I was having too much fun with alliteration to say “Christmas” instead of Holiday. But that is what I plan to delve into: having a Humanist Christmas. Or, rather, what it means to the Juniper family, to have a Humanist Christmas.
Maybe a little more background? My parents were raised in Christian families but their views of the world evolved into Humanism without much trouble, so my brother and I were raised in a Humanist family. Mr. Juniper’s family is something else altogether, so it is perhaps simplest to say he identifies as being Agnostic, but as part of our little Humanist family. As for the views of our four-and-a-half-year-old? He’s happy, and exploring the world at his own pace.
But yes: Christmas, Humanism and The Junipers. There are many people in the world who will take frightful glee in attacking Agnostics, Atheists and Humanists who choose to have festivities in December. Thankfully, there are many Sheldon Coopers in the world, who take the time to look at the history of winter festivals and the role many religions and belief systems have played in what and how humans have celebrated.
Some people dislike Humanists even using the word Christmas in relation to celebrating during December. To an extent, I can understand their frustration. On the other hand, our language has begged, borrowed and stolen from so many places that religious words are going to seep in. I do, I’ll admit, avoid using the word at times but it is a little simpler to refer to the festivals in late December as Christmas, than saying Pre-Hogmanay Celebrations, Yuletide, Winter Solstice, Saturnalia, Winter Festivities or Hogswatch. Though, who knows, I may succeed in breaking the habit of saying, “Christmas” quite so much as I do.
I appreciate the Christian history of Christmas, and that people choose to partake in Christmas as a religious festival. I also appreciate the other, older traditions, that have led to the Christmas we know now. It would also be nice, perhaps, if those who celebrate Christmas for its religious roots could take a moment to remember that there are no mentions of snowmen or Santa Claus in the Bible and that bashing a Humanist over the head for celebrating things that weren’t part of their religion in the first place isn’t a particularly pleasant experience (for the Humanist, anyway).
And yet, I still have to justify to myself at times, that I celebrate Christmas. Or, rather, that I enjoy being with my family in late December and taking an opportunity to look back at the year. I enjoy giving gifts to my loved ones, as a means of celebrating another year of the good, the bad and the ugly. Growing up, our family didn’t usually celebrate Hogmanay on a big scale, and over the years, I’ve realised that Christmas was our Hogmanay. It was our celebration of the year past and the year to come.
Having mentioned snowmen, maybe a word on the physical celebration of Christmas is timely. In terms of how we decorate, at least. For us, our decorations are a celebration of the time of year and what it means to us. There is snowman bunting hung across the walls, and we have a Christmas tree and wreath. I would like to be able to plunder some kind of symbolism from the fact we have a black Christmas tree, but all it symbolises is that if shopping is left until the last minute, there isn’t going to be a lot of choice. Having a tree and a wreath, though? There is definitely something to be said of old traditions, where evergreen boughs were brought into the home during the darkest point of the year. Our Christmas tree is decorated with symbols of our celebration: there are little wooden decorations of rocking horses, there are dried orange slices and cinnamon tied on with tartan ribbon, there are gingerbread hearts and the results of Juniper Junior, cardboard, ribbon and glitter. These are symbols of a time where we give gifts, enjoy food and enjoy simply being together as a family.
Christmastime for a Humanist also means running into other hurdles if you’re a parent. At least here, in the United Kingdom, there is a strong tradition of celebrating the Nativity at school and of church services at the end of term. It is, for us, the difference of our son learning something about a religion, by allowing him to be involved in the Nativity, as opposed to actively taking part in an act of worship, which we won’t be taking him to. I was brought up, by my Humanist parents, with discussion of where religious holidays came from and with many a Bible story told. We don’t want to exclude religion from our son’s life, there is such a lot for him to learn, but that doesn’t mean taking part in an act of worship.
I have wondered whether or not to tackle Santa Claus. So I shall compromise and talk of him a little, and what he too, means to us as a Humanist family. Humanism means that we don’t believe in anything supernatural and, I’d wager a guess Santa Claus could count to many as being supernatural. But is he, really? Young children believe in Santa Claus, but he exists in our imagination beyond childhood despite the fact we know he doesn’t truly exist. That is where I think Santa Claus takes Mrs. Claus, along with Rudolph and the rest of his reindeer, from the supernatural to symbolic. So, we have little issue with Santa Claus being a part of our Humanist Christmas. As children, my brother and I weren’t threatened with lumps of coal if we didn’t behave, and Mr. Juniper and I haven’t done that with Juniper Junior, either. My brother and I were brought up getting presents from both Santa Claus and the family cat. Mr. Juniper and I have carried on the same tradition. Even as adults, my brother and I get presents from Santa Claus and the cat (and spend much time theorising how they manage to pull off this feat year after year). Our parents are given presents from Santa and the cat, too, along with Mr. Juniper and Juniper Junior. To me, at least, Santa Claus gives a beautiful anonymity to giving gifts because it is less about a person giving and more about simply the joy the person has of receiving a gift, and the whole family being a part of that.
Come Christmastime, there is a book I find myself going back to. For me, it’s one of the best books I have ever come across about Christmas, and what it means: The Hogfather by Terry Pratchett. I’m not sure whether Terry Pratchett (a Humanist) celebrates Christmas, but given he wrote The Hogfather, I like to think he celebrates in quite spectacular style.
So that is how our Humanist family celebrates, and since Juniper Junior has been campaigning for the Christmas tree to go up since January, we’re enjoying the festivities now December has arrived. I’m looking forward to December 25th, or as it was last year because of all the snow blocking roads, December 28th. I’m looking forward to being with my family and celebrating another year past and another year to come. Happy Hogswatch, Persephoneers!