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Winter Celebrations in a Secular Family
guest column by Jane Wynne Willson

photo by Lin Zhang Jones

Winter Celebrations in a Secular Family
by Jane Wynne Willson
Contributing author, Parenting Beyond Belief

“Do you celebrate Christmas?”

I’ve been asked this question many times and was asked it again just this week, when speaking to a group of seventeen-year-old students at a local girls’ school in Birmingham, England. Although I am used to the question, it still makes my hackles rise, implying as it often does that humanists who celebrate Christmas are hypocrites.

I pointed out to them that more or less all the ways we celebrate ‘the festive season’ predate Christianity by hundreds of years. In fact, rather than humanists stealing a Christian festival, the exact reverse is nearer the truth. For Christians to accuse us of hypocrisy is the height of impertinence.

From the plum pudding to the evergreen tree, from the turkey (or, earlier, the goose) to the pantomime, it is hard to think of a “Christmas” custom that does not find its roots in paganism. Just as re-birth has been celebrated in Spring since time immemorial, so a celebration in the depths of Winter, at the time of the shortest day when the sun appears to stand still in the sky, is a natural instinct. It is a desire shared by those of different religious faiths and none. Christmas, like Easter, has quite simply been hijacked by the Christian church.

Scene from “How the Chrinch Stole Mithrasmas”

Even more interesting to me than these ancient symbolic customs, which are still practised usually quite unwittingly today, are the so-called “Nativity” stories that reappear in mythology all over the world. The Virgin Birth, the Star of Bethlehem, the Three Kings, the Stable, the Shepherds and the Massacre of the Innocents, are by no means unique to the Christian version of the story. Much scholarly work has been done on these traditions and, in many instances, the similarities are remarkable.

So we humanists must certainly not apologize for sharing in the winter celebration widely known as Christmas. We can exchange gifts and secular cards, enjoy good food and wine and, if we are lucky enough (like I am) to have family and friends whose company we enjoy, then we can have a happy few days together.

If Christians have a dig at us or, even worse, if they blame us for “taking the Christ out of Christmas,” as they do—well, we do our best! We tend to refer to “the festive season” and prefer “Season’s Greetings” in the cards that we send. It would be an uphill struggle to seek to change the well-established name of the festival. Although one possibility, living as I said in Birmingham which is known affectionately as ‘Brum’, would be to initiate a campaign to substitute the name ‘Brumalia’. This was what the Romans called the Winter Solstice.

brum lamp

One extraordinarily irritating reaction to humanists who celebrate the festive season in a secular way is to blame us for the materialism that has crept into much of what goes on in the Western world in December. The buying of wildly expensive presents, which can often be ill-afforded, most humanists would see as a dreadful development. Some people seem to imagine that the bigger the present, the greater the love you are showing the recipient, usually your child. How sad! The real culprits in this must surely be the advertising industry and other commercial forces. Secularism and the decline in religious belief should not be blamed, and we need to argue this case.

A Winter Festival is a time for mutual tolerance and a “live and let live” attitude to others. People will celebrate in their own way and according to their own beliefs, or, in the case of children, according to the life stance into which they happen to have been born and are being raised. From their early years at school, children from humanist families will be familiar with the other religious festivals that fellow pupils celebrate, such as Diwali, Eid and Hanukkah, as well as Christmas. Joining in each other’s festivities, and learning to understand each other’s traditions and beliefs, is important, particularly in a multi-cultural, multi-faith society.

So, fellow humanists, Happy Winter Solstice! Happy Brumalia! and Happy Winter Festival!


jwwA lifelong agnostic, JANE WYNNE WILLSON became involved in the Humanist movement in the UK when her oldest child met religion head-on at a state primary school. Since then she has been active at local, national and international levels, serving as president of the London-based International Humanist and Ethical Union and Vice-President of the British Humanist Association. In addition to authoring Parenting Without God, New Arrivals, Sharing the Future, and Funerals Without God, she contributed the essay “Humanist Ceremonies” to Parenting Beyond Belief. A retired Special Needs teacher with four children and ten grandchildren, Jane has a deep interest in bringing up children happily with a strong basis for morality but no religion.

For information on secular celebrations, visit Secular Seasons.



This was written on Wednesday, 21. November 2007 at 16:30 and was filed under belief and believers, holidays and celebrations, nonbelief and nonbelievers, Parenting. You can keep up with the comments to this article by using the RSS-Feed.

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Comments »

  1. Thanks especially for the link to the Ed Carpenter work on Pagan & Christian Creeds. I get a lot of enjoyment out of the accumulation of evidence that leads to logical conclusions that counter Christian dogma.

    Comment: Jim Lemire – 23. November 2007 @ 11:56 am

  2. Great post!

    Christianity was remarkably effective at spreading, precisely because they did not mind hijacking existing beliefs and customs. They did whatever they could to spread the good news, which was priority.

