So, How Do We Celebrate?

What is Christmas for Atheists: How Do We Celebrate?End-of-year celebrations throughout history have included light, decorations, gifts, feasting, frivolity, tradition, ritual, hope and celebration of prosperity, supernatural, sacrifice, scary characters and benevolent characters. Most of what is commonly celebrated during the winter is based on ancient traditions associated with the end of the year and not necessarily the Bible.

In my family, we always had the same meal on Christmas Eve at the same house (my maternal grandparents’), after the same mass, followed by the same Christmas curtain, in the same room, the same gift wrap (thanks to my economical grandmother who purchased a roll that I couldn’t get my arms around!) and many of the same ornaments. All of these memories together are what make Christmas. This year, when my brother and his girlfriend came for Christmas dinner, I served that exact meal to his delight!

So really, what is celebrated during the winter seasons, is traditions. In learning about the history of Christmas, one piece that really stuck with me was how quickly new activities and beliefs took hold and were considered age-old customs. The yearning for predictable comforts and ritual is the biggest part of modern end-of-year customs. This aligns with a lot of research about anticipation often being more satisfying than the event itself. When we consider how much of Christmas is anticipated, “they will *love* this gift,” “this special recipe *will* be so good!” Next year *will be* great!

Year after year of rituals that build a long-standing shared memory within families and communities is Christmas.

Alongside that, we know that memories often sweeten with time. That is, we may recall experiences more favorably than they actually were. Called rosy retrospection by researchers, this feeds into Christmas also and unlike other memories, is one a lot of folks share. You may also know it as nostalgia.

Ritual and anticipation, along with fond memories is excellent emotional priming that gives us a fantastic base for a cultural phenomenon.

Another common theme is revelry and hi-jinx. From changing roles to changing gender-oriented clothing, freedom of celebration and exploration abound. There is no pressure, just fun to be had. Add to it feasting, sweets, gifts and alcohol and you’ve got yourself a party!

Christmas has also become a holiday that is about celebrating childhood. A celebration of wonder through the eyes of children. Special gifts from a benevolent stranger, extra sweets, music, and special foods.

Another piece of Christmas is consumerism. The buying of things. The it toy, the must-have thing, the madness of Black Friday sales. When I was a child, there were fights over the last Cabbage Patch Doll and that seem to happen every year. It is here that we may find ourselves shaking our heads. I am right there with you. Certainly the folks who know how to play these chords the best are marketing firms.

Christmas is the time of year when advertisements are themed as nostalgic rather than innovative. Companies advertise how old they are to play the nostalgia chord in our hearts.

Old-fashioned candies, games, etc. are trotted out for black Friday sales. Even decorations feel nostalgic. Consider the charming, painted ceramic snow-covered villages that you can add to each year…

However, that consumerism has not been enough for me to say, “bah-humbug.” Instead, I look for the common themes and weave then together into something I can make my own. I start with the ancient celebration of hope and the return of light. From druid celebrations of the great mother giving birth to her son of light, to celebrations of fire as the hearth and center of family, light is a common theme that is easy to embrace and build on.

One of our family traditions is going out to look at holiday lights. My children will bundle up and take a cup of cocoa while we wander the neighborhood enjoying everyone’s decorations. We also like to visit neighboring towns and enjoy their community decorations.

Another common theme is greenery, if nothing else, as a symbol of the returning spring. In our family, we hang swags of garland over the fireplace mantle and stair rails. We have a Christmas tree that we decorate with ornaments that I buy when we travel. Each ornament recalls a family trip (that we most certainly remember with rosy retrospection!)

We enjoy music too, it is easy enough to create  playlist of songs that are about the season and not a specific religion if you like. And most holiday specials, like the Grinch, are not about a higher power.

We invite Santa to our holiday as well. I know there is a lot of controversy about Santa feeling dishonest and deceptive to some. I hear that. I value the wonderful surprise and the spirit of giving without expectation of reciprocity. We reinforce this throughout the year with random acts of kindness too.  In our family, Santa is benevolent, never watching, no elves reporting, and all children are on the list because we believe everyone is trying their best. I have explained to my children that many families talk about elves watching but I don’t know anyone who didn’t get gifts from Santa because of behavior.

Some families in our community do not invite Santa because they focus only on the birth of Jesus. That has been a talking point for us about how religion is the most important thing to some people and all of their choices are made around it, and not necessarily other facts or information.

We make special family recipes and host a gingerbread house decorating party too. While I did not touch on special foods, like gingerbread, this year, I will wrap back to that next year. Gingerbread however, is decidedly secular. And has a quirky background!

These articles are not intended as ways to start an argument. What I have found over the years is that gentle persuasion is more effective than the hammer over the head. When folks are confronted with facts so different than those they have embraced their whole lives, it takes some time to process them. So, dropping a historical reference here and there about other beliefs they may not align with is a gentler way to introduce folks to your atheist beliefs. This is my way, but certainly not the only way.

