I recently became a Humanist. Well, I began to become a Humanist. It took me a while, because I really liked being a listless atheist with an ambiguous philosophy of life, but I’m trying. I’ve trekked my way through Corliss Lamont’s Philosophy of Secular Humanism (phew!), I’ve signed Humanist Manifesto III, and I have been trying to keep abreast of the Humanist social scene.
That’s how I discovered HumanLight, the Christmas for Humanists. And laughed.
Let me say upfront that I respect any and all attempts to make calendar customs more secular-friendly. I even appreciate the intent of creating a Humanist vision of holiday cheer. But HumanLight is the wrong way to go about it.
HumanLight is, according to its website, “an alternative reason to celebrate” the holiday season. It reflects “a Humanist’s vision of a good future … an avenue through which we can wish others well during this season without denying, ignoring, or confusing our identities as humanists.” Established by the New Jersey Humanist Network in 2001, HumanLight takes place on December 23rd–very conveniently placed just close enough to Christmas to count, but without treading on the toes of either Eve or Day.
My dislike of HumanLight begins with its very name. HumanLight reads like a test-marketed product name, not like a sincere or fitting moniker for a familiar celebration. Maybe it’s the capital “L” in the middle that bugs me. If they had allowed it to be a natural compound, Humanlight, I might feel better about it. But as it stands, they chose the modern/hip compounding, a trick of marketing, advertisement, and corporate branding. It’s an unnatural compound meant to force the stress on the Light, which puts me in the mind of Brights, and we all know how well that one turned out. The HumanLight website itself describes the name as such: “HumanLight was chosen for its emphasis on humanity (as opposed to the supernatural) and the light of reason.” I am all for stressing reason, but like the Brights, HumanLight seems a backhanded slap at all the other holidays that surround it. “We’re celebrating reason! What are all the rest of you celebrating?” I prefer my holiday cheer without the disdain, thank you.
Then there’s the HumanLight logo, which I actually don’t mind. The website says that the logo, “depicts the light of the sun, with the figure of a human celebrating with arms outstretched upward. The font characters composing HumanLight are of a festive, decorative nature.” Okay. What I do have a problem with is that both name and logo are copyrighted. It’s a celebration with organizational ownership? That leads to a number of questions. If I create my own HumanLight logo, do I have to use their font? And if I don’t, am I violating a trademark? Am I even allowed to throw a HumanLight celebration without the permission of the New Jersey Humanist Network?
Now, I confess, I have not attended a HumanLight celebration. With only three years and less than two dozen planned celebrations in total between them, I have never had the opportunity to experience HumanLight. But I’ve seen the schedules and itineraries for HumanLights past, and I have seen the photos. Keynote speakers, educational programs for children, lectures, discussions, and clips from Cosmos? For some reason, that doesn’t sound like a celebration; it sounds like a business convention. HumanLight isn’t a holiday; it’s a prefabricated conference, with wood-paneled podiums, sticky nametags, and a table of donuts. Which is all well and good, but it makes for an unsatisfying adjunct to the rest of the holiday season.
Funny that I’m complaining about an invented, manufactured event with Christmas staring me in the face, yes? Sure, but at least Christmas comes to us as a gestalt of traditions, customs, and rituals; its manufacture is a consequence of the holiday’s popularity, not a cause for it. Trademarks, logos, schedules, and condescension is no way to “give” a new celebration to the community. Christmas has symbols, but no one has copyrighted the Christmas tree or the evergreen wreath, and Christmas get-togethers don’t generally have schedules of events. A calendar custom like Christmas is owned by the community, and passed down through tradition and yearly observation.
Do we need HumanLight? This Humanist says not. Yes, I “get it” that Christmas, as it is currently celebrated, is considered a Christian holiday, that Jesus is supposedly the “reason for the season.” But is it truly Christian? The holiday season is full of traditions, and many of them are not religious, but social. In December, my wife and I scour the stores with a list of loved ones. We’re both avid gift-shoppers; we like to make sure that every gift reflects what we know, and how we feel, about the person we’re buying for. We decorate the tree with ornaments that remind us of Christmases past, and commemorate our time together. We also make it a point to spend quality time together, and to get together with loved ones. We don’t do this out of any devotion to an outdated holy book, but because the customs and traditions of Christmas lend a special air to the end of the year, giving a pleasant closure to the calendar cycle.
I also know a lot of nontheists are turned off by the name Christmas. When I ask why, I’m told it’s because of the religious word origin, of course–Cristes maesse in Middle English (literally, “Christ’s mass”). But why aren’t those people bothered to use January? February? Tuesday? Thursday? Los Angeles? San Francisco? Angel food cake? Because, of course, those names have all lost religious meaning. So too, I argue, has Christmas slowly lost the weight of Cristes maesse. The modern holiday celebration is known, most commonly, as Christmas. And unless atheists have a compelling reason to do otherwise, why call it anything else?
I understand the desire we nontheists have to connect ourselves to the December holiday season; after all, everyone else has done it, including the Christians when they accrued the birth of Jesus on to existing winter traditions. But what we nontheists need is to discover and cultivate secular counterpoints to the religious side of Christmas, not a separate counterpart. We can be nontheists without removing ourselves from the mainstream, especially when there’s no true need to do so.
I’ve been celebrating Christmas as an atheist for five years now, and as an agnostic for even longer. I have found meaning in the giving of gifts, and family traditions, and cookies and egg nog shared with friends while familiar tunes play in the background. Further, I have begun to study, appreciate, and gain meaning through finding out what Christmas means to the society, where it comes from and what it does. I don’t need to invent new ways to connect to the holidays; the connections are already there, in notions of peace, generosity, camaraderie, and closure. Separate out the religious chaff and it turns out that Christmas is–dare I say it?–a humanistic celebration.
HumanLight is well intended, but it goes too far in trying to achieve its goal. Even Robert Ingersoll found in Christmas a human celebration, not a religious one, writing in 1891 that “[t]he good part of Christmas is not always Christian–it is generally Pagan; that is to say, human, natural.” Ingersoll concluded that “Christmas is a good day to forgive and forget–a good day to throw away prejudices and hatreds–a good day to fill your heart and your house, and the hearts and houses of others, with sunshine.” These are not religious sentiments, but human ones, empowering and enlightening. So let’s get together this Christmas, and celebrate.
For those interested in exploring an alternate perspective on Christmas, I recommend the following books and websites, all of which have helped me find personal, cultural, and nontheistic connections within the traditions that I love:
Cline, Austin. “Atheism & Christmas.” About.
Count, Earl W., et al. 4000 Years of Christmas: A Gift from the Ages. Ulysses Press, 2000.
Hayes, Judith. “An Atheist Christmas!” The Happy Heretic, December 1999.
Highfield, Roger. The Physics of Christmas. Back Bay Books, 1999.
Ingersoll, Robert. “A Christmas Sermon. 1891.” Reprinted as “Ingersoll’s Christmas Sermon” on the American Atheists home page.
Matthews, John. The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas. Quest Books, 2003.
Nissinbaum, Stephen. The Battle For Christmas. Vintage, 1997.