Secular Solstice and the Importance of Ritual

Secular Solstice cover art.I wanted to write a little bit about secular ritual and tradition and why it’s important.

To me, that is. It’s important to me. It’s not important to a lot of other people, some of whom politely shrug and say, “Not my thing,” and others of whom sneer condescendingly at those of us who need it, claiming that they’re above such silliness.

I think people leave or avoid religion for a number of different overlapping reasons. Some just don’t believe in god. Others don’t believe in god, and also resent the communal aspects of religion. I’m not a huge fan of singing in groups, either, so I can relate to that somewhat.

But mainly, my issue with religion is the superstitious and unscientific thinking, and also the frequent presence of political conservatism. Ritual is something I always loved, and still love, which is why I attended Jewish religious observances often when I was in college and wish I had the opportunity to keep doing it. Despite my atheism. Despite the fact that I disagree that I have any obligation to avoid eating meat and dairy products in the same meal.

What I continue to yearn for despite all these years of atheism is that togetherness, the feeling of being part of a larger whole, of participating in ceremonies that have existed virtually unchanged for centuries, of feeling that I could go to services on Friday night in San Francisco or London or Tokyo or Cape Town and be welcomed in virtually the same way, with the same greetings and food and songs. They will say Shabbat shalom and there will be challah and red wine, in America and in Great Britain and in Japan and in South Africa.

I don’t think there is anything like that outside of Judaism, and can’t be for decades or centuries more. I’m trying to make my peace with that.

Ritual and tradition feel good. There doesn’t have to be a rational reason and there isn’t. Chocolate feels good, too, despite being harmful in large quantities. I don’t care that there aren’t Valid Logical Reasons for loving ritual (or chocolate). There is a lot of stress and pain in life and if I can spend a Friday night feeling cheerful and whole, I will do it.

But I also know that non-secular Judaism can’t be a home for me anymore, so I’m looking for other ways to get even a fraction of that feeling. One such way is a project run by my friend Raymond Arnold, called the Secular Solstice.

Although groups of humanists/rationalists/atheists have presumably been running their own winter solstice celebrations for a while now, this particular event is an attempt to actually create a new secular ritual, a set of traditions for celebrating a winter holiday that usually goes unnoticed in the Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanzaa/New Year’s Eve pandemonium.

And it’s too bad that it does, because it’s an interesting holiday. Unlike most holidays, the solstice marks an astronomical phenomenon. People have known about it and observed it for thousands of years. From the simple physical fact of the winter solstice, people can (and do) draw all sorts of meaning.

The Secular Solstice, for instance, celebrates science and progress. It’s all about how humans overcome darkness and winter, literally and metaphorically. It’s about how even on the longest night of the year, we can look forward to the days growing longer and longer again. It’s about a lot of things, really.

The first Secular Solstice was held last year, in New York. I went with a bunch of people I care about and had one of the best holiday experiences I’ve ever had. The celebration was set up as a sort of concert with both music and short readings. Some of the songs had a sing-along component, though, for the first time possibly ever, I didn’t feel pressured or expected to actually sing (which, naturally, means that I felt comfortable enough to sing). The songs and readings were about winter, humanity, science, space, planet Earth. Not all of them resonated with me, but most did. (You can listen to them here.)

There were a few reasons I especially liked this particular event. One is that, on a psychological level, winter is just hard for me. I don’t know if I have Seasonal Affective Disorder necessarily, but I’m sensitive to extreme temperatures and to light (or lack thereof) and I find that winter saps me of physical and mental energy. Some of my favorite things–long walks, outdoor photography, swimming, reading outdoors in the sun, wearing the clothes I like–become difficult or impossible. The Secular Solstice, in a weird and possibly unintentional way, validated how much I hate winter and how much of a “big deal” it is for me to get through it without some of my favorite distractions and coping mechanisms. Unlike the other winter holidays, the Solstice doesn’t frame winter as a happy cheery beautiful time with family, snowball fights, kissing under the mistletoe, Santa Claus, and Jesus. It frames it as a challenge, but one that we nevertheless get through every year.

On a related note, the Secular Solstice also differs from a number of other humanist events in its avoidance of faux (at least to me) cheeriness. In this way, I’d contrast it with Sunday Assembly, another event I’ve started regularly attending. I do enjoy Sunday Assembly a lot, but I find myself generally unable to produce the amount of happy singing/dancing/clapping it seems to demand of me. I like my communal observances, secular or otherwise, to be a little more…I’m not sure what the word is. Solemn, maybe.

That’s something that Jewish ritual does particularly well. Most Jewish holidays (with a few notable exceptions) commemorate joyous events or concepts, but the rituals themselves often have a sort of gravity, a seriousness to them. Not every song is loud and cheerful. There is an opportunity to acknowledge adversity, loss, and melancholy.

Perhaps those who lead secular observances worry that people will be pushed away by too much solemnity, that it’ll be too much like religion. Many some people would be, which is why I understand why events like Sunday Assembly are the way they are. But the Secular Solstice differs in that it has so many quiet, beautiful, powerful moments, some of which might even feel quite sad. This, too, was an integral part of the experience for me.

But it had joyful and funny moments, too, as well as plenty of hopeful ones. I felt like I experienced pretty much a full gamut of emotions throughout the concert. Moreover, when it was over, I felt like I had actually observed something, in the sense of observing a holiday or a tradition. I had connected with the other people in the room, as well as with ideas that I believe in–the hope that we can overcome challenges, the ability of scientific progress to improve our lives, and the fact that it is okay to feel sad and scared.

