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Posted by on Dec 22, 2013 in Critical Thinking, featured, skepticism | 21 comments

Solstice is not the reason for the season: atheists and Christmas

The War on Solstice

nosolsticeChristmas-time has long been a tricky spot for atheists, particularly for the activists and more politically-minded atheists. For my part, I do not partake. As a teenage atheist I was making a point of rejecting the whole Messiah-fest nature of the thing. I still mostly ignore the holiday, but my reasons have changed over the years. Having one ultra-mega consumerism-based holiday causes many problems we do not need to have. The seasonality of the economy is bad for everyone, reducing efficiency as stores and consumers switch to radically different modes, one for Black Friday+Christmas and one for every other day. many accrue enormous credit card debt that they wouldn’t if spending were paced more evenly through the year. And worst of all, the endlessly expanding extravagance of gifts and parties actually makes these days incredibly stressful for millions of people leading to higher depression and suicide rates. Christmas kills, if inadvertently so.

But whatever my reasons, I don’t fault people for enjoying it. I don’t hesitate to say “happy holidays” nor am I incensed to hear “Merry Christmas!”. But I will be the first to instigate a war on the Solstice. The Winter Solstice can be defeated in our lifetime.

Reason for the Season?

Activist groups like American Atheists have pushed for atheists to embrace the winter solstice as it’s own December-time festival, correctly citing the solstice as the reason for many celebrations in ancient societies taking place mid-December. The astronomical fact of the cessation of the lengthening of night was taken to have mystical or religious rebirth and recycle significance. The ancient Roman celebration of Saturnalia, the festival of lights ending on the solstice, is such an event. Setting aside the tawdry Me Too-ism of fabricating a holiday sheerly for the sake of secular social status in December (See also, Kwanzaa, Hanukkah), the “solstice is the reason for the season” does not withstand scrutiny. This is true even if we take “reason” to mean “origin” rather than purpose.

FFRF's Solstice banner

FFRF’s Solstice banner

The Trouble with Christmas

Tom Flynn, author and executive director of the Council for Secular Humanism, wrote a book about the various problems with the holiday called The Trouble with Christmas. In the presentation below, Flynn recounts how Puritans outlawed Christmas and later that between 1790 and 1820, the holiday simply faded away across the entire English-speaking world. Christmas as we know it was invented by, according to Flynn, 6 prominent victorians. For example,

  • The first detailed depiction & description of what we call Santa Claus was from Washington Irving’s A History of New York. The book is satirical history written in absurd exaggeration, but later taken to be serious.
  • Charles Dickens created a fictional nostalgic Christmas holiday that never existed; His Scrooge character helped acceptance along by ridiculing nonconformers as heartless misers.
  • Queen Victoria took a liking to the Germanic Tannenbaum tradition and virtually single-handedly attached it to the emerging Anglo-American Christmas holiday. Again, no previous tradition with a tree had ever been related to Christmas. The folk poem “O Tannenbaum” written in 1824 made no mention at all of Christmas and “tannenbaum” is merely German for “fir tree”.
  • Clement C. Moore, credited with writing “The Night Before Christmas” (1823).  It used much of Irving’s Santa description and simply made up the rest.

There’s more, but you get the idea (watch his presentation below). What does any of these Victorian inventions have to do with the Solstice? Nothing, really. The selection of date for convenience? Sure but that’s hardly all that important compared to the values and traditions which they fabricated from virtually nothing. There was no cultural continuity. No culture on Earth made Christmas a significant holiday for decades before the revival efforts. The significance of the solstice changes nothing of that.

Plastic Culture

Holidays are all manufactured contrivances which can bend and change with every new generation. There’s nothing wrong with that, either. But we don’t need to imagine some ancient original meaning is somehow the “true” meaning, this is to commit the genetic fallacy. Most people who celebrate Halloween know nothing about the origin of that holiday. It would be patently silly to suggest that the meaning people do not know is somehow the “true” meaning of the day.

If holidays are relatively arbitrary and plastic in time, does it then make sense for atheists to take up the solstice? Definitely not. The meaning to the ancients was largely religious or mystical. This is hardly the stuff of secularist celebration. Even the modern “axial tilt is science!” stuff just seems forced and silly. I simply do not care about the solstice, it has no meaning to me and inventing one just to culturally compete with Christmas is dishonest and attempts to homogenize secularist identity as  a variant of “normal” and therefore acceptable Judeo-Christian culture.

