Winter Solstice & the "War on Christmas"

Originally posted on my personal blag, re-posted here.

We are all very excited about the upcoming holidays. Our presents are packed (and most of them shipped / delivered), the tree and lights are up and decorated, we've made cookies, and we've dove headfirst into the Winter Season media: The Grinch, Bing Crosby, Ultra Lounge, Muppet Christmas, etc.

The thing is, although all of this looks like the holiday we commonly refer to as "Christmas", it's really not. Our family celebrates the Winter Solstice - the astronomical event occurring between the 20th and 25th each year, where the Sun is at its lowest azimuth and the day is the shortest.

Historically speaking, people have been celebrating Solstice for CENTURIES (I would even venture to say "millenia"), and many of the traditions that we all know and love (tree, gifts, Santa, etc.) all have secular / pagan origins. But what bugs me is this whole "War on Christmas" thing that's all the rage in the media right now. It's just plain silly, and it's mountains from molehills. I want to discuss two topics here: Why the "War on Christmas" is ridiculous, and why (and "how") we celebrate Winter Solstice.

The (silly) War on Christmas

When you say "Happy Birthday" to someone, it's generally because they are celebrating their birthday and you are wishing them well. Or "Happy Retirement", or "Happy Graduation". The recipient of the wishes is the person doing the celebrating, right?

Similarly, if someone was celebrating Hanukkah, I would wish them "Happy Hanukkah!", and for my friends and family that celebrate Christmas, I wish them "Merry Christmas!" -- Not because I celebrate either, but because I want to wish them well on the holiday that they celebrate. When someone wishes me "Merry Christmas", I generally know what they mean, and I just smile and say thanks. If it's someone I know well, and it's germane, I may explain how we celebrate the holidays, but otherwise, I don't get wrapped up in it.

However - I do find it rather arrogant that some people and groups believe that it is somehow wrong that the government wishes "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas." The celebration of "Christmas" (or another such winter holiday) in the context of the government, is entirely secularized (if it weren't, it would be a violation of the establishment clause).

While the majority of Americans may be people of the Christian faith (78.4%, according to a 2008 Pew report on religion, sample size 35,000), there are still 4.7% that are other faiths (including Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, and other minority faiths), and a whopping 16.1% that are "unaffiliated" with any faith at all (including, but not limited to: Atheists, Agnostics, and both Secular unaffiliated and Religious unaffiliated). Considering that America is home to approximately 300 million people, that's ~6,240,000 people that don't celebrate Christmas (that's approximately equivalent to the entire population of Indiana, according to Census data).

The current practice by public sector organizations (government and government-affiliated groups) is to say "Happy Holidays", and I think that's just dandy. It's generic, but still carries a positive message. America is a wonderful country BECAUSE we have freedom of religion, and BECAUSE we are a "melting pot" of culture - it is our heterogeneity that makes us such a rich nation, unlike any other. Why would anyone want to reject that just so their own culture takes center stage? Isn't that the very definition of arrogance?

If you celebrate Christmas, I will wish you Merry Christmas, if you celebrate Hanukkah, I'll wish you Happy Hanukkah, etc. Whatever you celebrate, I will wish you good tidings for it, because we can all celebrate TOGETHER even if we are not celebrating the same thing.

The last weeks of December are not a monopoly of any one faith or group - we all have our own ways to celebrate them, and whether we realize it or not, we have all inherited traditions from the "old ways." Which segues nicely into my next topic...

Our Solstice Celebration

Just years before, we're celebrating Winter Solstice this year. Winter Solstice has traditionally been a point of celebration because in agrarian cultures, it generally meant the "turn of the season", when the Sun would make its triumphant slow return to prominence in the sky. Even though Solstice technically marks the "beginning" of Winter, it is also the "end" of the day-shortening and therefore the "beginning" of day-lengthening.

Odin riding Slepinir
It's the shortest day of the year, which often also makes it the coldest. Very old cultures would have festivals of lights to both celebrate that darkest day and symbolically encourage the Sun to return. The "Yule Log" tradition was borne from this, as well. Our house doesn't have a fireplace, but we may light some candles and have our festive lights turned on.

We give gifts, as in the long tradition of Saturnalia, to commemorate the occasion. I've always enjoyed wrapping presents, picking out presents for people, and the joy of seeing them open them. (I love to receive presents too, of course, and if you're so inclined, please refer to my Amazon Widget over there on the right ;) ). There's just something really fun about playing festive music, wrist-deep in wrapping paper, and coming up with creative ways to pack a mundane object so the person can't quite figure out what it is (I'm notorious for my deceptive packaging techniques).

