In the depths of winter’s darkness, human beings have a seemingly inherent need to celebrate and be festive, especially with holidays that involve the kindling of light, as if in defiance of chilly weather and early nightfall. And the winter solstice, the shortest and darkest time of the year, is a natural date to choose, which is why so many cultures have marked it with holidays, often borrowing or building upon the customs of their forerunners.
The Christians did it once, co-opting the very successful pagan winter holidays of Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, Saturnalia and Yule, and incorporating elements from those festivals into Christmas. More recently, Reform Jewish rabbis intentionally elevated the prominence of Hanukkah to compete with Christmas. Atheists have just as much reason to celebrate as anyone else, so why wouldn’t the same plan work for us? Why don’t we reassert the solstice as a date of astronomical and civilizational significance, a holiday by and for humanity, stripped of the superstitious garb that’s been piled on top of it?
Raymond Arnold, a humanist organizer from New York City, is doing just that with his Secular Solstice project, a non-religious holiday gathering he’s been running for several years, with original music, storytelling and an afterparty with food, drink and general revelry. Last year’s Secular Solstice was the most successful yet, attracting over 150 people and coverage from the New York Times and other media outlets, and he’s doing it again this year, with the goal of spreading it to more cities. To that end, he’s running a Kickstarter campaign to fund it. Here’s what he has to say about the holiday’s purpose and its goals:
In the last few years, a new holiday has taken root: a winter solstice celebrating how humans transformed the longest night into a festival of light. Humanists gather to sing songs about the rise of science and civilization. They share food and tell stories that remind us of our connection to each other, and of the part we play in the grand story of history.
The holiday was spearheaded by Raymond Arnold, an atheist community organizer from New York who wanted a celebration with depth and gravitas, as well as humor and fun songs. This year he’s running a Kickstarter to fund and coordinate holidays across the nation.
Describing the event, Raymond says: “It starts with high energy and festive, with bright lights that are gradually extinguished. When one candle remains in the darkness, a member of the community tells a story of the hardship behind us and the trials to come. We blow that candle out, sit together in the darkness for a moment, knowing that even if there’s no God to help us, we have each other.
“Then,” he adds, “we ignite those candles again, and sing inspiring songs about the future we can help create. It ends with us feeling connected to a story that is both cosmic and intimate, and all the more beautiful because it is true.”
The event was first run four years ago, with 20 people in a living room. Last year, after a successful Kickstarter campaign, there was an event in NYC with 150 attendees, making headlines in the New York Times and featured on the Huffington Post livestream. In San Francisco, a private event held 80 participants, and across the world several other communities held smaller, intimate gatherings. In Salt Lake City, Ohio, Boston, Melbourne and Leipzig, smaller events were held.
This year, Raymond’s goal is to coordinate public events in San Francisco, Boston and LA, and to work one-on-one with smaller communities to run their own events. To do this, he’s hoping to raise enough money to work full time on the Solstice project for the next three months.
“I want this to become a tradition that lasts the ages. More importantly, I want to show people that traditions can be created. If you care deeply about something, you shouldn’t be afraid to celebrate it. The humanist vision deserves a holiday with all the gravitas of an ancient, cultural cornerstone.”
If you’d like to learn more about this year’s Secular Solstice, there’s more information on the Humanist Culture website. If you’d like to be a part of this year’s holiday, please support the Kickstarter today!