We have had an uncanny mild fall, but the next two months are guaranteed to be dark and dreary. In just three brief weeks, the shortest day and the longest night will be upon us. We are entering the darkest days of the year. And given the outcome of the recent election, for many of us they are going to seem especially dark. If only hibernation was a real option—like for four years, right? Wrong! Even as a metaphor for one’s mindset and demeanor, that’s the worst thing any of us could do now.
That this post-election malaise and crisis bumps up against the looming holiday season seems especially ill-timed. What person of good conscience could go on with business as usual—or partying as usual--and the seemingly frivolous distractions of the season? Accordingly, recent events offer secularists another good reason to eschew a holiday to which so many already have an aversion. No doubt, some will be inclined to plunge themselves into a media bubble of continual analysis replete with anger, blame and doomsday prophecies. Others may relentlessly seek out emerging campaigns for resistance or action.
But how about we take a breather first? Not to hibernate, but to celebrate. How dare I suggest that, you may ask. Is it merely a self-indulgent response by an ardent proponent and producer of winter solstice celebrations? I think not. Holidays are central to the human experience. They make meaning out of our lives—a core human need. Celebratory rituals – and yes, even magical religious rites – help people keep life in perspective. Celebrations allow us to us transcend particular times and circumstances to see the “big picture.” Holidays nudge us to think about what matters to us. Who matters to us. And why. Humanists need more rituals – albeit naturalist and secular ones – not less – to celebrate and uphold the values and the worldview we espouse.
While ardent Christians bemoan the secularization of Christmas, too many others embrace the commercialization of the season – toying with their material and emotional needs. But instead of sitting out the season, humanists should re-claim and re-invent the season—as has been done throughout the ages. By focusing on the winter solstice, we can celebrate the naturalist, humanist and universal meanings of the season. Here are three suggestions on how to celebrate.
First off, let’s create midwinter solstice rituals that connect us to the natural world. After all, the reason for the season is the axial tilt of the earth. Like many of our ancestors did, we too can bring evergreens indoors to remind ourselves that life does not end in these cold, dark days. We can get outdoors to enjoy all the beauty to be found there and gaze in awe and wonder into the clear starlit night. We can ponder our place on earth and claim our responsibility for its care. We can learn from earth’s resilience and fragility. Midwinter holiday celebrations with these sensibilities shore us up to take on the work of climate change.
This holiday season can also link us to the past in ways that are fun, creative and instructive. Centuries ago, midwinter celebrations were called the “people’s holiday.” These celebrations provided a festive respite from the hard labor of survival and allowed for the suspension of social mores. The season was characterized by excess, merriment and freedom for ordinary folks. Masters waited on their servants, revelers masqueraded and cross‐dressed, mock peasant kings reigned for a brief time of peace, the rich indulged the poor, and people feasted and made merry to keep the dark and cold at bay. Can we not maintain holiday traditions wherein we are reminded that our lives are more than our work, that oppressive social structures can be undone and that generosity and compassion help sustain us through hard times? The season is awash in movies, shows, events and volunteer opportunities that highlight these values. Fill your holiday with some great experiences with others—not more unnecessary stuff.
And, finally, midwinter solstice festivities can serve to secure the bonds of kinship, friendship and community. Holidays are embedded in human culture. Let’s use them to build and strengthen our relationships with each other as we prepare to act on our values in the year ahead. Deep and enduring relationships with our fellows are essential for personal fulfillment and for effective civic engagement. The humanist worldview is not one to be lived in isolation. So invite a few friends over, sit by the fire, savor some hot chocolate or a glass of wine and imagine together the humanist world we could create. Fortify yourself for the challenging year ahead. Happy holidays! Good Yule!