LOSING THE “HOLY,”
KEEPING THE “DAY”

DALE McGOWAN

Years, decades, even seasons are abstractions to most kids. It’s holidays that mark the passing of time in childhood, letting kids know where they are and what’s coming. Fall began sometime in the end of September, I knew, but it wasn’t until I walked into the classroom on the first of October and saw that Mrs. Mawdsley* had festooned the place with orange and black felt that I felt the rhythm of the year begin. Those pumpkins and bats would be followed like clockwork a month later with turkeys and Pilgrims, then (in olden tymes) by the Jolly Old Fat Man himself. Then came New Year’s, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day—in addition to the various things they celebrate, the holidays help shape the year.

There’s no reason for secular families to forego this lovely slow ticking of the calendar. Much to the consternation of a few fundamentalist wagon-circlers, many holidays that once had a religious overlay quickly find a nonreligious form as well, especially the fun and meaningful ones. St. Patrick’s Day is said to have once been associated with a saint—can’t recall which one—instead of just general Irishness. Same with St. Valentine’s Day. And Easter, before it developed the admittedly weird tradition of painted chicken eggs hidden by a rabbit, supposedly had some religious tie-in as well.

Christmas, though—I’m pretty sure that one’s always been ours.

Relax, believers, I kid. It’s good that you’ve found a way to use old pagan rituals to articulate your worldview. It’s what we all do, and should do: Borrow and redefine the inheritances of the past to suit our changing human needs. It’s beautiful. It’s fun. I wouldn’t want to take away your right to do that for anything—just as I’m sure you support my right to do it my way. So we’re cool, right?

Okay then. Happy holidays.

There have been many attempts to forge new holidays free of religious overtones, with mixed results. The most effective and meaningful attempts seem to be those connected to the past in some way. Something that redefines instead of creating from scratch always seems somehow more authentically grounded. On the other hand, new perspectives, especially the wonder of the universe illuminated by science, can offer new things to celebrate and contemplate, and new ways to do so.

Below is a list of holidays that lend themselves to secular celebration. If you do it right, your family can experience all the wonder, spirit, fun, and goodwill that religious holidays provide, with a little something extra thrown in.

1. Darwin Day (February 12)

Charles Darwin was born on the same afternoon as another world-shaking freethinker, Abraham Lincoln: February 12, 1809. Darwin Day events celebrate the wonder of science and the glory of human achievement. Some outstanding Darwin Day websites are listed at the end of this chapter, with games, activities, and readings for kids of all ages. Not to demean any particular other February holidays, but a little celebration of science beats the heck out of cherry trees and log cabins.

2. Easter (The first Sunday after
the full moon following the vernal equinox,
I kid you not. Pagan enough for ya?)
and the Vernal Equinox
(March 20–21, Northern Hemisphere)

Easter lends itself perfectly well to the aforementioned unholy marriage of rabbit and hen—but there’s another option, and quite an intriguing one. The vernal equinox is a bona fide celestial event. Because our planet spins like a tipping top as it orbits the sun, the days grow longer and the nights shorter for half of the year, then reverse for the other half. On just two days a year, in the middle of those two cycles, day and night are balanced at 12 hours each—the equinoxes of spring and fall. The mid-March moment of equipoise, when the North Pole begins tipping back toward the sun, has been observed for thousands of years with rites of spring rejoicing in the resurrection of the natural world. The outstanding website Secular Seasons (secularseasons.org) notes that “many [Mediterranean] religions had stories of a man-god, born of a virgin, who was killed and reborn at this time each year, and this day was often connected to the worship of many fertility goddesses with names like Eostre, Ishtar, and Ostra (hence “Easter”).” All the same incentives for celebration are present for secular families, as well as an additional opportunity to grasp the poetry of the top-like whirling of our planetary path through the solar system. See Secular Seasons for great family activities.

3. April Fool’s Day (June 3)

Who says holidays can only be built around gratitude, introspection, and group hugs? Fine, no one says that. But if we’re going to celebrate what it means to be human, why not celebrate foolishness? We are a silly species, after all, every one of us prone to self-deception, gullibility, and boneheadedness. If you exclude yourself from that company, all I can say is, “Oh, look—there’s something on your shirt.” I know ultrarationalists who follow a skeptical tirade with the news that their moon is ascending through Virgo. I believed for years that M&M’s wouldn’t melt in my hands despite daily evidence to the contrary. We are all fools. Accepting the fact that witlessness is our unanimous birthright is a fine reason to celebrate April Fool’s Day in a big way. Fall for the traps your kids set for you, and set a few for them as well. Just be sure to laugh at yourself twice as much as you laugh at anyone else.

