I once believed in miracles because my parents told me they were true, but even then I recognized that all miracles were not created equal. The Hanukkah miracle of a light burning for eight days instead of just one paled in comparison to the Pesach miracle, when a God decided to “pass-over” the houses of Jews and kill the firstborn Egyptian male in each home along with the firstborn cattle (Exodus 12:12). Hanukkah, of course, while a major holiday in this country, did not become one for theological reasons. It is celebrated so Jews don’t feel left out when others get Christmas presents. Jewish children traditionally receive a present every day for eight consecutive days. So take that, Christians, I used to say to myself.
Though Hanukkah trumped Christmas at home, not so in my public elementary school. My grandmother would usually begin a conversation with me by asking what I had learned in school, and she seemed delighted by whatever I reported. One exception occurred before Christmas, when I answered her question by singing “Silent Night.” I didn’t know what a “virgin” or a “holy infant” was, but I noticed an unexpected frown on my grandmother’s face. Since my family didn’t want to appear “un-American,” they wouldn’t have thought of complaining about Christianity being promoted in school. But they were especially upset when I learned “Silent Night” in German. After the Holocaust, all things German instilled fear in our family.
Most Christians who are willing to accept the evidence for the Earth revolving around a stationary sun are also willing to acknowledge that a savior born on December 25 is a made-up story. Christmas has its origins in the winter solstice festivals that most ancient civilizations observed. Mithras, a Persian savior-god, had a sizable following in the Roman world and his birth was celebrated on December 25. By appropriating this day for the alleged birth of Jesus, Christians could more easily convert pagans. Because of this pagan origin, some early American colonies prohibited the celebration of Christmas. That might have been the original war on Christmas.
When greeted with “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays,” I used to mumble, “Same to you.” Since some vocal Christians now claim that the latter salutation is a “War on Christmas,” I wonder when I hear “Merry Christmas” whether it is meant to be a friendly greeting or a challenge in this war. Too bad we seem to be moving further from my wish for all seasons: peace on Earth and goodwill toward all people.
Peace and goodwill don’t necessarily mean agreement with all points of view. The holiday season has now become a time to celebrate freedom of expression through billboards and buses, where some atheists have been known to equate the myth of God with that of Santa Claus. I think this comparison is unfair—to Santa. Santa doesn’t ask children to worship him or to put love for him above love for other humans. He asks only that we “Be good for goodness’ sake,” an idea that makes a lot of sense and has appeared on several humanist billboards.
While atheists and humanists typically spend December holidays with family, we often like to celebrate as a community at this time of year. My local secular humanist group in Charleston holds an annual HumanLight (http://humanlight.org/) “Winter Solstice” potluck dinner and used book auction, with proceeds going to worthwhile community causes. This has become a bittersweet occasion for me in the last several years.
Former dentist Bill Upshur, a founding member of our group, was one of the finest people I’ve ever known. He knew how to live, and how to die with courage and grace. When he learned he had terminal esophageal cancer, he continued to be active as long as possible. He believed, at age seventy-seven, that he had lived a full life. The only time I saw him choke up was when he talked about leaving his beloved wife Jane alone.
Knowing in 2007 that he didn’t have long to live, Bill told me he wanted to donate $20,000 to the Secular Humanists of the Lowcountry. He devised an unusual plan to make the donation. Typically books at our auction go for no more than $10. Bill and I engaged in a fake bidding war for Richard Dawkins’ book, The God Delusion. It started with incremental bids of a dollar or two, then soared to $1,000, $5,000, $10,000, and ended with Bill’s winning bid of $20,000. I had informed nobody, including my wife Sharon, who became increasingly alarmed by my extravagant bids.
When I told Richard Dawkins, he wrote a wonderful note to Bill, which I read to him in the hospital a week before he died. Richard said, “I hope you will not think me impertinent if I say you are my kind of guy. You now possess the most expensive copy of The God Delusion in the known universe. Thank you for all you have done for secular causes.” My last memory of Bill was his broad smile after hearing Dawkins’ words.
We make a special point to remember Bill at each annual winter solstice celebration. He was a real person and I will always associate his sense of humor and voice of reason with this holiday season.