Keeping the So(u)l in Solstice

Heather Greene —  December 22, 2013 — 52 Comments

The Solstice is upon us, both winter and summer. To honor this seasonal change, I’ve decided to set my journalistic instincts aside (almost) and replace them with a cup of cocoa, some holiday music, and a Santa hat. In other words, the following post is an opinion piece with some facts, some anecdotes and some over-sized, good-spirited, inflatable fun.

By 4028mdk09 (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By 4028mdk09 (Own Work) via Wikimedia Commons

Here in the United States, it is very difficult to avoid the holiday buzz during the last few weeks of December no matter what you do or don’t celebrate. More specifically it’s difficult to hide from Christmas.This megalithic holiday hangs like celestial mistletoe over the entire month of December with tiny little elves waiting at every turn to plant sweet peppermint kisses on your cheek.

Part of this seasonal tsunami is the yearly debate over who owns the holiday. What is the true “reason for the season?” As I noted in my article Caught in the Crossfire, you can set your clocks to these Holiday Games which begin around Thanksgiving.

Remember Freedom From Religion Foundation’s New Jersey billboard “Keep Saturn in Saturnalia?” Since my Crossfire post, the sign has been the target of repeated vandalism. In the most recent incident, two men attempted to burn down the offending metal sign. Local police have stepped up surveillance.

American Atheists elected to go bigger and rented a 40 x 40 digital billboard in New York City’s Time Square.  After seeing this billboard, New York state Senator Andrew Lanza called it an “expression of hate” and added “Religious persecution of this kind …led to the Holocaust.”  In response, the American Atheists rented a second billboard near the Goethls bridge which happens to lead to the Senators’ Staten Island district.

download (1)

Courtesy of American Atheists

In a recent post for Americans United, Rob Boston claims “There is no war on Christmas.”  Is he right? Is this just the virulent rhetoric of right wing conservatives? From the spectator seats of the religious minority, I would say it’s definitely more than simply rhetoric.  While there may not be a “War on Christmas,” these daily events are definitely part of a muddy tug-o-war between two cultural extremes.

Just this past week, Georgia State Senator Mike Dugan proposed legislation that would ostensibly permit the use of Christmas Trees, mangers, and the words “Merry Christmas” within Georgia public schools. Here’s the caveat:  at least one other religion or secular seasonal display must also be represented. When a local CBS reporter questioned the need to legalize something that is already legal, the Senator replied, “A lot of [schools] don’t [display Christmas trees] because they’re afraid they’re going to step on somebody’s toes or there’s going to be legal ramifications.”

It sounds like the First Amendment needs a publicity manager and not a legislator.

All kidding aside, there are important religious freedom issues at stake. Minority religions do need to be ever vigilant as the U.S. becomes more religiously diverse. Our public space should be kept neutral in order that everyone is allowed to enjoy their lives – both secular and spiritual.

As I pointed out in my Crossfire post, minority religions have recently been implicated in the games as unwitting allies. Paganism has been dragged onto the side of secularists through a common interest in the Solstice, nature and mythology. Judaism, which was once on the secular side, often finds itself teamed with the conservative Christians. If you sing a few rounds of “Dreidel Dreidel Dreidel,” you’re clear to belt out “The Hallelujah Chorus.”

In his article on the proposed Georgia legislation, Jim Galloway of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution clearly demonstrates this holiday strategy. Galloway quotes Senator Dugan saying, ‘The trick is to include a slightly off-season menorah.’ Then Galloway himself adds, “Or a symbol from some other religion – maybe something Wiccan, or a comparable secular image. Perhaps a scene from Macy’s.” 

Courtesy of Flickr's swh

Courtesy of Flickr’s swh

According to Sen. Dugan, minority religions are the ticket, the “trick,” or the constitutional work-around for the legal installment of religious Christmas expressions within the public sphere.  However, minority religions are also the catalyst that forces the removal of all religious expression from that same public space in the first place. If that isn’t a paradoxical ironic Christmas conundrum.

Let’s take a closer look beyond the public sphere. What are we debating anyway? The reason for the season?  According to a new Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) and Religion News Forum (RNF) poll, 90% of Americans celebrate Christmas. Of that number, 84% celebrate only Christmas while the remaining 6% celebrate both Christmas and another holiday.

Why is this so interesting? According to the latest Pew Forum pole, only 78% of Americans identify as Christian. If the two studies are accurate, at least 12% of the people celebrating Christmas are not Christian.  Moreover if you consider that a small portion of Christians don’t celebrate Christmas that number is actually higher than 12%.

