Dec 25 2014

Io Saturnalia

Seasons Greetings, Happy Holidays, Happy Festivus, Have a wonderful Winter Solstice, and Merry Christmas.

This is the time of year that many cultures in the northern hemisphere celebrate the return of the sun, celebrate family and life while facing the long dark of winter, and engage in superstitious rituals to help them survive the cold and hunger that mark that season. All of that is the real reason for the season.

In western culture the celebration has been largely “Christianized” into the holiday of Christmas, but the secular aspects of Christmas, from gift giving to the Christmas tree, all have non-Christian origins.

For me, though, it all doesn’t matter. It’s a great time of year to take a break from the usual grind and spend time with family and friends, reminding everyone how much we mean to each other. In the darkest part of the year (again, with apologies to my southern hemisphere friends) we spread a little light and warmth to those in our lives.

It doesn’t matter if we celebrate Saturnalia, like the Romans, or Christmas, or any other cultural version of the holiday. Many of our cultural traditions and language have religious or superstitious roots. We can enjoy the positive cultural aspects of such things without adhering to the supernatural beliefs in which they have been embedded.

Tim Minchin says it best in his song White Wine in the Sun. Yes, Christmas is a flawed holiday, but so what. It’s still nice.

George Hrab expresses the same sentiment in his song, I Don’t Believe in Christmas (but I love it anyway).

What these songs are expressing is something that skeptics and atheists sometimes struggle with, both in their own feelings and the way they are perceived by others. We reject superstition and supernaturalism. The lyrics of some popular Christmas songs don’t express our beliefs (as Tim Minchin says, they can be “dodgy”). But we do identify with the feelings – we love the feeling of family, community, giving, and celebrating what all that means in our lives.

So what do we do? I know many non-believers who are conflicted, and search for secular means of celebrating the holiday, which is fine. I don’t feel the need to purge the holiday of all its superstitious trappings, however. It’s part of our history.

Every culture has turned the mid-winter festival into what they want and what they need, transforming it to fit their cultural narrative. Secularists can do the same. The core of the holiday is always the same – a celebration of the best aspects of being human.

So Merry Christmas, everyone. Now stop reading this blog and go spend some time with the people you care about.

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