According to the Pew Forum on religion and public life, the non-religious demographic is the largest growing segment of society. This includes atheists, agnostics, humanists, and people who otherwise might be atheists but don't necessarily embrace the label. Many developed countries already have an atheist majority, and a recent study published by BBC News even predicts the future extinction of religion in nine countries, based on current trends.
Yet, there is ample consensus that an atheist would not be able to win an election in America. One would think that this portion of society would have more visibility and clout, but things are changing. Secularist funeral, marriage and baby naming ceremonies are becoming more commonplace, there are humanist chaplains in many universities, a humanist temple is being planned for London, and there's even a secular scripture that has been authored by philosopher A. C. Grayling.
But one of the main challenges of new secularists coming out of the closet is figuring out what to do with themselves during the holidays. There is at times huge social pressure to have some kind of winter solstice celebration, so much so that Hanukkah, which was previously not a very important celebration, became relevant as an alternative to Christmas in the US and now Hindus in the West have even proposed their own diasporic holiday, the Pancha Ganapati, so that their children may also not miss out on presents while remaining within their cultural context.
I offer you four possible ways to celebrate your secular holidays in community.
The HumanLight holiday was created some years back by members of the New Jersey Humanist Network as their specific alternative to other winter solstice festivals that celebrate the return of light during the darkest night of the year in the northern hemisphere. Humanism is a progressive ideology that focuses on human values rather than religious values and, although there are humanist Christian and Jewish groups, most humanist organizations are fiercely secular.
The ceremonial aspect of HumanLight is quite simple: three candles are thoughtfully lit in celebration of the three principles of Reason, Compassion and Hope. HumanLight celebrations are generally organized by local humanist organizations and feature food, music, a cultural program and, of course, gift giving.
A second alternative, for people of African ancestry, is to celebrate Kwanzaa, a modern cultural creation which focuses on African culture, continuity, and community. It incorporates gifts exchange but encourages the personal creation of these gifts rather than consumerism. Kwanzaa festivities that I've attended have featured theatrical performances, music and Ethiopian and other African food. Like other winter solstice festivals, the main feature is the lighting of candles which represent the Seven Principles of Kwanzaa: Unity, Self-determination, Collective Work and Responsibility, Cooperative Economics, Purpose, Creativity, and Faith.
Another alternative is to participate in secular festivities that are rooted in religiously inspired variations. There are numerous humanist Jewish congregations which celebrate the cultural aspects of Judaism without affirming its supernatural claims, as well as Unitarian congregations which feel and act much like Christian churches and celebrate their Christian roots but place no emphasis on faith, and in fact embrace doubt and welcome atheists. These congregations dedicate themselves to building community rather than requiring the mental slavery of their adherents.
A fourth option, of course, would be to just have a small, intimate gathering of like-minded friends and family. In the progressive Epicurean tradition, one might embrace the simplicity of good cheese, good bread, good friends, wholesome philosophical conversation and good wine as the best way to spend the holidays.
The point is that it's no longer necessary for a non-religious person to spend the holidays in isolation, or to feel as if the holidays have to be a time to recede back into the atheist closet.
I second that. I'd love to share crusty bread, sumptuous cheeses, an assortment of fruit and good wine with you, Kalliope. :)
Oooops! I forgot chocolate!
That is food for thought. I do wish it were more common to simply celebrate the winter solstice with family and friends. But I think a lot of people celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday that is about Santa, gifts, and family anyway. Right? I mean I groan inwardly when baby Jesus gets brought up by extended family members, but I don't know if I feel compelled to throw out the whole holiday. Then I might have to come out of the closet!
As you all know, Humanlight is being celebrated as a secular alternative holiday tradition by many humanists this month. My own birthday falls near the holidays so I decided to host, at home, a chese-and-wine post-Mayan-end-of-the-world Humanlight Holiday gathering with my friends.
I chose cheese and wine because my favorite philosopher was EPICURUS who, anyone familiar with ancient Greek philosophers, was all about cheese and wine (and I like my fine cheeses).
But I also wanted to write an update to the original secular holiday article with some recent articles that have been written re: HumanLight. Americanhumanist.org (they publish the Humanist, the magazine for which I wrote 'Death and the Skeptic') recently published this piece:
Patheos published another piece on the HumanLight tradition:
I usually just don't do really anything. Just relax and hike around outside if the weather is nice.
From my own personal opinion all these solutions, with possible exception of the fourth, are simply over thinking it all.
Solemnly lighting candles and devoting those candles to particular things seems just like the thoughtless adherence to ceremony we often criticise in organised religions.
The way I see it I am part of the Australian version of the western culture. Christmas is part of that culture, and while I reject the mystic aspects of Christmas I whole heartedly adhere to the good bits.
So for me I will relax, spend time with family and friends, eat too much, drink some, spoil my kids and listen to Cricket.
That to me is what Christmas is about and it is an extremely important part my society and my culture and I wont let anyone change how I celebrate it.
That said I do wish each and everyone of you a happy safe and relaxing Xmas.
One symbolic tradition I still participate in is sending holiday cards, inscribed with personal messages.
As I live two kilometers beyond the edge of civilisation, none of my family and friends will ever see me out here on the South Beach of the Nebraska Sandhills.
I also send cards locally within the village (I like supporting the post office my wife and I worked so hard to save from the budget axe).
Though secular-themed cards are hard to come by locally, they can be had. And during the holiday period there is always that little joy of opening your mailbox and finding a card from someone who took the time to remember you—regardless of whether you celebrate Chanukah, Christmas, the Winter Solstice, or the New Year. (Eid-al-Fitr is a bit tougher as it moves around the calendar.)
Sending cards at this time of year is also a tradition that I keep. I really don't send that many...just about 15 or 20. In some instances this is the only yearly correspondence that I have with some of my acquaintances, so I like to keep it up. Like you, I only buy non-xmas themed cards.
We celebrate Santa Claus without the trimmings and with only the immediate family. We give small gag gifts and laugh and laugh when they are unwrapped. Then we have that huge breakfast that we have no time for the other days of the year.
Jerry Phillips points out, in his Humanist Hymnal, that Clement Moore's "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" can be sung to the tune of "Away in a Manger", with minor adjustments!
A HumanLight song by our own Ruth Anthony-Gardner, to the tune of "Jingle Bells":
December's greatest day
The snow's a lot of fluff
White Pines along our way
Like cotton to the touch
Gold glints the Honor Net
Across my arm so light
What fun to celebrate with friends
On Happy HumanLight
Blue kazoo, gold kazoo
Tickle as they hum
Our moonlit way to celebrate
With fellowship and fun
People are what's real
2,000 years of balderdash
It's time for a new deal
Wood smoke upon the breeze
We hug and hold on tight
We kick the fluff with ease
As drums call into night
Their rhythm moves our feet
We're almost feeling high
What fun to celebrate with friends
On Happy HumanLight
(published in John Perkins' Anthology of Humanist Songs)