EVOLUTION AT EASTER:
THE CAMOUFLAGE EGG HUNT

In the natural world, predators are always looking for something to eat. The easiest way to escape them is to blend into the background so they don’t notice you. Animals that are camouflaged have the same color and patterns as the environment around them. A predator will generally notice, catch, and eat only the most easily captured prey; after its belly is full, there is no need to keep hunting. This activity will demonstrate how the principle of camouflage can help organisms survive.

What you need:

image 1 dozen eggs:

image stove and pot

image set of colored felt pens, or crayons

image pencil and paper

Boil a dozen eggs. Once the eggs have boiled for seven to eight minutes, cool them down by running cold water over them in the sink or placing them in the refrigerator.

Put all 12 eggs back in the carton and bring them outside to a natural area with grass, dirt, bushes, and other plants, like your yard or a park. Bring a set of colored felt pens or crayons, and a pencil and paper.

Look at the surrounding environment and choose pens that match the colors of the plants and other features around you. Take six eggs and draw camouflage designs on them. Use different colored pens to match the shadows and stripes and other patterns you see. Think about where you might be placing these eggs when deciding how to camouflage them. Putting them in the grass? Use greens. A bed of dried leaves? Use browns and grays. Leave six eggs plain white, completely uncamouflaged.

Once you’re done coloring, ask a friend to close his or her eyes while you place all 12 eggs around the yard or park. The white and colored eggs should be placed in similar locations—for every white egg you place in the grass, place a camouflaged egg in the grass, and so on. After the eggs have been hidden, ask your friend to look around and pick up the first six eggs he or she finds. After six, have your friend stop looking and bring all six back to you.

On one half of your paper, write “Camouflaged,” and on the other half write “Uncamouflaged.” Make a mark under each heading for each egg found.

If the color of an egg’s shell didn’t make any difference to your friend, the “predator,” he or she should find, on average, just as many camouflaged eggs as white eggs: three each. But how many of each kind did your friend actually find?

Retrieve the remaining six eggs, then repeat the experiment, but this time have your friend hide the eggs while you close your eyes and then search. Write down the data from the new trial. Repeat the experiment several more times until you begin to see a pattern in the totals. Did the coloring on the eggs help or hurt their chances of being detected by a predator?

4. Earth Day (date in committee)

Poor Earth Day. Organizers can’t even agree on an official date and have now divided into the “Always-April 22” camp and the vernal equinoxers, with a third contingent lobbying for a move to the summer solstice. (See? Silly species.) Doesn’t matter—choose your favorite date and recognize the fragility and beauty of our planet as a family by planting trees, cleaning up a park, rafting a river, climbing a tree, hiking a trail, writing an indignant letter about environmental policy to a newspaper editor or politician, working in the garden, visiting a farm or zoo or aquarium . . . the possibilities are endless.

5. Summer Solstice (around June 21 in the Northern Hemisphere)

Taking place in the middle of the traditional Midsummer observation, this is the day with the longest period of daylight. For thousands of years it has been a celebration of happiness, contentment, and security. The crops are in the ground, the snow is long gone, hunting’s good, and the baseball season’s in full swing. Weddings and (other) fertility rituals have traditionally been associated with Midsummer Day, which is why June is still the biggest month for tying the knot. Call your local humanist celebrant for a secular wedding—or just have a family picnic and keep living in sin.

6. Autumnal Equinox (around September 23 in the Northern Hemisphere)

The first day of spring is a time of rebirth, so it’s natural to look at the first day of autumn as a time of slowing down, of reflection on the preciousness of life as the natural world moves into dormancy. Like the vernal equinox, the autumnal is a moment when daylight and dark are balanced at 12 hours each—but this time the North Pole is beginning its tip away from the sun. Temperatures start their descent, and daylight begins its retreat. This, not Thanksgiving (when the harvest is generally two months in the past), is the sensible time for a dinner to celebrate the harvest and to recognize the changes associated with autumn: the first changing leaves, that first chilly wind in the evening, squirrels turning from tree-trunk tag to serious nut-gathering, geese consulting their Lonely Planet Guide to the Southern States. By Thanksgiving, after all, these things are done deals.

It’s a natural and beautiful time to visit a cemetery to remember those who are no longer with us, or to take a nature walk to appreciate the changing leaves. Hold a fresh-food harvest potluck in your neighborhood. Find a bridge or high building and (after taking all necessary precautions, people) do a pumpkin drop. Line up an online pen pal in the Southern Hemisphere to exchange greetings and observations as they celebrate the coming of spring.

7. Thanksgiving (United States—fourth Thursday in November)

There should be no difficulty in secularly observing a holiday dedicated to gratitude. We can express to each other our thankfulness for each other, for our good fortune, and for life itself. No eavesdropping deity required. There is an additional opportunity to note that the Puritan Pilgrims were pursuing the kind of freedom of religious observance to which secularists should be devoted: fleeing harassment and religious persecution in England and heading to the New World, where they were free at last to burn witches. Okay, leave that part out.

