A Humanist view of Christmas

A Merry Whatever-you-call-it

We’re often asked what Humanists do at Christmas. It’s generally assumed that the festival based on the winter solstice (the shortest day) is Jesus’s birthday. That’s what a lot of people refer to as “the real meaning of Christmas”. What they may not realise is that:

  • It’s highly unlikely that Jesus was born on 25 December;
  • The Christian nativity story is very similar to other stories of baby deities born to virgin mothers; it’s not unique.
  • The Christian Church didn’t celebrate Christmas until the 4th century, as it took a dim view of all hedonistic hoo-ha enjoyed by the pagans at that time of year;
  • There’s been a midwinter festival of one sort or another in Europe, Scandinavia and the Middle East for thousands of years, since long before the Christians claimed it;
  • “Traditions” like Christmas trees, cards, gifts and turkeys are all fairly recent. The Victorians, particularly Prince Albert, had a lot to do with their introduction.

Some Humanists regard the festival as a time to enjoy good food and drink with family and friends, but without going OTT because they regard the commercialisation of the season as irritating and wasteful. Others prefer to ignore the whole thing, which is difficult. There used to be special get-away-from-Christmas holidays for Humanists, who’d go and stay somewhere Christmas-free – I don’t know if they still happen.

This is from my Thought for the Day on local radio around Christmas in 1996:

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The artificiality of the 1990s festive season has little relevance to the original mid-winter solstice festival. For me, as a non-believer, it has no religious significance. Peel away all the layers of “tradition”, which means different things to different people, and what are we left with?

The mid-winter festival has been divided into two parts, Christmas and New Year, but used to be all-in-one, around the time of the shortest day, when humankind’s precarious survival depended on the vagaries of nature and their own resourcefulness more than at any other time.

For thousands of years, in Europe, Scandinavia and around the Mediterranean, communities have celebrated life, and their survival, in the depths of winter, with eating, drinking and other fundamental pleasures. There was nothing contrived, nothing artificial about it, just sheer enjoyment.

I wouldn’t want to go back to living without the comforts of the 1990s. Being a member of one of the simple communities that celebrated the winter solstice thousands of years ago mattered; if you weren’t part of a community, your chances of survival were limited.

The same can be true today, yet we have the means to create a sense of inclusive community and with it freedom from want and hunger, so that everyone has something to celebrate. I sense an increasing disillusionment with Christmas as an over-extended, expensive event that fails to meet unrealistic expectations. Is anyone interested in devising a new version?

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I don’t envy parents of young children, who have to deal with non-stop pre-Christmas exhortations to spend lots of money. On BBC24 business news this morning (24 October), a businessman from one of the big retail chains spoke about his hopes that the British public would go out and and spend lots of money over the next couple of months. It appears that the main purpose of Christmas is to keep people like him in business. I refuse to spend money in stores that start displaying Christmas decorations or piping Jingle Bells on the shop floor more than four weeks before the holiday. I asked a shop assistant if it didn’t drive her crazy to hear the same music over and over again. She said it did.

If there are young children in your family, you can’t be an old misery, but there are better ways of doing things than joining in the stress-inducing orgy of consumption. A few years ago, Suffolk Humanist Yvonne Peecock wrote about how she gives pleasure to her grandchildren at this time of year.

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YvonneAs I’ve never embraced Christianity, I’ve always found this time of year a bit difficult. As a just pre-war-baby, I grew up through fairly hard times and Christmas was an oh-so-needed landmark. There was excitement and surprise, with parents doing unexpected things like hanging up paper chains, putting silver three-penny pieces in puddings, digging up little trees and cursing over fairy lights that would never work, but which looked nice to me anyhow. There were little presents and new jumpers from aunties. There were even grown-ups drinking a teensy bit of alcohol! So I look back on the time with nostalgia and I think my own children loved it similarly.

However, now I think it is time to get my head round it. For me the nativity has a historical significance and that is all. But also it seems to have built up into such a monster of greed and commercial opportunism with people beggaring themselves to provide what is ‘expected’ of them. I’ve finally decided to turn my back on the whole shemozzle, but being grandma to ten (to date) has its responsibilities and being a miserable old git is not an option, so I have reverted to good old astronomical and biological ideas and have a winter solstice party for family, neighbours and friends. The cause for celebration is simple; the passing of the shortest day and longest night with the hope of a new year of growth, rebirth and all that. The wheel turns for a seasonal change and I can rejoice in the gentle movement from the dark, cold winter to the sweet spring. As well as making a thank you opportunity to all those around who love and care for me.

On this occasion the children are allowed to hold matches and light fires. We have a firework display (absolutely no bangs), sparklers, night-lights in jars, a bonfire, wood gathering and chopping. Then they light and keep fed my two open fires indoors. The house is mostly candle-lit. Then I sort out some activities. They make sun, moon and star cakes – fairy cakes with icing and silver and orange decorations. They make solstice cards with gold and silver stick-and-cut and can make large willow weavings with thin branches from my tree. Each child has a gold and silver bag with little gifts all of which are hung up (weather permitting) on the tree outside. These include a small torch each, a little piece of jewellery or a toy, a gold or silver decoration and a sweet of some kind. With the torches they then do a treasure hunt in the dark, finding a list of things tucked up in odd places. Indoors we have another treasure hunt right through the house. They have done this last for many years now and are very sharp-eyed about it, finding things like the tiny salt spoon stuck to the lamp-shade in no time at all. I do a pheasant soup and a veggie one, cold meat, cheese and bean salads and a bit of everything else with a sun and moon cake – with, of course, plenty of alcohol.

So far I have found this is a good mix of fireworks, Christmas and New Year. It comes a week before most people start celebrating and has enough darkness, difference, scariness and danger attached to it to rejoice the children and the grown-ups.

I would be very interested to hear of other folk’s alternatives to the mighty spend.

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Whatever you do, midwinter needn’t be stressful or complicated. Bear in mind –

Christmas isn’t compulsory; if you don’t join in the festivities you needn’t apologise for it, but try not to spoil other people’s enjoyment.

If children learn to have reasonable expectations from an early age, you’re far less likely to have problems as they grow older.

It’s more important to spend time with your children than to spend money on them, at Christmas or at any other time.

Story-telling, whether they’re your own stories or read from books, is a great way to spend winter evenings. Telling ghost stories that send a shiver up your spine is one Christmas tradition that most can enjoy. Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” is only one of many.

There’s nothing wrong with giving young children second-hand gifts, as long as they’re in good condition.

You can treat people by doing things for them, as well as giving them presents. It’s nice to feel spoiled.

The divorce and suicide rates go up over the Christmas holiday, when expectations clash with reality. Be realistic and sensible, and accept that people are just as likely to be ill, irritable and tired as at any other time of year; more so, if they’ve been working hard in the build-up to Christmas. Make allowances for this.

Rather than spending huge amounts of money on presents for people who already have lots of stuff, come to an agreement with family members about the maximum you’ll spend on each other.

For ethical gifts, most leading charities have gift catalogues.

Oxfam Unwrapped and Good Gifts are just two websites where you can buy gifts for someone who really needs something, in the name of someone who doesn’t.

Have a happy whatever-you-call-it, whatever you do with it.

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