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How do you celebrate the holidays with your family? Drop me a line at betsy@betsydeville.com

Want to dive in and learn more? Here are the resources I used to create this series:

Bowler, Gerry Christmas in the Crosshairs Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday
Oxford University Press 2017

Marling, Karak Ann Merry Christmas! Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday
Harvard University Press 2000

Brunner, Bernd Inventing the Christmas Tree Yale University Press 2012

Flanders, Judith Christmas: A Biography,
Thomas Dunne Books; 2017

Miles, Clement E. Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan,
http://www.gutenberg.org/files/19098/19098-h/19098-h.htm

Elliott, Jock Inventing Christmas: How our Holiday Came to Be
Harry N. Abrams 2002

Steves, Rick; Griffith, Valerie Rick Steves’ European Christmas
Copyright 2005 Rick Steves

Full Winter Solstice Saturnalia Ritual Instructions
http://opsopaus.com/OM/BA/Saturnalia.html

Mistletoe Toxicity
https://www.poison.org/articles/2015-dec/mistletoe

History of Mistletoe
https://www.history.com/news/why-do-we-kiss-under-the-mistletoe

HIstory of Mistletoe
http://www.blackhillscelticevents.org/Events/CelticMistle.htm

History of Mistletoe
https://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/articles/mistlmyths.html

Pine Branches in Japanese Culture
http://www.swarthmore.edu/library/exhibitions/japan/gallery/pine-tree.php

British Museum: Journey to the East
https://www.britishmuseum.org/pdf/Chinese_symbols_1109.pdf

List of Christmas and Winter Gift Bringers
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Christmas_and_winter_gift-bringers_by_country#CITEREFBowler2000

Santa in Japan

Ho, ho, Hotei: The Japanese Santa Claus

“Don’t take Odin out of Yule,” Norweigan American

Don’t take Odin out of Yule

Santa Around the World

Santa, around the world

The True Story of Hanukkah

The TRUE Story of Hanukkah

Yule Log
https://people.howstuffworks.com/culture-traditions/holidays-christmas/yule-log.htm

Yule Log
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yule_log

Roberts, Martha The Joy of Anticipation https://www.psychologies.co.uk/self/life-lab-experiment-mind-2.html

Saint Lucia song lyrics
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santa_Lucia#English_lyrics

A Glimpse of Light (Norwegian version of St. Lucia song)
https://blogs.transparent.com/norwegian/a-glimpse-of-light/

Saint Lucia Celebration in Scandinavia
https://www.tripsavvy.com/st-lucia-day-celebration-in-scandinavia-1626027

Saint Lucy Day
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Lucy%27s_Day

A Victory for Light in Winter’s Dark Gloom

A victory for light in winter’s dark gloom

Making a Yule Log
https://www.thoughtco.com/make-a-yule-log-2563006

The Magical history of Yule
https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/winter-solstice-pagan-yule_us_585970abe4b03904470af4c5

Rosy Retrospection

Rosy Retrospection: A Look at the Psychological Phenomenon

The Joy of Anticipation
https://www.psychologies.co.uk/self/life-lab-experiment-mind-2.html

How to Make the Most of Your Vacation
https://www.huffpost.com/entry/how-to-make-the-most-of-vacation_n_5755b42ae4b0eb20fa0e906d

Stuff you Should Know, podcast

National Geographic, various articles

Chicago Tribune, various articles

Celebrating with Light

What is Christmas Celebrating with LightLight is a common strand (pardon the pun!) in holiday celebrations. In fact, the earliest gifts for New Years were candles! Both artificial light, whether it be a flaming yule log, or a string of LEDs on a tree, pay homage to ancient traditions celebrating the return of sunlight and longer days. There are many celebrations of light to explore.

Saint Lucia Day (December 13) is a Scandinavian celebration, of, among other things, light. While seemingly named for an early christian martyr, this holiday’s traditions are secular in origin. Norse rituals celebrated light on the darkest night of the year, (winter solstice), using the calendar of the time. Festivals celebrated that the demons of winter were banished by the coming sun. Work was forbidden for fear of Lussi, an enchantress, who would punish anyone who worked.

As Christianity moved into the area, Saint Lucia was added to the celebration. Traditionally, the eldest daughter wears a wreath of evergreen lingonberry branches with a crown of candles and serves her family a special breakfast in bed while singing a special song. The original Italian version of the song is about a sailor enjoying the sea in Santa Lucia. Other versions are about welcoming light into darkness. The wreath is evergreen, symbolizes the coming spring.