Festivus Yes! Bagels & Solstice No!

On the other hand, I do dig Festivus. It’s contrived and modern, but that’s why it succeeds as a subversive: so is Christmas and what passes for Solstice. Festivus’s message of rebellion against the vicissitudes and psychological torment of Christmas is timely and meaningful. And, although it was popularized by the fictional sitcom Seinfeld, it was written based on the true story of writer Dan O’Keefe’s family tradition. FestivusLike Christmas, Festivus was originally some other date, and normalized to late December at the whim of a ruler (in our case, Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David). Of all the options (Christmas, abstaining, Solstice, “HumanLight” ugh) it has the fewest demerits and the most virtues, not the least of which is that it doesn’t offend an atheist’s dignity or intelligence. Also, I’d appreciate a day that calls for the airing of grievances. I got a lot of problems with you people!

 

  • kiiski

    A lot of current Christmas traditions are certainly recent inventions- however, according to this article from the Dickens project, the history is more complex than Christmas being invented by Dickens and a few other Victorians:
    http://dickens.ucsc.edu/resources/faq/christmas.html

    • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

      I don’t find that that account disputes much of the above. It suggests Christmas was “popular” but gives little evidence that it was. I am aware that Christmas had enjoyed previous popularity (and it had been a game piece in the counter-reformation). This means that as it faded in popularity the number of people holding it important was never zero, just small enough not to be an important article of cultural practice and identity. Perhaps it was more popular than Tom Flynn or I suppose. I will stand to be corrected on it.

      I would also maintain that nearly everything that is now emblematic of Christmas was invented by Victorians (not necessarily Dickens, note that his stories do not mention Santa Claus at all).

  • kiiski

    The “no culture on Earth…” generalisation also seems unwarranted, since there wasn’t a similar Puritan-inspired breach in continuity for Northern European Yule, German Christmas celebrations, or in the Catholic areas of Europe.

  • kraut2

    “In the Early Middle Ages, Christmas Day was overshadowed by Epiphany, which in western Christianity focused on the visit of the magi.
    But the medieval calendar was dominated by Christmas-related holidays.
    The forty days before Christmas became the “forty days of St. Martin”
    (which began on November 11, the feast of St. Martin of Tours), now known as Advent.[46] In Italy, former Saturnalian traditions were attached to Advent.[46] Around the 12th century, these traditions transferred again to the Twelve Days of Christmas (December 25 – January 5); a time that appears in the liturgical calendars as Christmastide or Twelve Holy Days.[46]”

    “The prominence of Christmas Day increased gradually after Charlemagne was crowned Emperor on Christmas Day in 800. King Edmund the Martyr was anointed on Christmas in 855 and King William I of England was crowned on Christmas Day 1066.”

    “By the High Middle Ages, the holiday had become so prominent that chroniclers routinely noted where various magnates celebrated Christmas. King Richard II of England hosted a Christmas feast in 1377 at which twenty-eight oxen and three hundred sheep were eaten.[46] The Yule boar was a common feature of medieval Christmas feasts. Caroling
    also became popular, and was originally a group of dancers who sang.
    The group was composed of a lead singer and a ring of dancers that
    provided the chorus. Various writers of the time condemned caroling as
    lewd, indicating that the unruly traditions of Saturnalia and Yule may
    have continued in this form.[46] “Misrule”—drunkenness, promiscuity, gambling—was also an important aspect of the festival. In England, gifts were exchanged on New Year’s Day, and there was special Christmas ale.[46]”
    “The practice of putting up special decorations at Christmas has a long
    history. In the 15th century, it was recorded that in London it was the
    custom at Christmas for every house and all the parish churches to be
    “decked with holm, ivy, bays, and whatsoever the season of the year afforded to be green”.[102] The heart-shaped leaves of ivy were said to symbolize the coming to earth of Jesus, while holly was seen as protection against pagans and witches, its thorns and red berries held to represent the Crown of Thorns worn by Jesus at the crucifixion and the blood he shed.[103][104]” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Christmas

    The article seems to be quite thorough an in more depth than your post, especially linking to a lot of other sources.

