Not Sold on the Solstice

I realize that it’s a week or three too late, but this thought has been rolling around my head for a few days: I have some serious misgivings about the winter solstice.

On one hand–specifically, the hand that was getting frostbitten, scraped, and sore as I spent December 21st packing up and moving out of my apartment–ultimately a four-day job that I did in three–I frigging hate it. It’s cold, it gets dark way too early, and damn it, I like sunlight. A day with less sunlight than any other all year? I might as well just sleep through it.

As a reason for celebration, though, I like it. It’s a rational, physical justification for celebrating at this time of year. The worst part of the winter is over; from this point on, it’s a general trend of increasing warmth and daylight. The sun has once again been unconquered, and so we celebrate its rebirth with feasts and signifiers of the coming spring–evergreen trees, holly leaves, and so forth. In some fashion, the religious festivals of wintertime trace back to this reasoning. It’s nice to skip over all the magic and mysticism, celebrating something that has both objective physical reality and a history that predates the modern religious celebrations. Sure, in these days of heating and insulation and preservatives and refrigeration, there’s too not much chance of people freezing or starving to death en masse. Modern medicine and sanitation even mitigate the problem of disease devastating populations of largely cooped-up people. Winter doesn’t generally represent the sort of existential uncertainty and lethal foreboding that it once did. Like an abominable snowman after meeting a polar elf with orthodontic aspirations, winter has been rendered largely toothless. Still, it’s a decent tradition with a rational, if somewhat arbitrary, justification.

But then people start talking about it, and this is where I cringe. See, it seems there are two groups of people who celebrate the solstice: Pagans and atheists*. The latter do it as a secular alternative to the ubiquitous religious winter celebrations; the former do it as their own religious celebration, laden with the touchy-feely newage woo-woo of neo-Paganism. In general, I think, the word is more associated with the neo-Pagans, since, after all, the Solstice was a Pagan holiday. Where it gets messy, I think, is when atheists celebrate the solstice and talk about the way Christians co-opted the holiday from earlier Pagan festivals. For instance, this statement by Freedom From Religion Foundation Co-President Dan Barker, on a news station in Washington:

It’s to remind people that the month of December is a natural holiday. It’s not a Christian holiday; Christians basically co-opted–or some would say stole–the, uh, the Pagan symbols for the Christian religion.

They played it on an episode of Freethought Radio that was all about the Solstice, but that bit toward the beginning was the first thing to set my teeth on edge. I’m having a hard time verbalizing my discomfort, but I think my reasoning goes like this: when atheists celebrate Solstice and talk about how Solstice is a pagan holiday, it makes a connection between atheists and Pagans**. To me, it makes it sound like atheists and Pagans share some common belief system, or at the very least some kind of newage nature worship. I don’t think this is a good thing.

Atheists are already misunderstood. There’s a large class of people who think we worship Satan. I don’t think it’s a good idea to contribute to the confusion by making it sound like we worship Mother Nature. Nature’s beautiful and vast and astounding, but it’s not much for those motherly qualities like compassion and warmth***, and while healthy reverence is deserved, worship seems a few steps too far.

The solstice provides a secular justification for celebration, but citing the Pagans doesn’t say anything about that secular justification. The Pagans celebrate for religious reasons just as the Christians and Jews do–or at least, quasi-religious reasons. If atheists are going to reclaim the Solstice, let’s be explicit about the reasons. It has nothing to do with the Pagans or other religions, and everything to do with a real-life event and an excuse to be with real-life families and friends. The only commonality is that we all share the same ultimate justification–recognizing that the worst of winter is over, and it’s all downhill and up-temperature from here. They dress it up with god-men and candlesticks, but the root is the same; if you’re going to justify celebrating the solstice, refer to that, and not just some other solstice-celebrating religious group.


*This is an oversimplification, I know, since I’m sure plenty of those Pagans are technically atheists. Here, I’m using the term atheist in the more specific sense of the atheist community and movement, which the newagers tend not to consider themselves a part of.
**Which, technically, is true, since “pagan” is just a catch-all term for non-Christians. But, again, I’m talking more specifically about the neo-Pagan groups, who self-identify as “Pagan” or some more vague nature-oriented quasi-religion.
***Except, of course, in the most literal sense of the term.

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2 Responses to Not Sold on the Solstice

  1. Akusai says:

    I see what you’re getting at, but I’ve used that line, too, just not for the reason you figure Barker does. Mostly, when I pull out the old “Christians stole pagan rituals and iconography to make Christmas,” I do it as an indictment of the truth of Christianity. It is an attack on the assumed rightness and genuineness of the Christian religion, and has nothing to do with my atheistic holiday prefernces.Of course, in Barker’s context, it could definitely be taken the way you’re talking about. I think at other times, though, in other discussions and other contexts, it might not. I’ve thrown it out in discussions with people who don’t know I’m an atheist. Of course, given how driven so many Christians are to find reasons to hate and lie about atheists, any context, so long as the person making the statement is a known atheist, could provide the religious with ammo.I dunno. I’m happy with Christmas in any case. It’s what I’m used to. You won’t find me petulantly celebrating the solstice instead. It’s always seemed so “Look! I’m extra-different!” to me.

  2. Flavin says:

    I’ve recently given some thought to holding a solstace celebration. But I’m not using the self-indulgent “I’m extra-different” justification so much as the “I’ve got, like, six families including in-laws so it might be nice to have a more intimate day to celebrate with those close to me before hitting the two-to-three-day extended-family Christmas madness” justification. The fact that solstace has a more tangible environmental meaning than Christmas is mere icing on an already sweet holiday. Also, being an academic means I’ll never be working on the 21st. Suck on that!

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