Diwali is celebrated in India as well as many countries in southeast asia, the south pacific and southeast asia. It, typically happens in the fall and among other things, celebrates light and the triumph of good over bad and knowledge over ignorance. It also celebrates community and  incorporates a fresh start with a deep cleaning of the home. Lanterns are lit and gifts are exchanged. Community events and parties are held over five days.

Hanukkah celebrates light, too. The Maccabees successfully revolted against those that were forcing them to worship greek gods, among other things (at least according to some). And, when they successfully restored themselves in a beloved temple, the quantity of oil they had to keep their sacred lamp lit should only have lasted 1 day. Instead, it lasted 8. From the Jewish perspective, this celebrates a win of being able to worship as they wished and what some see as a miracle of the oil lasting 8 days. In modern interpretations, it also encourages folks to let their light shine as a positive influence on the world. This tie is a bit more troubling to me since much of what the Greeks were trying to curtail were things like circumcision and daily animal sacrifice.

Yule Log The word Yule is traced back to the Anglo-Saxon word hwéol (wheel). The Norse believed the sun was a wheel of fire that rolled away from them in the winter and rolled back in the spring. On winter solstice, families would go to the forest to find a log to burn. Many superstitions surrounded this practice. Some involved certain family members having certain roles. Others involves whether or not the log lit on the first attempt. Still others had to do with what to do with the remaining stump and ashes.

In France the Christmas log or Souche de Noël, is a dessert! A cake roll, similar to a jelly roll and decorated like a log. Some folks believe this was a modernization of the yule log tradition for families who didn’t have a fireplace. Delicious in any case!

Candletime, is a sweet tradition we have adopted in our family. It gives us an opportunity to slow down and savor our family time in the time between Halloween and Thanksgiving. 

Next, we will bring it all together and talk about how a secular family might celebrate. How can you make the holidays your own? So, How Do We Celebrate?

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Gifts from Benevolent Strangers

what is Christmas? blog series part 3 Gifts from benevolent strangers

There are ethereal visitors in many end of the year customs. Some are unpleasant and even violent. Others are benevolent gift-bearers. Most early gift-bearers brought New Years gifts. All seem to have a theme of rewarding good and punishing bad. Here are a handful of some lesser-known characters:

Woden/Wotan/Odin and his flying, white eight-legged horse led an army across the sky during Saturnalia. He had black birds that would act as lookouts during his journey. Children would leave hay, carrots and sugar for the horse. Public banquets that spanned days included masters serving their slaves and gifts exchanged including dolls, candles, caged birds. A king of the festivities was elected and would preside over the celebration.

St. Martin an adult male dressed as a bishop, complete with staff.  He gives apples, nuts, and cakes to good children and rods to bad children. In some stories, he fills stockings. It has been suggested, St. Martin may have taken the place of Woden.

Befana-Grandmother Prior to Nicholas of Myrna (St. Nick) tossing coins down the chimneys of spinsters, Befana or Grandmother, was part of Italian folklore. Befana would visit children the night before the Feast of the Epiphany¹. She would come while the children were sleeping and fill their stockings with candy and presents or coal. Families would leave a glass of wine and some snacks for her. She may also sweep the house. Befana traditions are believed to have originated in Rome and spread from there. The followers of Nicholas of Myrna were able to grow their fervor and remade shrines to Befana to Nicholas of Myrna. However, Befana is still celebrated in Italy with festivals and celebrations.

Saint Nicholas of Myrna is best know for secretly gifting sacks of gold to three unmarried young women without dowries to save them from prostitution.  He is celebrated as a patron saint of sailors and giving gifts in secret. His rise in popularity came from a small but devoted group who spread their devotion throughout the world. Even today, children put out stockings full of hay for his horse and receive candy and gifts in exchange. Also known as Sinterclaus in the Netherlands and surrounding areas,during the 16th century in the Netherlands, Saint Nicholas would leave small gifts. These traditions grew and morphed in fits and starts. Also called Sinterclaus, some festivities geared toward helping the poor with anonymous gifts started during the middles ages. There was also a lot of partying.

Knecht Ruprecht often accompanied Saint Nicholas. He rewards children who say their prayers perfectly with small edible treats and punishes those who do not.

Christ Child, Christkind was a reaction by the church to turn Saint Nicholas traditions toward Jesus Christ. One bishop wrote: “[Saint Nicholas] is a bad custom, because it points children to the saint, while yet we know that not St. Nicholas but the holy Christ Child gives us all good things for body and soul, and He alone it is whom we ought to call upon.” Christkind was developed and made popular by Martin Luther. Sometimes portrayed as a woman but most often a male, they bring gifts to many children in eastern and central europe as well as Central America. They are  intended to symbolize Jesus Christ as a child.