    “first detailed depiction & description of what we call Santa Claus
    was from Washington Irving’s A History of New York. The book is
    satirical history written in absurd exaggeration, but later taken to be
    serious”

    But the roots are quite deep.
    http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/12/131219-santa-claus-origin-history-christmas-facts-st-nicholas/
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinterklaas
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Nicholas

    We celebrated St. Nikolaus in Germany (I grew up catholic) – which had nothing to do with the modern US version, but everything with the Dutch version – on the evening of Dec. 6, with bags filled with fruits, sweets but no real presents. St. Nikolaus was the protector of children, and sometimes seen as the herald for the Christmas season. There were no reindeer, there was however the dark companion `Rupert` who had a switch made from hazel? branches to punish the naughty children.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

      The article seems to be quite thorough an in more depth than your post, especially linking to a lot of other sources.

      Well I should hope that it is. This was not meant to be a detailed history of Christmas, in fact it’s not about Christmas at all, so much as detaching from the idea that there is any real continuity or “true” meaning to be determined. What your research here shows is that western history is a big mess of hundreds of different traditions and holidays that are regularly rehashed, modified, consolidated, mutated, and recycled to match emerging trends. I think that’s exactly my point.

      Saturday is named for Saturn, but the god Saturn is not the “true” meaning of “Saturday”. That’s nonsense.

      • Clare45

        Saying “Happy Holidays” isn’t any better than Merry Christmas either as it literally means “Happy Holy Days”.

        • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

          Are you speaking ironically? It’s hard to tell sometimes. Holiday does not mean “holy day” in contemporary English. Are you suggesting that Arbor Day, President’s Day, and Veteran’s Day (all observed holidays) are “holy” events?

          • QuestionItAll

            I can’t speak for Clare45, of course, but the word holiday is “Middle English, from Old English hāligdæg, from hālig holy + dæg day. First Known Use: before 12th century.” according to the Merriam-Webster. I, for one, will continue to say things such as, “I’m observing the solstice”, if only to remind people that the roots of winter celebrations pre-date Christianity. I also like to say, “Osiris is the reason for the season”, but just as a conversation-starter. Peace. :-)

          • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

            Merriam-Webster also says that it means “a day on which one is exempt from work; specifically : a day marked by a general suspension of work in commemoration of an event”. Which I would say is the standard usage today. Etymology =/= meaning.

          • QuestionItAll

            I know the difference between etymology and meaning. Thanks, though.

            You said, “we don’t need to imagine some ancient original meaning is somehow the “true” meaning, this is to commit the genetic fallacy”

            and, “Holiday does not mean “holy day” in contemporary English.”

            Well, perhaps you’re right, and people don’t associate Holidays with Holy Days (for instance, Christmas, Easter, and Yom Kippur). But where I’m living at the moment, there seem to be a lot of people who have ‘conflated’ the two, and associate, for instance, Christmas with the birth of Christ.

            To these I maintain: I am an equal opportunity atheist. And having a “knees up” at mid-winter is not the prerogative of Christians.

            ;-)

          • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

            Well America is secularizing, has been for a long time, so language and tradition are game pieces in the inevitable, sometimes nasty, struggle. I expect that many religious holidays gradually lose their religious meaning. Each of these examples is a snap-shot in that developmental trajectory: Christmas, Easter, Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween. Hardly anybody knows the religious significance of Halloween, more importantly, they do not care. Christmas and Easter are still religious for many people, but I expect that proportion dwindles year by year.

            I’ve previously addressed Easter here (purely a humor piece): http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous/2013/03/31/the-ten-most-median-things-about-easter/

          • Clare45

            Just got back from celebrating Christmas with my family (all atheists)! I was also talking etymology rather than meaning with the Holy Day statment. Yes, Edward, I was pointing out the irony of trying to be politically correct by saying Happy Holidays rather than Happy Christmas, as there is really very little difference between the two- when you examine the etymology of both phrases. Popular or current meaning was not the point.

          • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

            I hope y’all had a good time =).
            I think there’s a non-trivial difference between “Merry Christmas” and “Happy holidays” though I agree it’s not as big a difference as people think. For example, I don’t think I would deliberately say MC to a friend I knew to be a devout orthodox Jew. I might say HH. But then again, I would say neither to a Muslim friend.
            The “holy” part is hardly inseparable. If I wished someone a good holiday weekend around Memorial Day, nobody would think I was invoking religious sentiment with use of “holiday”.