Does this mean that Christmas is slowly becoming a secular holiday devoid of any spiritual essence?  Are other religions co-opting the holiday? Are there an increasing number of interfaith families? Or are religious or secular Solstice celebrations being recorded as Christmas celebrations? There are similarities in the traditions. Does it even matter?

By McKay Savage from London via Wikimedia Commons

By McKay Savage from London via Wikimedia Commons

I believe that the answer is deeper and more complex. Family cultural traditions are hard habits to break. When belief and nostalgia compete, nostalgia often wins or at least leaves an indelible mark. I still eat Matzoh during Passover which, if you have ever tried Matzoh, is almost inexplicable.

Let me illustrate with a personal anecdote. I have always celebrated Christmas despite growing up as wholly religious “none” (not to be confused with a holy religious nun.) My atheist father was raised Catholic so Christmas was his family tradition which we kept in a purely secular fashion. Each year our Christmas dinner guests were always Jewish friends and family and, on occasion, some Muslim friends. Despite our secularism, that night was always sacred and magical in ways that are completely indescribable.

When I began to explore the spiritual, I came to understand the deeper meanings within the Winter Solstice and that magic it brought. Today my multi-faith family has expanded to include Baptists, Methodists, Pagans of many practices and more. As such the magic of the season has only become stronger.

While watching this public Yuletide tug-o-war, I return to the original question, “What is the reason for the season?” When I listen closely and distill each and every seasonal prayer or story, I find a common point – a universal message.  It is one of hope.

Pagans find hope in the rebirth of the Sun through deity, through nature, through art and through mythology. Jews find hope in the oil that lasted for eight days.  Christians find hope in the birth of Christ. Hindus find hope in the lights of Diwali. Atheists find hope in the scientific rhythms of the stars.  And so on and so forth.

The reason for the season is hope, in whatever form it comes.

So I say: Keep the Sol in Solstice. Keep the Saturn in Saturnalia. Keep the Christ in Christmas. Whatever it is that brings you peace and however you choose to celebrate…..Keep the Hope in Humanity.

By User:Darwinek (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

By User:Darwinek (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons


Heather Greene

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Heather is a freelance writer, film historian, and journalist, living in the Deep South. She has collaborated with Lady Liberty League on religious liberty cases, and formerly served as Public Information Officer for Dogwood Local Council and Covenant of the Goddess. She has a masters degree in Film Theory, Criticism and History from Emory University with a background in the performing and visual arts. Heather's book on witches in American film and television will be published by McFarland in 2018.
  • Lēoht Sceadusawol

    There are many reasons for the season, each religion approaches it differently, and each religion has a different name for it.

    Is there a war on Christmas? I would say yes. What other religion, at this moment in time can say that one of its major festivals is being grossly co-opted by others?

    To use a word that causes instant controversy – it is appropriation. Not on the traditions, the customs or the beliefs, but on the label.

    What most people who celebrate Christmas celebrate is very much not Christ’s Mass.

    The big questions, for me are

    1 – Why call it Christmas if you are not a Christian?

    2 – Why, exactly, do atheists want to celebrate it, anyway?

    • CBrachyrhynchos

      Speaking for myself: Out of respect for the family and friends who graciously invite me into their homes and sometimes churches for that day. That includes a lifetime of discussing obligations and boundaries that are a private matter of hearth and kin. If I don’t receive that invitation or cannot attend, December 25 a working day or a rest day.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Out of respect for my Christian family, I don’t celebrate their festival.

        • CBrachyrhynchos

          If that’s the understanding you have with your family, then it is what it is. Among my family it is an obligation.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            My stepfather is a priest. Christmas is very much about Christ, for that side of my family.

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            My father is a liturgical music director. Which means that I put my own ego to the side for a few hours every year to sit down, shut up, put on my best smile, and listen.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I have no interest in celebrating the birth of a godling I have no respect for.

    • Jennifer Locke

      As an atheist I celebrate because much of the Christmas season is fun and as a child in a secular home, it was magical. We joke that we only have pagan symbols of the season in our home, which is to say everything but the nativity scene.
      That said, I am disgusted with the materialism associated with it, largely perpetrated by those who identify as Christians. I pity the ones who have reduced their sacred holiday to such a low level that they take offense when an disinterested store clerk doesn’t acknowledge it while handing over a bag of forgettable crap. And let’s not even mention the assault on their god’s creation with all the waste that ensues.
      Sure, there’s a war on Christmas but it’s an inside job. In no way can the secularists be blame for the obscenity the holiday has become.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        So why use “Christmas”?