When I was younger, we used to always lay stockings out for Santa to fill. I found out recently that the tradition has Norse roots; Children would lay out their shoes filled with fruit and foodstuffs for Odin's horse, Slepinir, to eat while passing by. I'm not sure exactly how THAT became "get goodies in stockings", but perhaps it was when "Santa" would leave behind little trinkets and tchotchkes as a "thank you" for Slepinir's sustenance.

We do gift exchanges and family gatherings on the same day as Christmas simply because it is just easiest to do it that way, what with my job and our family's vacation time and all that. I don't mind making that concession; although we may have a special dinner or something on the night of the Solstice, we'll reserve the gift giving until the 25th, just like we always used to do when I was growing up.

An idea that Melissa had that I think is terrific is for all of us to reflect on the memories of the past year that we have enjoyed the most. Holidays and traditions are important because they help to delineate points in the passage of time, and give us a chance to pause and reflect on our lives and our families. It's easy to get lost in the hustle and bustle of day-to-day mundanities, and holidays give us a break from that, even if just for a brief while. I really like her idea because it helps us get closure on the year that has passed, and we can, for a brief moment, re-live the memories that were most dear to us.

So to all my readers, Happy Holidays!

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Comment by norman on December 2, 2010 at 11:53pm
Bring the pagan back to the pagan holidays…..Krampus

Comment by Aaron on December 22, 2008 at 2:36pm
Happy Monkey to you! :)

We just celebrated Solstice last night with a family of secularists - dinner, gift exchange, etc. It was lots of fun.
Comment by Dr. Terence Meaden on December 22, 2008 at 2:09pm
Ah, that's very good Aaron.
I didn't know that you had prepared this posting and put it here.

I wrote a piece of my own about the "Origin of Christmas" which is present both as a Nexus blog and as a longer version that is on the Nexus site "ORIGINS: Universe, Life, Humankind, ... etc"

I followed up my own 'ORIGINS' posting with another about the "Origin of Newton-day" seeing that 25 December really was Isaac Newton's birthday and not Jesus's at all.

Happy Newton-day and Merry Christmas to you all on Nexus!

And Merry Christmas as a family and social occasion, to non-atheists elsewhere.
Comment by Aaron on December 20, 2008 at 8:10am
@Becky: It's silly, isn't it? Just to keep them on their toes, I like to refer them to Jeremiah 10:1-5 (text found on the Wikipedia article about Yule Trees). All the traditions you've mentioned are secular -- or at the very least "not Christian". So when people emphasize "Merry CHRISTmas", I always like to take a quick poll of what traditions they observe, and point out the secularity of all of them. :) It's funny how even though "Jesus is the REASON", most really don't act like it.

@Kevin: If your fake tree uses LED lights (most do), those consume *very* little power, so you can rest easy about the carbon impact of it. :) I think it's important to find *some* reason to celebrate, even if you're just inventing a tradition. (And there's always "Festivus", if you don't have the time / creativity to invent one :) I hear that's gaining popularity, particularly among the disenchanted.)

@Freethinker: Thank you :) That's pretty much how we work too -- I try to see it as "visiting a foreign culture"; If I went to another country, I would make an effort to observe their traditions and be respectful since I would be a guest. It doesn't mean I have to agree.
Comment by Fr33think3r on December 20, 2008 at 7:45am
In our house connecting with family and friends is the reason for the season. If we are visiting a household that celebrates the birth of Jesus we will go along with them out of respect.

BTW I LOVE the family photo.
Comment by Kevin on December 20, 2008 at 1:24am
We do Christmas as Christmas for the family. If I had no family, it'd probably be just another day. We have a tree because it's the tradition that my partner decided he just had to cling to, and I guess I don't fault him (it's fake, and we don't pay electric, so the lights only bother me from an environmental standpoint). We do same deal same day, and we wind up driving all day (we start at my grandma's, 30 miles away, then go 5 miles further to my father's and then the 35 miles home! It feels much further than it really is though lol).

Comment by Becky Garcia on December 20, 2008 at 12:16am
This post was fascinating.

I still call what I celebrate "Christmas", though it's a secular one. It's still on the same day and has all the traditions it used to (the tree, the presents, etc) so I guess to me it's just... the same.

But I've been seeing a ton of "IT'S MERRY CHRISTMAS" type things on Facebook's Pieces of Flair and Super Flair apps that are very upsetting. Some of them are really angry, too. It's sad that people can't respect that others have different holidays going on right now!

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