By Audrey Kingstrom
‘Tis the season of excess. But then for most Americans, every season—and day and month and year—is a time of excess. The American economy, and increasingly the world economy, is based on excess. Economic growth is the mantra for keeping us all personally, emotionally, physically, socially, and politically healthy and thriving.
And particularly at this time of year, the prevailing message is that both our nation’s economic strength and our own personal happiness depends on our participation in the annual holiday blitz and buying frenzy at year’s end. Bah! Humbug!
‘Tis the season of generosity. Appropriately, it’s often directed toward those in real need or at least those a whole lot less fortunate than ourselves. But a superfluous, obligatory, and faux generosity presides over the season among our family and friends and those whom we want to impress within our professional lives or social networks. Seldom based on any real need, this age-old cultural norm of giving at the winter holiday season has merit by all sociological accounts. But in the 20th century it morphed into crude commercialism and unrelenting consumerism that continues to this day. Bah! Humbug!
‘Tis the season of indulgence. Mostly personal indulgence, that is. And despite my value commitments or better judgement, I can easily rationalize my own indulgent behavior, especially at the holiday season. After all, I worked hard all year, I am more self-restrained than most of my peers, and the season itself can otherwise be so gloomy. Certainly I deserve a pick-me-up and a little pampering. Right?
Besides, I renounced the guilt-ridden life of austerity and self-sacrifice when I left seminary as an unbeliever over three decades ago. We’ve only got one chance at this life, hence it’s worthwhile to try to live a good one in the here and now. Bah? Humbug?
The genius of Dickens and Seuss
The winter holiday season remains troubling to many a humanist and atheist with these deep-seated traits of the season in tow—excess, indulgence, and faux generosity—even after ditching the nativity story. I share those objections, but I have no interest in playing the dour Scrooge. Instead, I am that repentant Scrooge and redeemed Grinch: “Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before. What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas, perhaps, means a little bit more.”
The genius of Dickens and Dr. Seuss is that through storytelling they capture an essential aspect of what it means to be human: the need for social bonding, meaning-making, and play/creativity. Holidays evolved within all cultures to meet those needs and people have been re-inventing and re-imagining holidays with every new generation.
In the same way, atheists and humanists need to re-make the holidays—instead of just ignoring them or grudgingly tolerating them. As naturalists, celebrating the seasons are logical holiday traditions for us to embrace since we see ourselves as an integral part of the natural world and the cycles of life, not separate from them. And there’s a wealth of history and heritage to draw on from our ancestors in this regard. We don’t have to negate all our cultural heritage, but we can and must update traditions for contemporary (and secular) sensibilities.
So instead of eschewing the holidays, humanists can authentically and enthusiastically celebrate the winter solstice (for example)—being mindful of our connections to and responsibilities for the natural world—especially in these times of climate change. Of course, let go the misguided and harmful holiday baggage of the past. Help re-make a winter holiday season with humanist values. Consider what a humanist-oriented holiday season has to offer.
Wonder, gratitude, and joy
Tis a season of wonder! Look into the brilliant starlit winter sky when you come home from work or are out in the evening. The vast universe holds wonders untold. And the earth with all its biodiversity and teeming life is one of them. Marvel at winter’s beauty—the soft haze of a lemon sunrise, the sculpted bare branches against an amber sky, or the moon glow on snow-covered lawns. Take a holiday from the constant barrage of life. Reflect, connect, and recharge.
‘Tis a season of gratitude! For our early ancestors, the onset of winter meant the harvest was in and the hard labors were ended. Time to feast on the excess, especially that which could not be kept over the winter. Communal gatherings for bonding and propitiatory rituals for preservation marked this time of year. People understood they were not in control of their circumstances. While humanists invoke no god, living with gratitude helps us acknowledge our interdependence on the natural world and each other. Re-commit to caring for and living sustainably on this earth, our only home.
‘Tis a season of joy! This life is to be celebrated and lived to the fullest! Our imperfections are legendary, but so too are our triumphs. Bask in beautiful music, stimulating art, delicious food, meaningful avocations, loving relationships, and exhilarating encounters with the natural world. Take time to savor them all this season. Throughout history, people have come together during the hardship of winter for community, storytelling, and support. Our ancestors knew how to party with limited resources and they found joy in being together.
So can we! Let’s do it! Happy Holidays! Good Yule!
Audrey Kingstrom is president of Humanists of Minnesota.
Photo by Torbjorn Sandbakk on Unsplash
The origins of Christmas. In her Christmas essay, Audrey asked her readers for their meanings of Christmas. Permit me to add an important additional meaning of the Holiday, Hope.
December 25, in ancient Roman times, offered the world hope. It marked the “re-birth of the sun.” For centuries the Romans celebrated the winter solstice as the feast of Saturnalias, the “return of the sun.” People were reassured that the sun, the source of all life, was returning. During their week of commemoration, there were robust parties, gladiator competition endless Coliseum events, and wine flowed freely.
Christianity brought new interpretations of the 25th of December. Pope Leo III was so dismayed by the debauchery that he offered a more “appropriate” interpretation. He declared that Saturnalias should be seen as the Birth of Christ, or Christmas. After all, the Pontiff reasoned, the day marked literally the rebirth of the sun as well as the birth of Jesus. No birthdate for Christ had existed, and Pope Leo’s idea was a welcome change. Over the centuries, Christmas was enthusiastically accepted. Eventually, Christmas became known as the time when hope was restored in both the physical and spiritual sense.
Christmas was not the only rebirth of hope that was borrowed from “pagans.” Indeed, almost all religious traditions were borrowed from other cultural views during the 3000 years that preceded the Bible. Examples abound:
The original believers in monotheism were not the Jews but the Egyptians who believed (1350 BCE) that Aton, the sun, was the origin of all life. The “Hymn to Aton” became Psalm #103 in the Torah while the Babylonian “Code of Hammurabi” (1750 BCE) evolved into the Ten Commandments (c. 1000 BCE). Finally, the Biblical epic of Noah and the Flood (c. 600 BCE) was discovered to be first written (some parts verbatim) in the Sumerian “Epic of Gilgamesh” c. 3000 BCE.
It has long been this writer’s hope that Humanists would document these realities. For far too long we have passively accepted the religious condemnation that we are “pagans” who don’t “believe in the Bible.”
What a wonderful article Audrey! And Mark’s post a nice addition.