Imagine life without cycles or landmarks of any kind—just birth, followed by a long, gray line of 27,941 days, then death.
I’m kidding—but even if that were true, it’s a moot point. We are never without our cycles and landmarks. The religious and non-religious alike live in wheels within wheels, cycling through weeks, months, seasons, and years, each of them marked with days and events we declare to be special. Some are fixed by nature, like birthdays, solstices, equinoxes—all of which celebrate the return of the planet to a precise orbital spot—and seasons, a slower, more majestic ticking that gives a person a glimpse at the cosmic wristwatch.
The recognition of life landmarks, such as naming, rites of passage, marriage, anniversaries, and death, evolved under religious auspices—but contributor Jane Wynne Willson shows that there’s no problem finding secular expressions that are every bit as meaningful and satisfying in her essay “Humanist Ceremonies.”
Then there’s the wheel of holidays, which more than anything else is the one by which kids measure the passing of time. That her birthday is on November 17 meant nothing to my youngest when she was five, but “just after Halloween” worked fine (until every November 1, when she would be miffed at our lack of precision). Like the celebrations of personal landmarks, most of the holidays (“holy days”) have religious origins—first pagan, then Christian—and most have developed entirely secular expressions. Add to those a few special days with purely secular roots and you have a calendar of secular celebrations introduced in my essay “Losing the ‘Holy,’ Keeping the ‘Day.’”
Next is a pair of dueling essays devoted to the eternal secular question: Isn’t it better to simply skip holidays with loud religious overtones, like Christmas? This kerfuffle is the subject of “The Question of the Claus: Should the Santa Story Stay or Go in Secular Families?” Tom Flynn, editor of Free Inquiry, is counsel for the prosecution, and I take the side of truth and justice.
Be sure to visit the “Additional Resources” for outstanding books and links for secular family celebrations.