So, How Exactly Should Atheists Celebrate the Holidays?

So, How Exactly Should Atheists Celebrate the Holidays? December 19, 2014

This past Sunday at the Humanist Hub, I gave a talk– more like led a discussion– on “Holiday Magic (for Atheists).” It’s our first time celebrating this season in an open, membership-based community of atheists, agnostics and allies who have their own space. The talk/discussion was dedicated to figuring out how we feel about this time of year, what it means for us, and what we want to do (and not do) about it.

Here’s a sample of what the group came up with in response to the question, “what are some of the holiday traditions you grew up with that you still find meaningful today?”

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As you can see, that’s a lot of traditions your atheist neighbors are out there celebrating and appreciating, from the most secular to plenty of those who even enjoy the religious aspects of the season, albeit in their own secularized ways. Surprised? (Maybe you’re surprised by my tragically bad handwriting. I’ll try to improve that now that I’m planning to post such things here.) 

Having our own community space presents some interesting issues for debate discussion. We can decorate however we want (or not). We can sing whatever we want (or not). We can get together on whichever meaningful days we want (or not). So, we talked a lot about that. As did Boston Magazine, the Boston Globe’s BDC Wire, and the Cambridge Scout. Alas, Steve Pinker did not wear a Santa Suit at our Language of Humanism event. I liked the part where we got to talk about the idea of a tree, though:

Don’t sweat the tree stuff

Since this is the first holiday season that the congregation of nonbelievers will celebrate in the Humanist Hub, the group hasn’t yet decided whether they’ll get a tree for the occasion. But should they opt to tinsel the hell out of an evergreen or set a yule log ablaze, Epstein won’t object, citing the fact that those traditions have “almost nothing to do with Christ.”

Besides, “At a time of year when everything in nature is dying around us, and when it’s getting so cold and so dark and we miss the sun and we miss the leaves and we miss the flowers, why wouldn’t we find it beautiful to reflect on this gorgeous, green tree?” Epstein asks. “Why wouldn’t people want to celebrate that as a symbol for our own hopes and our own strengths?”

This Sunday we’re doing a Humanist Solstice Party— which will include space for members to bring in some cultural symbols like a menorah and, maybe a tree (as someone who grew up as a secular Jew and never had a tree, but always thought they were pretty cool and definitely not creepy-Christian the way, say, Fred Phelps was, it’s been interesting to see how controversial the idea of a decorative conifer with tinsel and blinky lights and things like this has been!)

We’re also throwing a New Year’s Eve party. We’re pretty excited– these two There were also some dates we decided to politely ignore. Safe to say no one is demanding the atheist alternative to Christmas Eve midnight mass, on the evening of December 24, just yet.  Though there have been a lot of other good and interesting ideas out there lately. There’s the Brighter than Today-brand solstice celebration that secular solstice activist (yes that is a thing now, and he’s good at it, too!) Raymond Arnold has been organizing in different parts of the US. Our friends over at the Sunday Assembly tried something called Yule Rock, basically based around singing, which also looked cool. We have an awesome house band at the Humanist Hub, and though the band doesn’t always do singalongs, this Sunday we definitely will. I know the band is doing “Deck the Halls” (totally secular, lots of nature imagery); “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” and Elvis’s “Blue Christmas” (Christmas as secularized occasion/family time, a little kitchy but come on, it’ll be fun to sing); and a few verses of the Wassail Song (lots of God Bless You in the original version, but we’re not changing the lyrics, which I hate doing to songs– we’re just picking a few of the latter ones, which turn it into/reveal it to be just a fun song, with a sense of humor about the religious aspects of Christmas:

Wassailwassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink unto thee.
Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all.
Then here’s to the maid in the lily white smock
Who tripped to the door and slipped back the lock
Who tripped to the door and pulled back the pin
For to let these jolly wassailers in.
Wassailwassail! all over the town,
Our toast it is white and our ale it is brown;
Our bowl it is made of the white maple tree;
With the wassailing bowl, we’ll drink unto thee.
So, are we humanists/atheists/agnostics/etc. going to be a bunch of jolly wassailers on Sunday? You bet. I mean, we’re not ignoring the sadder and more annoying/troublesome aspects of the season (I’m thinking even more of the commercialism here than I am about various theistic messages I/we obviously vigorously disbelieve in). I think we’re just coming into our own enough as a community that we can, at times, kind of purposefully tune out the social messages that aren’t for us, and do our own positive and dare-I-say even inspiring thing, on our own terms.
What do you think? How are you celebrating this month, if at all? What rituals do you think should be considered meaningful– or not– for atheists, humanists and the nonreligious? And– if you’re in Boston– want to help us decorate?

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