    Now modern fundamentalism will have you confused and upset at this supposed “good news”, because it comes with so much bad. Christianity, religion, and faith, have become synonymous with belief in the supernatural. This is not what got Christianity going. These are bad memes mixed in with the good.

    What are the good memes in Christianity? Humanism. The essence of humanistic belief can be found in the teachings of Jesus. I’m convinced people recognise this goodness, and latch on to it. Unfortunately they do not know how to separate the good memes from the bad. And the atheists are not helping, because the clump it all together.

    The boxes need to be destroyed, to allow people the freedom to keep their good memes. Only by emphasizing the good memes, showing them how they can keep the good memes without keeping the bad, is there any hope for them to let go of their supernatural beliefs. The bad memes have hijacked the good. Don’t throw the good memes out with the bad, that reinforces fundamentalism, because they run after their good memes and end up outside.

    Comment: Hugo – 27. November 2007 @ 4:33 am

  3. Sorry, that turned into more of a lecture than I intended. I’m thinking out loud, and trying to share a perspective that might help people understand what religion is about. Let me know if my contribution is not appreciated. Thanks!

    Comment: Hugo – 27. November 2007 @ 4:34 am

  4. Oh, and this Secular/Sacred distinction? I can no longer tell the difference. I have lost the ability to make that distinction. Why? Because I am learning from Christianity, and will use its own methods against the supernaturalism. Embrace, and extend. Latch new meaning, or actually, in my opinion, old meaning, onto what has become a particularly tenacious meme-complex.

    Making the secular/sacred distinction reinforces the differences in culture. Assimilate. Syncretise. We are Borg. Resistance is futile. Muhahahaha!

    Comment: Hugo – 27. November 2007 @ 4:41 am

  5. Well of course it’s appreciated, and it isn’t remotely lecturing. Especially since I agree with it entirely. 🙂 And I think Jane would, too — in fact, I think that’s just what she’s saying, protesting not the borrowing of pagan concepts, but the counterclaim that it was original to Christianity and now should remain as one, and only one, expression.

    I endorsed just that kind of meme-sharing in PBB:

    It’s good that you [Christians] have found a way to use old pagan rituals to articulate your worldview. It’s what we all do, and should do: borrow and redefine the inheritances of the past to suit our changing human needs. It’s beautiful. It’s fun. I wouldn’t want to take away your right to do that for anything – just as I’m sure you support my right to do it my way. So we’re cool, right?

    Regarding the secular/sacred split, the nice thing is we don’t have to choose a single approach to that question. Some feel a gradual evolution into a new paradigm is best. Others feel that that doesn’t work — that superstition can only be set aside by decisively calling it out, box and all. A nice variety of approaches, from Greg Epstein to Penn Jillette, allows any given person to find what he or she needs.

    And thanks especially for the delicious Borg double entendre.

    Comment: Dale – 27. November 2007 @ 8:29 am

  6. I endorsed just that kind of meme-sharing in PBB:

    Ah, sorry, your book is on my shelf waiting for me to finish my thesis. Such a kind book to wait, because if it didn’t wait, I’d be unable to put it down until I’ve read it cover to cover. 😉

    Greg Epstein you say? I’ll have to check that out some time. And yes, memes are diverse, and require a diversified “offence” to deal with the problematic ones. I’m targeting a very specific sect that I know all too well. And they want a second coming. Why not give them one then… *sigh*. I’m playing with fire, but I’ve been inspired by a specific meme-complex, and I’m following that example, because it worked well two thousand years ago. You’d think that it should no longer be relevant, because it’s so ancient, but people are still stuck in a sacrificial cult mentality.

    If you don’t mind then, I will contribute to your “bible study” when I feel so inclined, to touch up on my, um, “contextual reinterpretation”. I’m sure your readers will be able to help point out flaws in my reasoning.

    Thanks! I love your blog.

    Comment: Hugo – 27. November 2007 @ 2:24 pm

  7. Greg is the Humanist Chaplain at Harvard — a great and intelligent voice. I haven’t had the pleasure yet of meeting him, but hope to.

    As for the continued relevance of ancient memes: I’ve often wondered if the continuing resonance is proof that the Jewish worldview — especially the feeling of oppression and longing for rescue that characterized the period from the Babylonian Captivity to the birth of Jesus — is a kind of epitome of the Western psyche.

    In other words, it seems to me that to be Jewish during that period, with those particular longings, resonates with something absolutely fundamental to the experience of being human, at least in the West. If Jesus was the answer to the laments of Jewish prophecy, and he continues to be “The Answer” today, then there must be some deep resonance there.

    A dissertation for someone! Not even sure what field, though.

    Comment: Dale – 27. November 2007 @ 4:33 pm

  8. A post-modernistic field, not particularly labelled.

    An investigation into the far east, and the genealogical lines of humanity.
    For which we may need quick gene sequencing, what’s that prize called?
    So that we can find correlations
    between memetic mutations
    and genes.

    Comment: Hugo – 01. December 2007 @ 8:27 am

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