      • Nerdsamwich

        Put Thor back in Thursday!

    • https://twitter.com/Aneris23 Aneris

      I’m from Northern Germany and we have both, the coming of Nikolaus during night to the 6th (and not the 5th as our Dutch neighbours) as well as Christmas with Santa Claus. At the evening of the 5th you are supposed to clean your boots and put it in front of the door, where it would be filled with sweets by “the Nikolaus”, who often looks exactly like Santa Claus (but sometimes like a bishop), because he has the same roots. On Christmas Eve (the 24th) the “actual” Santa Claus is supposed to appear, which is a tradition that goes back to continental and eastern European “Father Frost” and “Father Christmas” figures.

      There is also “Knecht Ruprecht” the counterpart to the Dutch “Zwarte Piet”, a somewhat evil sidekick who is said to punish misbehaving children by caning them with a twig. The twig is often given to children as a symbolic present to remind them to be nice. But it’s a complete mess nowadays, indeed (even that tiny subset). Sometimes he is the same character as Nikolaus, sometimes the symbolical twigs are part of Santa Claus’ accessory, normally Knecht Ruprecht is a separate character (I remember him to be a chimney sweep, oddly), sometimes Knecht Ruprecht is used a synonym of Nikolaus. Sometimes adults also fool children by telling them first that Santa only brought them the twig because they weren’t nice enough, and when they make disappointed faces, they show the real presents.

      I hope it’s okay to refer to my blog, where I wrote on the other traditions, Ed is mentioning in his article: on the Christmas Tree and where the “modern” Santa Claus comes from. It’s here: A Somewhat Counter-Intuitive Christmas Origins Story, featuring Headless Hessians and other Humorous Germans.

      • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

        Hi Aneris. That all sounds very confusing! Thanks for sharing this. It’s perfectly fine to link to your blog. Those interested in the origins should check it out.

  • Clare45

    As Christmas as we know it today is a mish-mash of cultures and traditions which are partly Christian and partly pagan, I see no harm in celebrating it. Even the Christian part with crib, mangers etc. can be treated as mythology along with Santa Claus or Father Christmas as the English call him. He was originally a druid wood spirit and dressed in green. Mistletoe is also an ancient pagan tradition, as was decorating the mantelpiece with boughs of evergreen and holly long before they had christmas trees. I love the lights and the decorations which brighten up the dark days of winter. I like the music-yes the Messiah and religious carols, even though I am an atheist. It is part of my culture and I see nothing wrong with that.

    It need not be commercial. You can exchange home made gifts or very cheap ones bought at the thrift store. You can invite some homeless people to share your turkey on Christmas day

  • Kasper Feld

    I celebrate yule, like I always have. I don’t care that most of the traditions were made up in the 19th or even 20th century and mixed with the ancient solstice yule as well as a shitload of christian stuff. I belive in neither the Aesir nor the judeo-christian god, but I like traditions as they were when I were a kid. I generally tone down or avoid the jesus part of it though.

    I am somehow glad that we still call it yule here (well “jul” (I’m danish)). Even though most people would translate it directly to christmas if needing to speak english.

    • http://www.skepticink.com/incredulous Edward Clint

      That is pretty cool, Yule is way older than the Christianization of northern Europe, far more pagan in its sounding and, I assume, traditions. I spent New Year’s in Denmark once; gloomy and grey time of year but lovely people. cheers!

    • kiiski

      It does make things more equal when both atheists and Christians use the old pagan name for the feast.

      In Finland we’ve borrowed the Scandinavian term for it (jul -> joulu), but Christmas actually supplanted an older, Halloween-like pagan feast called kekri, which was suppressed by the church. Many of the traditions were then transferred over to “joulu” and blended with Scandinavian customs. The name for Santa literally means “Yule goat”, although Finnish Santas nowadays resemble St. Nick more than the ancient prankster characters that actually dressed as a goat.

  • Shatterface

    I celebrate Christmas because of the consumerism.
    I can only imagine those who oppose consumerism don’t know anyone who works in farming, manufacturing and retail.
    What do people do for a living in your world – write poetry and talk about poetry while dressed in leaves?