        I will agree that Christianity hasn’t done itself any favours, in regards to this festival, but I don’t think they are the ones trying to secularise it.

        • JasonMankey

          Lots of Christians have played a part in secularizing the holiday. Clement Moore, Charles Dickens, Thomas Nast, a whole slew of advertisers and manufacturers, and the list goes on and on.

          Those of us who grew up in households that celebrated Christmas honor the holiday because it represents family and cultural traditions. For most of us those traditions likely have very little to do with Christianity or Jesus. Why would I want to change the word I use to describe the holiday when it’s the word my family shares and the one I grew up with?

          Words have all sorts of different origins, I’m not going to sweat where this particular one comes from. I doubt it’s the only word spoken on a regular basis that has a Christian origin point.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            It’s Christonormative culture. Just because something is a tradition, doesn’t mean it is necessarily good, or worth continuing.

          • Deborah Bender

            Charles Dickens? If you are thinking of A Christmas Carol, Tiny Tim’s “God bless us everyone” appears to me to be the authorial voice.

          • JasonMankey

            “God bless us everyone!” What a preachy, over the top, sentiment with Jesus at the very center of it! It’s like listening to Pat Robertson pontificate on the 700 Club!

          • Deborah Bender

            Have you actually read A Christmas Carol?

            I quoted Tiny Tim to refute your statement that Dickens played a part in secularizing Christmas. Are you criticizing Dickens for secularizing Christmas or for advocating that the holiday be an occasion for engaging in Christian charity? You can’t have it both ways.

            The story’s theme is a variation on the plot of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life: the actions of an ordinary individual can have a profound effect on the well being and fortunes of other members of his community.

            The “Christmas Past” in A Christmas Carol is England on the eve of the industrial revolution. This story and some of Dickens’ novels were counter arguments to the social Darwinism that arose among elites when industrial production upended previous social arrangements.

            The incidents in the story do indeed preach moral values: that those who are selfishly indifferent to the needs of others die alone and despised, that love and mutual support help people get through hard times with hope and dignity intact; that every human being has value; that forgiveness is necessary to happiness; that true wealth is the ability to share with others.

            I don’t listen to Pat Robertson but if he is one of the Prosperity Gospel advocates, his values are the antithesis of the values of A Christmas Carol.

          • JasonMankey

            “The story’s theme is a variation on the plot of the movie “It’s a Wonderful Life: the actions of an ordinary individual can have a profound effect on the well being and fortunes of other members of his community.”

            Of course, and those sentiments are not exclusive to Christianity. Dickens played a huge role in popularizing Christmas again, and the heart of his novella has little to do with Jesus. The foundation of the tale lies not on the Nativity story, but upon loving others.

            “The incidents in the story do indeed preach moral values: that those who are selfishly indifferent to the needs of others die alone and despised, that love and mutual support help people get through hard times with hope and dignity intact; that every human being has value; that forgiveness is necessary to happiness; that true wealth is the ability to share with others.”

            Certainly, but those values are not necessarily Christian. The spirit of Dickens’ Christmas is generosity, not Jesus.

        • Kay

          Reality is most people, Christian or not, do not celebrate Christmas, literally Christ’s Mass. The trend for the past several years has been for churches to be closed on Christmas day because nobody shows up. Some are still open, but more and more close their doors, even if Christmas is on a Sunday. What’s left is basically Yule + an optional birthday cake for Jesus on the wrong day.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Then people should stop co-opting the name.

      • nousernamesavailable

        we should be allowed more then 1 like

    • Jade

      People who celebrate a secular form of Christmas call it Christmas because any other name takes too much explaining.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        So we embrace ignorance?

        • Franklin_Evans

          Um, so we complain that ignorance is ubiquitous? I’m with you on this in principle and practice, don’t get me wrong, but ignorance of everyone “not us” is the fact of our lives. We are mostly on the receiving end of it, no doubt of it, but I don’t see that changing any time soon.

          You can lead a human to knowledge, but you can’t make a human think. I place that in the same category as teaching pigs to sing or herding cats, albeit not quite so rare as they are.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            We teach. I keep saying it, but people seem to dislike it, Evangelism doesn’t need to be about conversion. It can just be about sharing our stories and our ways.

          • Franklin_Evans

            Yup. My definition of willful ignorance is believing the fallacy that understanding must always include or lead to agreement.