Kolyáda, a maiden dressed all in white who goes from home to home on Christmas Eve in a sled with runners. Kolyáda is the name for Christmas and appears to be derived from Kalendae, which probably entered the Slavonic languages by way of Byzantium. The maiden is one of those beings who, like the Italian Befana, have taken their names from the festival at which they appear. Koyada was most common in pre-communist Russia.

Grandfather Frost (Ded Moraz) emerged in Russia and other slavic areas from a god of snow and ice called Morozko after Kolyada. Popularity varied until Stalin reinvigorated Grandfather Frost in the 1940s complete with a blue suit and new years gifts. His traditional Russian sled is pulled by three white horses, each horse symbolizing one month of winter.

I hope you enjoy these characters and that some are new to you as they were to me. If there is  character I missed, please share in the comments. Next up, Celebrating with Light

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¹ The Feast of the Epiphany has been celebrated by Catholics and Protestants since before they celebrated the birth of Jesus. It commemorates the arrival of the three kings to the baby Jesus bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  It also celebrates the baptism of Jesus as an adult by John the Baptist.

Why December 25?

What is Christmas for atheists, why do we celebrate on December 25?
What is Christmas for atheists, why do we celebrate on December 25?

If you live in North America as I do, you already know about Christmas on December 25 and winter solstice on December 21.  Let’s start with winter and how Christmas wound up on December 25.

To understand how this all came together, we need to revisit our understanding of time. Our earliest measurements of time were based on the phases of the moon. As a reminder, the moon orbits the earth every 29 days and its light is provided by the sun reflecting off of its surface. For early people, this was a visible and predictable way to measure the passage of time. Seasons were another way to measure the passage of time. Our earliest calendars used these to create a year.

However, that was rather imprecise since 12 months x 29 days =348 and the earth takes 356 ¼ days to orbit the sun.

Over time in the western world, the Roman calendar and then the Julian calendar revised the lunar-based calendars to accommodate for this, but still fell short. Winter solstice on the calendar we use today falls on December 21. However, on the calendars used in earlier times, there was a bit more wiggle and December 25 was the date for the winter solstice.

In early times, many celebrations were held mid-late winter. Here are some of the celebrations we know about:

Saturnalia celebrated the god of agriculture. 12/17-12/24.  Records of this festival exist from 63 BCE until at least 14 CE. Shops closed, public banquets were held, gifts were exchanged, particularly candles, gambling, feasting and alcohol consumption were all part of the fun.

Mithras celebrated the birth of Mithras, the sun-god during the winter solstice. It was also called Dies Natalis Solis Invicti, this celebration was the primary festival of the 3rd century, 200-300 CE.

Kalends was the name of the first of the month for the Romans. It was also,a secular New Year’s festival celebrated 1/1-1/5. Records of this festival exist from around 300 CE-1100 CE. It was common to decorate with greenery such as wreaths and garlands, eat, drink, exchange small gifts. A spirit of generosity permeated the celebration. As these traditions evolved, role reversals were added to the festivities and often masters served their slaves. There were also gender role reversals and men dressed as women.

Saturnalia, Mithras and Kalends were not in line with the behavior practices encouraged by the early church. Far too irreverent and jovial. And yet, the celebrations were so wide-spread and enjoyed that they followed to adage, if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em!

Around 340 CE, Julius I, Bishop of Rome declared that the birth of Jesus would be celebrated on the same day as winter solstice, also a date of celebration for Mithras and other sun gods. (Biblical scholars have calculated that Jesus’ birth was likely April, May or September.)  By this time, winter solstice had shifted in the calendar to December 25. By 354 CE, Christmas was included on the Roman calendar. The christian church discouraged the wilder aspects of the solstice celebrations and encouraged mass attendance and solemnity.

So, there you have it, how Jesus birth came to be celebrated on December 25.  I would love to hear from you. Are the history bits I missed? How does your family celebrate?

Next up, what about Greenery, Wreaths and Trees?

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What is Christmas?

I was raised Catholic. I attended Catholic school through college. Our Christmas traditions included attending church on Christmas Eve and a party afterwards. Gifts were received from aunts, uncles, parents and Santa Claus. That was that.

When I stopped believing and it came time to celebrate winter holidays, I had to rethink everything I thought I knew. What would these celebrations be for me, what would they be for my family?

I wanted to understand what the origins of winter holidays were, how did Santa, gifts, Jesus’ birth and Christmas trees all come to be? I had heard that many Christmas traditions were rooted in pagan rituals and celebrations. But which ones? And how? I also wanted to try to avoid the myopic worldview of my own childhood. To learn and share other celebrations our friends and neighbors might have, celebrations that we could understand and appreciate.

Since many parents are dealing with a similar situation, I wanted to share what I learned and how we created our family celebrations. In the next several blog posts, I will share what I learned as well as how our family chooses to celebrate. 

First, why December 25?

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