8. Winter Solstice (December 21–22 in the Northern Hemisphere)

I wouldn’t be surprised if Jamaicans were still flat-earthers. You could conceivably disbelieve the spherical earth in the low latitudes. But I lived for many years in the northern plains, where it’s a whirling ball for sure, and in late December it gets to feeling like the atmosphere itself has been pared away, leaving nothing at all between our chapped, upturned faces and the brilliant stars. Downright humbling. Many traditions recognized the winter solstice—the shortest day of the year—as a time for celebration and anticipation. It was at this point each year that the sun would end its long retreat and begin moving toward us again. This “return” of the sun was good reason for celebration, for it meant that spring, though a long way off, was inevitable.

Freethought communities often adopt the winter solstice celebration as a favorite, probably to have a Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Ramadanesque alternative to the Christmas juggernaut. Whatever the reason, it makes a great excuse for a midwinter bash. Most of the accoutrement of secular Christmas celebrations transfers over just fine: gifts, cards, goodwill, peace on earth, family, even a solstice tree. The number of online resources and books is growing.

In 2001, a humanist group in New Jersey created a more specifically humanist celebration of the solstice called HumanLight. Celebrated on December 23, HumanLight is said to be a celebration of the humanist vision of a good future. Whether it will catch on in the long run comes down to the usual: Does it satisfy a widely felt human need?

9. Festivus (December 23 . . . or whenever)

The most promising new holiday in centuries, Festivus was invented (despite the stern denial of “Festivus historians”) for a 1997 Christmas episode of the TV show Seinfeld as “a Festivus for the rest of us!”—an alternative to the commercialism and other agonies of the Christmas season. Though there is no central Festivian doctrine, typical elements include gathering around the aluminum Festivus Pole with those you really want to be with (as opposed to many other holiday gatherings) for such heartwarming traditions as the Airing of Grievances and the Feats of Strength.

The idea of a completely satirical holiday has taken off like a shot, with books, websites, and celebrations around the world—and around the calendar. Some celebrate Festivus on the summer solstice, the vernal equinox, or a randomly selected Thursday in July—or as many as six times a year. Why not? Unorthodoxy is the only dogma, so have a ball.

10. Christmas (December 25)

Christmas has an entirely secular persona parallel to the sacred one. No, not the excesses of buying and greed—I’m talking about the joyful humanistic spirit that sets in that time of year. It’s no coincidence that holy days emphasizing family and charity and peace and goodwill are sprinkled through the shortest and latest and coldest days of the year, when we have to rely on each other to make it through. Despite the shopping and insanity, if only for a few moments, just about everyone succumbs to the best of human impulses at this time of year. The thin veneer of religion is easily stripped away to reveal natural, honest, human virtues, of which religion is just one articulation. That’s why the “holy days” have so naturally and easily secularized to “holidays,” these celebrations of human hope and goodness in the midst of sometimes painful realities. So have yourself a merry little Christmas, without getting too hung up on whether this or that symbol or ritual has religious roots.

11. Holidays from Other Traditions and Cultures

Why not celebrate a holiday from somewhere else? It’s a great way to knock down walls of culture and nationality and especially valuable for removing our homegrown “isms” and “anities” from the center of the universe. Have a Chinese New Year party. Celebrate Boxing Day, whatever that is (the British don’t even seem to know for sure). Halloween not creepy enough? Try Mexico’s Day of the Dead (November 1–2). Observe X-Day on July 5, the day the world did not end in 1998, despite satirical predictions that it would, or toast Buddha on his birthday (celebrated on the full moon of the month Baisakh—sometime in April or May). For a nice exercise in comparative religion, consider joining Cubans on December 17 as they somehow celebrate both the Catholic St. Lazarus and the African god Babalú Ayé.

There’s a reason this kind of cultural stewpotting drives the religious Right nuts. By recognizing the validity of the many, you make the one less and less sacred—the very sort of thing that could end us up with a more reasonable world.

Some of these holidays may seem artificial and forced at first. I’m sure the bunny-and-egg thing crossed a few eyes at the start, too, not to mention a virgin giving birth. If you want to stick with the traditional holidays, no sweat. If you want to give something else a try, as well or instead, knock yourself out. Find the right fit for your family and friends. If you find a new holiday that feels satisfying and enjoyable, do it again the next year. And there’s the key to turning a new holiday into a beloved family tradition: Make it fun, make it meaningful, and do it twice. Keep it up, and who knows—20 years from now, we might all be singing Festivus carols on the White House lawn around the National Pole.

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* Has anyone ever had a schoolmarm more perfectly named than my Mrs. Mawdsley?

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