

  • C Peterson

    Celebrating the winter solstice makes as much sense as celebrating 12-12-12. You can do it, but you should know there’s nothing all that special about it.

    With all due respect, that’s probably the craziest, most ignorant thing I’ve ever heard you say!

    The winter solstice has an astronomical significance that would exist even if there were no intelligent species on this planet. It has climatological and ecological significance. And it has deep traditional significance, very likely being the first “special” day that humans were aware of. As a species whose very survival depends on the Sun and on our agriculture, what could be more rational, reasonable, and unsuperstitious than to celebrate the moment when the days start to become longer again?

    To compare the solstice with a day associated with a pattern on an arbitrary, human-created calendar is complete nonsense.

    • Pat

      Recognizing the significance of the solstice makes sense, but celebrating it with greenery, gifts and music about reindeer, a jolly fat white man doesn’t. But that’s why I call that celebration Christmas, not “winter solstice” as some atheists have decided to rename the celebration of Christmas to.

      Winter solstice is totally separate from Christmas, whose namesake is about as worrisome to me as the pagan god Woden in Wednesday.

      • C Peterson

        Celebrating solstice with greenery, gifts, and music makes perfect sense, since that is how it has been celebrated for thousands of years. I don’t know how many celebrate it with songs about reindeer or with Santa Clause. Not many, I’d guess.

        I celebrate solstice. I don’t celebrate it as a replacement for Christmas, nor as a renaming of that holiday. To me, it is a very natural and happy thing to enjoy during a season that is full of holidays.

        • Pat

          Quote: “since that is how it has been celebrated for thousands of years.”

          Maybe not the best thing to say there, if you know what I mean.

          Why don’t you celebrate the summer solstice with greenery, gifts and music? Should Australians and others in the southern hemisphere celebrate WINTER or SUMMER  solstice with these traditions? 

          There’s nothing any more rational about the pagan holiday traditions on the winter solstice than the Christian holiday traditions that succeeded and added onto it. What you have described that you celebrate as “winter solstice” is basically a secularized pagan superstitious holiday, not anything logical or scientific.

          Not that there’s anything wrong with that—it’s fun—but don’t call it “solstice”. That’s an astronomical event, “celebrating” it by doing those things is not rational. Pagans did it because of superstition.

          • C Peterson

            I think you don’t understand much about what “celebrate” means. It need not be spiritual in any way.

            We celebrate the winter solstice with a decorated tree and gifts because we are happy for a nice excuse to do that.

            We celebrate the summer solstice with a late night horse ride in the mountains, and a picnic dinner. Because we are happy for a nice excuse to do that.

            In both cases, there’s a pleasant feeling of connection with our culture- an important element in all holidays. There’s nothing irrational about that.

            As a professional astronomer and amateur archaeoastronomer, I also take special pleasure in the solstices. I can celebrate them the same way I do conjunctions, eclipses, and other astronomical events that have cultural as well as scientific value.

            I don’t see our celebration of these things as secularized versions of what pagans celebrate. Rather, I see pagan celebrations as spiritualized rituals around natural phenomena.

            Celebrating nature is of value to many people, and need involve no superstition.

  • Quintin

    I’d rather keep/take Christianity out of Christmas than make an effort to participate in more of the same.

    • Bill Haines

      But it’s not more of the same.  It’s a celebration of reason, compassion, hope, science, creativity, education, diversity, justice, stewardship, humor — all the things secular folk should find valuable. Winter festivities don’t belong to the religious, and this isn’t a “me-too ‘holiday’” — it’s for us.

  • http://twitter.com/Genesyn Mike Becker

    This is an effort to diminish the importance of the Wookiee Life Day celebrations!

  • Gordon MacGinitie

    For those of us that suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, the winter solstice is very much a thing to be celebrated!

  • http://skepticink.com/dangeroustalk Dangerous Talk

    My family and I will be celebrating Human Light this year with the Humanist association of Greater Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Ethical Society. This year’s celebration will be bitter/sweet as we have lost the co-creator of Human Light, my friend Joe Fox. 

  • http://skepticink.com/dangeroustalk Dangerous Talk

    I like Human Light and I’ll tell you why. I have a family. Meetups, lectures, and meetings are great, but they don’t focus on kids. Human Light is a family celebration. Sure you could have a festivus poll in your house, but that isn’t the same as sharing a family oriented meal with a Humanist community. It’s not about celebrating the solstice. It is about celebrating life at a time of year when life looks like it is dying.     

    • Bill Haines

      Exactly.  For me it’s become a day to enjoy spending some time with my family (who are not formal Humanists) while reminding them what I value and why. I don’t know why anyone would want to belittle that. :/

      • Bill Haines

        And how to celebrate it is a very individual thing, because Humanists aren’t dogmatic — if you want to light candles in recognition of specific values, or decorate a Knowledge or Giving Tree, or do readings from Ingersoll or other writers, or just have a gathering with no ceremony at all, that’s fine too — this isn’t vagueness, it’s an invitation to come up with your own way of marking the day and create your own tradition with family and friends.

  • Bill Haines

    I’ll be celebrating it for the third time, with dinner and candle lighting for reason, compassion, hope and (this year) creativity and justice.  It’s a good day for spending time with family, planning activities and giving for the coming year, and just reflecting on the goodness of life in general. If it doesn’t suit you, fine — but don’t put it down, that’s hardly friendly eh? :(

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

    Not for me, thanks. I’ll stick with Christmas. Celebrating something that virtually no one has ever heard of doesn’t appeal to me. All holidays are made up at some point, so I’ll just stay with what’s popular in the culture where I was born.

    • Pat

      Same here, and yes I actually call it Christmas. Just like I call the fourth day of the week Thursday even if Thor has no religious significance to me, the first month of the year January even though I don’t give a rat’s about Janus, and the holiday celebrating Irish culture St. Patrick’s Day even if I couldn’t care less about Patrick’s Christianization of Ireland. 

  • Passerby

    Those of you who are celebrating HumanLight, I hope you have a good one. My thoughts on it below are not meant as an attack on you, but just my opinion as an atheist who has considered becoming a humanist, but hasn’t quite got around to it.

    I just think the name ‘Human Light’ is incredibly naff. I can’t imagine telling anyone with a straight face that I’m celebrating HumanLight. It all seems a bit fuzzy and abstract. I mean, how do you celebrate hope? Sit around thinking of things you wish could be better?

    That’s my main problem with humanism in general. It’s too vague . All the values they mention are good things but they’re nothing radical or exciting. Religions have been celebrating compassion for ages. I just find humanism a bit bland.

    23 of December I will be decorating the Christmas tree with my family, as we have done every year. I don’t believe Jesus was the saviour of mankind but I still enjoy all the glitz of Christmas, the baubles on the tree and the roast goose and the presents and even carol singing. I think humanism needs better festivals. Christmas is established, it has all these much-loved traditions. It’s fun. When I hear the phrase ‘Human Light’ my first thought is not ‘fun’.

  • http://twitter.com/nicoleintrovert Nicole Introvert

    So we should put aside any celebration or the ONE time a year we may be able to get together with our extended family?  And just hole up with other non-believers?  No thanks.  I’d rather go visit my grandmom for Christmas before she’s no longer with us. 


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