Monday, March 29, 2010

Homemade Holidays

As someone who is now entirely nonreligious, I am having more than a little difficulty with holidays. Christmas is obviously problematic. I love Christmas cookies and Christmas trees and Christmas lights and Christmas presents and Christmas dinner and Christmas stockings and Christmas carols and Christmas traditions, but I feel really uncomfortable celebrating a holiday the accepted origin of which is to celebrate Jesus' birth. (I know people who actually celebrate Jesus at Christmas are in the minority, but that's not really the point...especially as among the set of people I know, they're not really. I also know that Christmas and virtually every other holiday had pagan roots and the rituals were all whitewashed, but that doesn't really help.) Even the dreaded too-secular Santa Claus has his origins in a Catholic saint, despite all Coca-Cola's best efforts to make us forget that. Even such inoffensive holidays as Thanksgiving attract my ire. (See: Gladsgiving.)

I just read the book Good Without God by Greg Epstein, the humanist chaplain at Harvard. He feels that nonbelievers, just like everyone else, have the need for significant rituals and ceremonies in life, markers of time and occasions, celebrations of life and meaning. With that, I agree. Unfortunately, from there he decides that a humanist "congregation" (and he's a humanist "rabbi" because he's culturally Jewish; otherwise I guess he'd be a humanist "minister") should meet weekly (on Sundays, even); their children should go to Sunday school; they should have sermons about ethics and morals; they should celebrate "naming days" where a child gets "guideparents," secular weddings, secular funerals; they should celebrate a winter light holiday; they should even replace prayer with self-calming rituals like rational-emotive behavioral therapy. He does admit that sounds a little churchy (you think?) but claims it all meets fundamental human needs.

Now, I do agree that there do seem to be fundamental human needs for ritual and structure; ceremony; making meaning; lifting things above the ordinary; marking birth, transition to adulthood, commitment to a partner, and death, but I have a visceral reaction to what appears to be appropriating religious traditions wholesale. Just because nonbelievers need community and meaning doesn't mean they need a replacement for every single aspect of a religous life. To me, that smacks of being unable or unwilling to fully let go. (A feeling I really do understand. I miss singing hymns. I miss Christmas Eve services.) I'm sure there are nonbelievers who feel a church-shaped hole in their life on Sunday mornings, but I'm not one of them. Even before I had a problem with the God part of religion, the organized part of religion drove me crazy; why would I replace that with organized non-religion?

That being said, I do feel cheated out of holidays and do think it's important to celebrate the things that are meaningful in one's own life or worldview. I've been thinking about what existing holidays I can celebrate with some degree of personal integrity, what sorts of holidays are universally celebrated regardless of the specifics each religion puts on it, and what kind of holidays I might make up to add meaning in my life without simply appropriating existing ones and stripping them of their godly aspects.

The new year has always been a favorite holiday of mine. I like the idea of new beginnings, the cyclical and repetitive nature of time and life, a chance to stop and take stock of where you've been and what you've done in the past year and where you're going and what your goals are in the coming one. (The beginning of the school year used to serve a similar purpose for me, complete with its own school-supply-shopping-and-orgnanization rituals.) Similarly, birthdays serve an obvious (and related) purpose. They also mark time and are often occasions to reevaluate, and then there's the very humanistic bit of celebrating one's life and time on this earth.

That may be it as far as existing holidays. I'm OK with Halloween as is, but I'm not sure it's a super-humanist-y sort of holiday (and then there is the fact that it's All Hallow's Eve and all that, but I suppose that's counteracted by all the pagan stuff the religious aspect is shellacking). I like Fourth of July fireworks and cookouts, but that's pretty secular to begin with, and I'm kind of uncomfortable with unbridled patriotism, so that's not going to become a big meaningful one for me.

So then there are the big seasonal holidays that seem to be almost universal: some sort of harvest festival, some sort of spring rebirth/renewal festival, some sort of light-and-feasting festival around the winter solstice. People like food, people like flowers and sunshine, and people feel the need to be merry and well-lit in the dark days of winter.

What I'd really like is to celebrate personal holidays: anniversaries of my becoming a reasonable human being, of my entering adulthood, of the awakening of my interest in current events and the real world, of my deconversion, etc. Unfortunately there are no sharply deliniated dates I can pin down as the definitive day anything like that happened. (Of course, not that the lack of dates stops anyone else, so I guess I could just mash all those into June and August, which have a severe lack of good holidays, anyway.) Other than that, I guess there's always celebrations of favorite authors or personages (apparently Darwin Day is a big deal for humanists), but none of those sound particularly moving at the moment.

Maybe I'll just start giving my seasonal rituals and markers holiday-type names just to make them feel more official: Commencement of Asparagus Season, First Daffodil Spotting, No-Cancer-Yet Day (day after annual dermatologist visit), the Seasonal Closet Switcheroo, First Bike Ride, Crunchy Leaf Day, First Snowfall Day, Fatten Up for Hibernation Week, and the like—the more ridiculous the better.