            Some Christians offer a remedy to the conversion connotation. They call what they do witnessing. I don’t mind saying that the vast majority of Christians who sincerely keep to that mode are the ones from whom I count my most loved and trusted friends. They and I offer each other a mutual understanding that transcends the political baggage.

            I prefer to call what we (you and I and others) do storytelling. I’m a bard at heart, just without the talent or time to go at it as it deserves.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            There is a big revival of storytelling going on. I think it would be pretty easy to ride the wave of that to get the legends and myths to a wider audience.

    • Boris

      Why call it Wednesday if you do not believe in Wodan? The meanings of words change in the course of the years.

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        Ummm… I do believe in Wōden.

        There are a lot of people that believe in Jesus and celebrate the festival of Christmas as a holy day in their religious calendar.

        Just because it is popular, does that make appropriation from Christianity okay?

        We hear complaints of appropriation in other areas and complain, how can we not support their claims, too?

        • Betty Anne

          It’s fine that you believe in Wōden; the fact of the matter is: the vast majority of people who use “Wednesday” do not. Nor do those who use “Sunday,” necessarily care about the sun outside of the SPF number they have to have in sunblock, or the moon on “Monday,” or Tiw on Tuesday or Thor on Thursday…most don’t know or care that our 12-month year ends on a month denoting “10” because of a calendar shift; we no longer use “gay” in common speech to denote “happy” or “pussy” to denote a cat.

          I am all for renaming the holiday for the secular world. I would name it Bernaysday after Edward Bernays, the propagandist who successfully convinced women to smoke, Americans to eat bacon and eggs for breakfast, and Americans to fear communism. His legacy single-handedly turned our country into a corporate pigsty where “things” take precedence over family, faith, spirituality and community.

          Good luck putting THAT cat back into the bag, however, especially with a name that would forever tell the tale of how easily a large nation of people is manipulated.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Bernaysday has a nice ring to it.

            (Pussy is still fairly commonly used to denote cat. In my part of the world, anyway.)

    • Sarah

      It’s not appropriation to celebrate a holiday that’s part of your own culture. I’ve celebrated Christmas with my family since I was a child, and my ancestors celebrated it for generations.

      I am Pagan, but that doesn’t mean I have to abandon my cultural heritage.
      Just because conservative Christians say Christmas can only be understood in a strictly religious way doesn’t make it true. They don’t own Christmas. Why are we letting them dictate to us what it means? Why not the millions of people for whom Christmas is about generosity, family, and homemade cookies, all things I’m generally for?

      • Lēoht Sceadusawol

        They *do* own Christmas. The clue is in the name.

        It’s not Hernemas.

        I am not saying that people need to stop celebrating, I am just saying that the name is the sticking factor.

        I must confess to a certain amount of self interest, actually. I like the idea of reclaiming words. Take, for example, Yule. Lots of people see it as synonymous with Christmas. I would like to see that change.

        • Sarah

          Christmas is an important holiday in my culture. Just because I have some different religious practices didn’t mean I am no longer part of that culture. I didn’t change my name and disown my family when I became a Pagan.

          Also note that I said conservative Christians don’t own Christmas. Except among conservative Christians, I don’t think that’s really a controversial statement.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            Christianity is an important religion in my culture.

            I missed the qualifier on your statement, I change my argument accordingly:

            Christmas belongs to Christianity.

      • TadhgMor

        “I am Pagan, but that doesn’t mean I have to abandon my cultural heritage.”

        Some of them might disagree. Certainly I would say a certain amount of abandonment is necessary; otherwise you’re retaining a large number of Christian/monotheist assumptions.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    The “war on Christmas” meme is the easily identifiable whine of a privileged cohort appalled at dropping to a mere 85% or 90% of adherence and seeking to amplify its privilege even more. Organized atheists renting digital billboards for a contrarian message evoke a harmony of tizzied outrage: How dare! DARE that scruffy minority push back with the same tools used by the Masters of the Universe(TM)?As a Pagan I’m bemused that Wicca has gone from the devil at the gates of the city to part of the cover for those of slipping dominance to double down their privilege, as well as Saturnalia becoming a vehicle of the contrarians. This is a better seasonal show than Frosty and Rudolph combined, and we have free front-row tickets.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      Regardless of how privileged they may be, if people are appropriating their festival (if only the name), then their grievance is valid.

