Forget about the red cup controversy that some want to stir up about Starbuck’s seasonal packaging. Forget about the overwrought angst of a blue Christmas without a romantic interest or a Norman Rockwell family gathering in your life. Ignore the inflammatory “war on Christmas” rhetoric of the Christian Right or the secular scrooges (ala Tom Flynn) and settle in to a “green” winter solstice holiday groove. And then let’s just be civil to everyone with “Happy Holiday” greetings and work together for peace on earth. O.k.?
Such a stance, I believe, appropriately acknowledges our shared humanity. And yes, this neutral, inclusive greeting will still disturb some overzealous Christians and possibly even secular curmudgeons. But we don’t need to engage in their battles. Our responsibility as humanists is to help create the kind of world we want to live in. A world in which we foster goodwill toward each other despite anyone’s particular religious preference, non-theistic worldview, cultural identity and/or personal history.
Much to the dismay of ardent Christians, Christmas has been almost completely secularized-- not only here in America-- but around the world. And while Christians want to blame contemporary secularists for that, they themselves are largely responsible for the desecration of their holy day to honor the “Christ-child.”
First off, the medieval Roman church co-opted midwinter pagan rites and cultural traditions in an attempt to Christianize the masses. In some ways this ploy was successful, but pagan influences often prevailed. Periodic attempts were made to purge the Church of such corruptions of the faith. The first real “war on Christmas” was waged by the Puritans. They outlawed Christmas in the colonies. No holidays were allowed. Work. Pray. Work some more. That was their motto. And if they were in charge today, we might all be working Thanksgiving Day as well as Christmas. After all, you can’t find references to those days in the Bible.
St. Francis of Assisi may be most responsible for humanizing the nativity story that is much beloved by millions around the world today, Christians and non-Christians alike. Who isn’t enamored of a baby—and a story of an underdog? But that narrative is an optional overlay to the pagan-turned-secular midwinter festivities that have characterized the season throughout the ages.
It is not the Christian church that has most defined the modern-day Christmas season. The current iteration of Xmas (the unofficial secular designation of the holiday) was most influenced by prominent literary and social figures of the mid-19th century, particularly Clement Clarke Moore with his famous poem, Twas the Night Before Christmas, and Charles Dickens with his well-loved tale, “A Christmas Carol.” Then the 20th century brought the rise of industrial consumer culture, the classic Santa Clause ad campaign of Coke a Cola and the burgeoning music industry to profoundly shape the season as we know it today.
The midwinter holiday season has been invented and reinvented down through the ages. Recurring themes emerge in new and creative ways in the stories told and traditions practiced. Despite (or perhaps because of) its harsh conditions, the winter solstice—especially in ancient times--provided a unique moment in the year when people could imagine a world that could be other-wise. Such holidays were occasions when the common person could have some relief from unrelenting work and restrictive social mores. For a few days at this auspicious juncture social mores were suspended and people celebrated a topsy-turvy world. Masters would serve their servants. Battles were halted; a golden age was envisioned. The landed gentry provided a feast for the peasants. The young ruled the old. Cross-dressing was allowed. The entire community—and later the extended family—gathered for a time of rest, a time of feasting, a time for storytelling and a time for partying.
It’s not what the religious leaders had in mind when they tried to usurp the midwinter holiday and transform it into a holy day called Christmas. But they did successfully re-name the season. So let the Christians have the name and their holiday. It’s got too much religious baggage for me and with the crass materialism that has taken over the holiday, I don’t need that either. It’s just not a useful meme any more for many humanists—if ever it was.
But to drop all attachments to the holiday season would be a mistake. If any secularists think they are going to stop people from partying at the darkest and coldest time of year, good luck with that. When and how people party (across the globe)—and the stories they tell themselves about why they are doing so-- is as important to our lives as most anything else. Holidays are transmitters of our values on a gut level—and whether for good or for ill—they can have a powerful effect on our belief systems and the way we act in the world. If we can imbue our holidays with the values and the evidence-based knowledge we want to foster in the world, I submit we can help change the world.
So go ahead, deck your halls with winter greens--holly, ivy, mistletoe and pine. Symbols of the ongoing cycle of life amidst the dark and cold of winter. Celebrate the attachments you have to others and your connections to the natural world. Have a very merry, “green” solstice! Good Yule! Happy Holidays!