Holidays: One Atheist’s Perspective

Maybe it’s because i’m sitting in a cafe drinking a chai tea frappe that tastes almost exactly like an egg nog.  Maybe it’s because my parents are already trying to figure out exactly what sort of family celebration will occur for Thanksgiving.  Maybe it’s because my “summer break” (all one week of it) is about to end, and the school year is about to start back up in earnest.  Either way, the concept of holidays has been on my mind quite a bit lately, especially when it comes to being an atheist during some of the more religiously-motivated ones.  Also, i know it’s only been about two days since my last entry, but i’ve got the bug, and this will help make up for the nearly two weeks preceding it.

Like it or not, we atheists who live in the United States of America are stuck in a predominantly Christian culture, at least for the foreseeable future.  While the government is constitutionally forbidden from establishing Christianity as the national religion (though not for lack of trying on the part of many elected officials), we are still hugely culturally Christian.  And that cultural influence means that the majority of our federal holidays have some sort of Christian religious underpinning… underpinnings that conservative Christians all over the country are doing their best to maintain (“Keep Christ in Christmas, anyone?).  With all of this blatant religiosity that comes out during such holidays, what is a poor atheist to do?  Not celebrating at all means that we miss out on all the fun secular parts of these holidays (and makes us very conspicuous among our peers… and only reinforces the popular stereotype of atheists as humorless “stop-having-fun guys”).  But can we celebrate these holidays and still maintain our philosophical integrity?

Now i know that a lot of other writers have already tackled this subject, and that many of them have done so much more eloquently than i could ever manage.  But just because territory has been covered already doesn’t mean that no one else can carve their own trail, offer their two cents, and add to the breadth (if not necessarily the depth) of the ongoing conversation.  That’s what i intend to do here.  Nothing i say is going to be terribly new, and it’s not meant to.  It’s my way to stake my own philosophical ground and say “this is what i think about the whole thing.”  So all that being said, what do i think?

i’ll start by pointing to some of the “lesser” holidays, such as Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, and Halloween (my personal favorite).  All three of these began as religious holidays in one respect or another.  Valentine’s Day and St. Patrick’s Day started out as feast days for Catholic saints.  Halloween was a Christian holiday called “All Hallows Eve” (and you can see from that exactly how they shortened it to get the modern name), the night before All Saints Day (and of course it was co-opted from the Gaelic pagan holiday Samhain, but more on Christian co-opting later).  Nowadays, these holidays have been entirely secularized, at least in the U.S.A.  i can’t think of any person i have ever met or heard of who still celebrates these for their religious reasons.  Valentine’s Day has become all about declaring one’s undying love by bolstering the net profits of the Russell Stover company, and the American version of St. Patrick’s Day has become all about how much green-dyed beer one can vomit up by the end of the night while making spurious declarations of Irish heritage.  Meanwhile, Halloween is a wondrous time of year when no one looks at you sideways for cosplaying and candy is thrown at you from all angles.  (Did i mention Halloween is my favorite?)  The point is that no one is starting a campaign to “Keep St. Valentine in Valentine’s Day,” and the Religious Right is more up in arms about banning Halloween because of its pagan roots than struggling to maintain the integrity of All Hallows Eve.

So it may be one day for holidays like Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Easter as well.  Thanksgiving is probably going to be the first one to secularize; it’s already heading that way anyway, and it’s the easiest of the three to divorce from its religious baggage.  Reframing Thanksgiving is really no challenge at all.  One can appreciate the historical events that started it (while also taking care to remove the “American mythology” that has cloaked it as best as possible) and maintain the spirit of thankfulness without the need for the divine.  Instead of thanking a god for the “blessings” in your life, thank the people who actually helped you achieve them.  Or simply thank he important people in your life just for being themselves and enriching your life through their presence.  Humanist Thanksgiving is easy to accomplish.  And you can still gorge yourself on turkey, stuffing, and mashed potatoes!

Christmas and Easter, on the other hand, will be more of a challenge.  Some atheist writers have suggested that, instead of celebrating Christmas and Easter, we celebrate the Winter Solstice and Vernal Equinox instead, especially since Christmas and Easter were co-opted from pagan celebrations of these same occurrences.  i honestly don’t think this is necessary, and it would make our lives more complicated rather than more simple.  For one thing, such a culturally Christian nation is not going to ever go along with this substitution.  For another, it once again makes us conspicuous “weirdos” who are easier to dismiss with a mere handwave.  Moreover, since Christmas and Easter are already co-opted pagan celebrations to begin with, there is nothing to say that we as atheists can’t co-opt Christmas and Easter and create our own humanist traditions, or at least adopt the secular trappings and ignore the religious baggage.  And honestly, i wouldn’t complain too horribly about dropping Easter altogether.  It’s always been my least favorite holiday because i never quite came fully on board with the Jesus story, and even with the secular bits it’s the most blatantly religious of all the holidays.  The only time problems arise with this is when Christians try to get in our faces about keeping the religious bits in the public square… and they are consistently losing that battle.

So i guess what i’m saying is that if the patterns continue as they have been, the holidays that are still pretty blatantly religious will gradually continue to secularize until the underlying religiosity fades, either completely or down to a fringe group that society considers outside the norm.  As we as a society continue to make advancements in our knowledge of science and human nature, we have gradually but steadily discarded the religious elements from many elements of our society, and even some of our formerly-religious holidays.  And as this process has gone on, we’ve managed to keep the positive secular, human-affirming aspects even without the superstitious baggage.  For the remaining holdouts, it’s really only a matter of time…

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