      • Raksha38

        They’re not upset that people are appropriating their holiday. They’re upset because people exercise their right NOT to celebrate said holiday. For example, the phrase “Happy Holidays” is used as a general phrase by well wishers as a catch all to cover any holiday the recipient might celebrate, not just Christmas. Christians are FURIOUS over the use of this phrase instead of “Merry Christmas” because they’re furious that non-Christians are being acknowledged and included in wider society. Like, to the point that someone punched a Salvation Army bell ringer the other day because she said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

        If they were really angry about people appropriating Christmas, they’d welcome the phrase “Happy Holidays” and want “Merry Christmas” saved for those who actually celebrate Christmas instead of seething at the existence of other holidays.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          Some, yes. But there are still a whole lot of people using the term “Christmas” in an appropriative way.

        • CBrachyrhynchos

          It’s really telling to me that conservatives complain about non-Christians who celebrate and non-Christians who don’t, while ignoring commercialism, which in my family’s liturgical tradition was widely condemned as inappropriate for Advent.

          Which is to say that there’s strong arguments that we shouldn’t be saying “Merry Christmas” at all before Christmas Eve, much less using that phrase as a political shibboleth.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I’d agree, people shouldn’t be celebrating the festival before the festival. But that is true of just about any festival.

          • CBrachyrhynchos

            Certainly, I think it’s pretty clear from the rhetoric that the “War on Christmas” isn’t really about the liturgical calendar, it’s primarily about hegemony, with specifically atheists as the scapegoat.

          • Lēoht Sceadusawol

            I would certainly agree with that.

            But, you have to admit, it would be amusing to give them what they are asking for – a purely religious Christmas that is ignored by the majority of the world. (I know it is a goal I share.)

  • JasonMankey

    Christmas is a secular holiday and mostly always has been. I don’t care that it mean’s “Christ’s Mass,” Monday mean’s Moon day but we don’t celebrate the moon every time Monday rolls around. Jesus has always been the square peg in a round hole during the Holidays.

    • Lēoht Sceadusawol

      I know people that do celebrate the moon every Monday.

      There are plenty of other holidays at this time of year to choose from.

      • Charles Cosimano

        This time of year it is too cold to moon people every Monday.

        • Lēoht Sceadusawol

          There are people that wear kilts all year round. :p

          • Raksha38

            I had a boyfriend who wore kilts year round in freaking Wyoming (aka The Godsforsaken Siberia of the Americas). He was…different!

  • Ursyl

    This wasn’t quite the article I was looking for, but it has an interesting take on the “war on Christmas.”

    The one I was looking for is about how until the 1800s, Christmas was illegal in many parts of America, and how the real war on it is being waged by fundamentalist Christians who see Christmas as pagan and criticize fellow Christians for celebrating it in any way.

  • Raksha38

    Axial tilt is the reason for the season!

    When I was an undergrad in college, my group of friends was so diverse and we all celebrated a winter holiday for one reason or another, we took to calling it ChristmaHannuKwanzaaRohatsuYule And Atheist Children Get Presents Day.

  • g75401

    Is there a “War on Christmas”? Yes, but not how the xtians think there is. I was very surprised when I read Claire Conner’s book Wrapped in the Flag- the “war” was first hatched up by the John Birch Society as a fundraiser in the 60s. So, that’s the “weapon” of the war-money, and by extension, commercialism. We have the tools to win this war-we walk away from the commercialism. For years, my gifts to my family have been evergreen decorations and wine. I rarely venture out to the store but, when I dared to do so Friday, I was almost overwhelmed by the feelings of frantic-ness the other shoppers had. Hoping to buy that “special gift” when what they really had didn’t cost anything-those same friends and family they were so anxious to please. I wonder what our holiday period would be like if people really stopped, drew back, and spent time with what really mattered to them.

  • Rhalynn Blackburn

    I like to call it “Giftmas” or “Santa Day”, as we do the whole Santa Claus thing with the kids on December 25. I always enjoyed that as a kid, and it was never a religious thing. For me, it’s almost like having a giant birthday party for all of our kids at once:)

  • Heather writes:

    The reason for the season is hope, in whatever form it comes.

    Which is why there is always a Doctor Who Special on Christmas (Its Doctor Who and Presents Day at our house, since the Solstice was this past weekend).

  • Merlyn7

    It’s a lovely season and an excuse to decorate and eat more cookies. A “Merry Christmas” gets a smile and a “you too” from me and I think it’s adorable when people in the know go out of their way with a “Happy Solstice”

    Atheist billboards? Hmmm. I understand the intent but the sentiment feels off. I would rather genuinely wish someone a happy something that I actually wish them rather than try to rub privileged, paranoid Christians noses in it.

    Off to find more cookies.