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Dehumanizing the Holidays
 

When I had the privilege of working for the Council for Secular Humanism, I used to notice some odd and interesting maneuvers about this time of year. Once I even organized a symposium on the subject of Christmas and proclaimed it a celebration of Festivus. “Festivus—for the rest of us!” You know, Frank Costanza’s holiday from Seinfeld. It was a terrific exchange of ideas. There were, as I recall, three basic positions. Tom Flynn, by far the most consistent theoretician of Secular Humanism I have had the pleasure of knowing, argued that Christmas was basically a humbug foisted upon the world by “six eminent Victorians,” and that it is, as Scrooge put it (sorry, Tom!) “a false and commercial festival.” I argued, by contrast, that Christmas is just the latest overlay on a much older, seasonal (Solstice) holiday, and that since people generally comment on how secularized Christmas has become, we ought to run with it and celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday of family warmth and abundance, no more religious than Arbor Day or Lincoln’s Birthday. Then Joe Fox proposed having a distinctively Humanist winter holiday called Humanlight. In fact, he had already begun observing it with his family. I guess Joe had the last laugh, since I get annual announcements from Secular Humanist groups wishing me a happy Humanlight!

Let me briefly revisit the controversial theme of that afternoon as Christmas draws near again. I said that Tom Flynn is the most fearlessly consistent advocate of Secularism I know. He argued not only that Christmas is something of a holy hoax of which Secular Humanists ought to have no part. He further urged that observing Unitarian, pseudo-pagan mock-ups like “Solstice” (or implicitly Humanlight) is just to kid ourselves, like Mormons drinking a cup of “Coffee Near.” It is still a “holiday,” that is, a holy day. The kind of days that are not supposed to exist for you if you are a Secularist. For this reason, Tom always comes to the office to work on Christmas Day, even though he is the only one there. He says he worked hard to rid himself of the pleasant thrill of mystery when the sacred days come around. The bracing chill of reality unvarnished, unembellished by fantasy, is plenty invigorating for him. You see why I admire this guy?

But I am still left wondering why even so doughty a Secular Humanist as Joe Fox or Barry Seidman feel the need for something like Humanlight. Whether or not there is a God-shaped vacuum in the human psyche, it seems hard to deny there is a Christmas-shaped hole that human nature abhors. We seem to need, or irresistibly to feel that we need (which means it is a need), to have a seasonal celebration bracketed off from the affairs of mundane life. And what is the opposite of the mundane? The antithesis to the profane, the secular? It is the sacred. Sacred in the sense of set apart as special, consecrated, like a Sabbath of rest. Now, if even the “hardened” Secularists I just mentioned still feel the need for the Christmas-substitute, doesn’t that imply it is almost irresistibly human to set aside and to celebrate the sacred?

After all, the cavil always aimed at religion by Humanists is that it is all man-made. And of course it is! It is a product of human nature, culture, artistry and imagination! Sure, I know it eventuates in people taking myths and fables literally, which is an innocent mistake, sometimes even a dangerous one. But that’s an abuse, and we make plenty of excuses for the abuse of other good things. But I feel Christmas ought to be celebrated precisely as a human invention, a case of “sacred” play. This is a precious aspect of human nature. And so to fulminate against it and to strive to make everything mundane seems to me dehumanizing in the first degree. And that is a very odd strategy for so-called “Humanists.” That’s where I still disagree with Tom.

Where I disagree with Joe is that I believe, with Bultmann and Tillich, that myth is the irreplaceable language of the sacred, and this has nothing to do with belief in the supernatural. The failure to realize this is what makes Unitarianism so insufferable to me. Once I remember seeing on the signboard of a local Universalist Church a supposedly inspiring quote from Madame Chiang Kai-Shek. Come on: is that all you’ve got? In the same way, I am not satisfied with Frosty the Snowman. I want Santa Claus if not the baby Jesus. I’ll even be satisfied with Scrooge, as long as you don’t leave out the ghosts!

So says Zarathustra.

Robert M. Price
December 2006

 

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