This is a cross-post by John Sargeant from homo economicus
Let me quickly tell you my dream – a “Christmas” for all that is not sectarian, nor dogmatic but life celebrating and all encompassing. Some Christians will say you need the Christ in Christmas. Some atheists may deride this as religion without the supernatural, and with two thirds of humanity not being Christian, many may be concerned I am choosing one particular religious festival to writ large for all. Especially given majority of people do not celebrate December with Christ’s birth in mind.
Yet this dream may be embraced by all as a universal festival for a shared human spirit. Like all dreamers I am not the only one. Perhaps an interfaith approach of celebrating a religious festival as it is, with all the trimmings and inclusive, may work for those that do faith and feel comfortable celebrating another faith. However, I am calling for something that is not religious – though it may borrow (or reclaim) from them – but an observance of the season, marking time, and celebrating life with each other. Something for everyone.
Which makes the Winter Solstice and Christmas the platform to build on.
Not Biblical But Pagan
Christmas was seen by puritans as celebrating a non commemorated event by the apostles, in the style of a modern day pagan Roman worshipping Saturn in December:
“Saturnalia was famous for copious feasting, excessive boozing, light-hearted pranks, big gatherings of family and friends, and the exchange of gifts.” [Greg Jenner - read more on his history of Christmas here]
The merrymaking in December is one that transcends the Christian calendar. Even today some Christian sects (like Jehovah’s Witnesses) prohibit followers celebrating Christmas because of the God Saturn.
As coincidence would have it, the Solstice falls on Saturn’s day of the week – Saturday 21 December.
Most activity this month involves the ringing of tills over bells of joy. Wringing purses to celebrate the presence together of humanity in a crowded mall purchasing the latest must have presents. Later gathering for an orgy of food to gorge and getting the booze in, training in preparation for the following week to vomit out the old year seeing in a new one through blood shot eyes.
So while some American Christians get narked at bill boards with atheists saying you don’t need Christ for Christmas, there is perhaps another way of seeing the Solstice that might include everyone of goodwill. With more to it than getting plastered and deeper in debt, but less to do with a divine baby being born to be crucified as the greatest human sacrifice of all time.
Narrative Beyond Nativity
Humanism is finding a universal idea which recognises cultural festivities as stressing the human needs and wants which all can relate to. Invoking a good life while having a good time.
Religion and traditions get this by invigorating us with celebratory festivals. The traditional over the theological for popular customs enhances the cultural aspect – for example it was St Francis of Assisi who popularised the barn animals at the birth of Jesus. Not biblically accurate, but an excuse to have a child dressed as the back end of a cow at the local school nativity play. A community sharing a common experience that is timeless through generations via a common narrative of storytelling that stretches back towards antiquity.
The Solstice is experienced by all, those noon time shadows are the longest with the low arc of the Sun in the Northern Hemisphere, as the shortest day approaches on Saturday December 21 2013. The marking of it goes even further in human history.
Gifts of Kindness
Buying a well thought out gift for someone shows you have been paying attention to them as a unique person. It makes the “better to give than to receive” adage come true. In the harshness of winter this is a time for family, friends, even strangers to come together as one. To celebrate life, as short cold day gives way to harsh long night, and renewal as after the Solstice the night begins to gradually fade.
The Romans during this festive time had slaves the equal with masters. This is the time to remember that whether as Children of Creation, or citizens, we are in equal need of the milk of human kindness. Stripped bare we need the same fundamentals to survive. If anything is sacrilegious, people dying due to lack of food, water and shelter on this earth is. A baby born in this world should be celebrated as a messiah – wherever and whenever it takes place.
Using symbols of nature to brighten up the home as a reminder that life carries on, whether bearing fruit on the holly or with a kiss under the mistletoe in the hope that unrequited love just might be reciprocated to kindle a romance to warm cold winter nights.
This photo theme comes from publicising a Winter Solstice event at Liverpool Cathedral marking the world’s traditions across cultures and centuries.
Being festive is tackling the somber atmosphere of rain, wind and snow. We try to romanticise the bitter weather – a “White Christmas” becomes the perfect setting. Irving Berlin with that song, despite having lost a child on Christmas Day and not being a Christian himself, could get that. To commemorate not just the season, but life, hoping to do so with joy and kindness despite the highs and lows.
Such a festival is one I would like to invite all to celebrate together at this time of year. In a world where Ahmadi Muslims can be arrested for celebrating Islamic festivals in Pakistan, puritanical Christian sects ban Christmas inspired frivolity for followers or Christians seeing my suggestion as a secular war on Christmas, this might be a big ask.
Still I dream – celebrating life, hope of renewal and kindness while making merry in December.
So however you were planning on celebrating December 25, have a Merry Christmas. But might I encourage you, and those that never celebrate Christmas Day, to consider this Saturday what happens on earth to all and how humanity has marked the passing of time.
So this Saturday 21 December when the Solstice takes place, see if you can live the dream I have outlined here too.
Sarah adds: Here are a couple more interesting seasonal posts: Tom Holland talks to Alom Shaha about why he identifies as a Christian, and Jonathan Freedland explains why his home is no longer a Christmas-free zone.