Traditions, including new ones, help me mark the passage of time and find some sort of meaning in it. They also help me connect with people who share my values. While religious values serve a similar function, the values themselves are obviously quite different.

Unfortunately, unlike religious observances, secular ones appeal to a small minority of people and do not have the financial and social capital that theistic congregations can provide. That’s why, if you want to see secular traditions and communities flourish, it’s important to support them.

If this is something that matters to you too, I urge you to support the Secular Solstice through their Kickstarter campaign.

Christmas From The Outside

Just some personal reflections on Christmas from an outsider.

It is impossible to be a person living in the United States, of any ethnicity, religious affiliation, or national origin, and not understand the meaning and significance of Christmas.

It’s a religious observance. It’s a sparkling monument to consumerism. It’s a celebration of family, of charity, of miracles, of food, of childhood, of living ethically–depending on who you ask. It is the only holiday I’ve ever heard of that has an entire genre of music dedicated to it, that requires over a month of preparation via that music playing in every public space, hours of shopping, and decorations covering trees, roofs, walls, doors, countertops, bathrooms.

Growing up as an immigrant and a secular Jew in a particularly Christian and conservative part of the Midwest, I grasped all of this so early on that I don’t even remember learning it.

It’s bizarre and a bit unsettling, having such a detailed understanding of a set of traditions, beliefs, and principles that I have never participated in. With absolutely no effort, I learned about jingle bells, advent calendars, stockings, Santa Claus, coal, elves, milk and cookies, chimneys, Christmas Mass, eggnog, nativity scenes, reindeer, holly, mistletoe, and more. It’s not like I ever had to ask a Christian friend about their observances or attend one on my own. I just absorbed all this information passively by virtue of living in the United States.

This, to me, is part of what it means to live in a Christian country. Christianity is the default here, which is how I came to be so knowledgeable about its traditions while few of the people I meet know anything about my traditions.

This isn’t in itself a “bad” thing. If you live in the places I’m from, you’ll experience the same thing. It’s impossible to live in Russia without understanding what New Year’s Eve means to us. It’s impossible to live in Israel without knowing exactly how we observe Shabbat, Purim, Passover, Rosh Hashanah, Sukkot, Yom Kippur, Tisha B’Av, Yom Ha’atzmaut, Chanukah, and many others that you probably haven’t even heard of.

The truth is, though, that I have to understand Christmas. If I didn’t, it’d be kind of weird, don’t you think? Friends would tell me they can’t leave the house and go do something on the 25th and I’d wonder why. We’d be asked to sing Christmas songs in class and I wouldn’t know any of the words. When asked what I did for Christmas, I’d say that I sat around at home and read a book rather than understanding that I’m supposed to say that I spent it with my family.

I have to understand Christmas in order to interact with people normally at this time of year. But they never have to understand the things my family and I do for holidays in order to interact normally with me. It’s standard for people to ask me why I’m shopping for “New Year’s presents,” or why Chanukah lasts eight days.

My little brother’s teacher once asked someone from our family to come to their class and give a presentation about Chanukah, so I showed up with a menorah and a bunch of dreidls and gelt, explained the history of the holiday to the class, and showed them how to play the game. It was fun and they seemed to have a good time, and it occurred to me that nobody ever had to give me a presentation about Christmas.

Some of my earliest memories of living in the United States have to do with Christmas. I remember singing Christmas songs in school in kindergarten. At first I was jealous, naturally, of the other kids. I’d pass by my neighbors’ houses and see the glowing Christmas trees through their living room windows. Although in Russian culture we have “New Year’s trees” (or novogodniye yolki, I guess you would say), my parents abandoned that tradition. I think they realized that people would pass by on the street and assume that we celebrate Christmas just like everyone else. The fact that a decorated evergreen tree could have any other significance probably doesn’t occur to many people.

Anyway, I grew up and stopped feeling jealous, instead growing proud of my own holidays, traditions, and language. But it stings sometimes to have our observances roped into this amorphous Holiday Season when, in fact, the similarities end with the fact that our holidays happen at the same time of year. Chanukah is nothing like Christmas, and neither is New Year’s Eve (except for the fact that the Soviets stole some of those traditions from Christmas).

These days it has become politically correct to acknowledge non-Christian wintertime holidays as part of the Holiday Season. Grocery stores now carry dreidls, gelt, and menorahs; people celebrate winter solstice; kids in school sing a song about Chanukah in addition to all those Christmas songs. Kwanzaa, a holiday observed by the African American community that the majority of Americans might not have otherwise heard of, is often given an obligatory shout-out. “Happy holidays” is often considered more appropriate to say instead of “Merry Christmas” if you do not know which holiday(s) someone observes.

It’s nice that people are finally recognizing that not all Americans celebrate Christmas–and, hell, not all of us are even Americans. But nevertheless it feels like, in a strange way, we’re still being asked to conform by participating in The Holiday Season even if we don’t have such a thing. (In fact, the Jewish version of the “holiday season” are the High Holidays in the fall.)

Despite these well-intentioned concessions, it’s still quite clear that Christmas reigns supreme among wintertime holidays. It feels weird knowing so much about something that has never been part of my life and never will.