Secular Solstice and the Importance of Ritual

Secular Solstice cover art.
I wanted to write a little bit about secular ritual and tradition and why it’s important.

To me, that is. It’s important to me. It’s not important to a lot of other people, some of whom politely shrug and say, “Not my thing,” and others of whom sneer condescendingly at those of us who need it, claiming that they’re above such silliness.

I think people leave or avoid religion for a number of different overlapping reasons. Some just don’t believe in god. Others don’t believe in god, and also resent the communal aspects of religion. I’m not a huge fan of singing in groups, either, so I can relate to that somewhat.

But mainly, my issue with religion is the superstitious and unscientific thinking, and also the frequent presence of political conservatism. Ritual is something I always loved, and still love, which is why I attended Jewish religious observances often when I was in college and wish I had the opportunity to keep doing it. Despite my atheism. Despite the fact that I disagree that I have any obligation to avoid eating meat and dairy products in the same meal.

What I continue to yearn for despite all these years of atheism is that togetherness, the feeling of being part of a larger whole, of participating in ceremonies that have existed virtually unchanged for centuries, of feeling that I could go to services on Friday night in San Francisco or London or Tokyo or Cape Town and be welcomed in virtually the same way, with the same greetings and food and songs. They will say Shabbat shalom and there will be challah and red wine, in America and in Great Britain and in Japan and in South Africa.

I don’t think there is anything like that outside of Judaism, and can’t be for decades or centuries more. I’m trying to make my peace with that.

Ritual and tradition feel good. There doesn’t have to be a rational reason and there isn’t. Chocolate feels good, too, despite being harmful in large quantities. I don’t care that there aren’t Valid Logical Reasons for loving ritual (or chocolate). There is a lot of stress and pain in life and if I can spend a Friday night feeling cheerful and whole, I will do it.

But I also know that non-secular Judaism can’t be a home for me anymore, so I’m looking for other ways to get even a fraction of that feeling. One such way is a project run by my friend Raymond Arnold, called the Secular Solstice.

Although groups of humanists/rationalists/atheists have presumably been running their own winter solstice celebrations for a while now, this particular event is an attempt to actually create a new secular ritual, a set of traditions for celebrating a winter holiday that usually goes unnoticed in the Christmas/Chanukah/Kwanzaa/New Year’s Eve pandemonium.

And it’s too bad that it does, because it’s an interesting holiday. Unlike most holidays, the solstice marks an astronomical phenomenon. People have known about it and observed it for thousands of years. From the simple physical fact of the winter solstice, people can (and do) draw all sorts of meaning.

The Secular Solstice, for instance, celebrates science and progress. It’s all about how humans overcome darkness and winter, literally and metaphorically. It’s about how even on the longest night of the year, we can look forward to the days growing longer and longer again. It’s about a lot of things, really.

The first Secular Solstice was held last year, in New York. I went with a bunch of people I care about and had one of the best holiday experiences I’ve ever had. The celebration was set up as a sort of concert with both music and short readings. Some of the songs had a sing-along component, though, for the first time possibly ever, I didn’t feel pressured or expected to actually sing (which, naturally, means that I felt comfortable enough to sing). The songs and readings were about winter, humanity, science, space, planet Earth. Not all of them resonated with me, but most did. (You can listen to them here.)

There were a few reasons I especially liked this particular event. One is that, on a psychological level, winter is just hard for me. I don’t know if I have Seasonal Affective Disorder necessarily, but I’m sensitive to extreme temperatures and to light (or lack thereof) and I find that winter saps me of physical and mental energy. Some of my favorite things–long walks, outdoor photography, swimming, reading outdoors in the sun, wearing the clothes I like–become difficult or impossible. The Secular Solstice, in a weird and possibly unintentional way, validated how much I hate winter and how much of a “big deal” it is for me to get through it without some of my favorite distractions and coping mechanisms. Unlike the other winter holidays, the Solstice doesn’t frame winter as a happy cheery beautiful time with family, snowball fights, kissing under the mistletoe, Santa Claus, and Jesus. It frames it as a challenge, but one that we nevertheless get through every year.

On a related note, the Secular Solstice also differs from a number of other humanist events in its avoidance of faux (at least to me) cheeriness. In this way, I’d contrast it with Sunday Assembly, another event I’ve started regularly attending. I do enjoy Sunday Assembly a lot, but I find myself generally unable to produce the amount of happy singing/dancing/clapping it seems to demand of me. I like my communal observances, secular or otherwise, to be a little more…I’m not sure what the word is. Solemn, maybe.

That’s something that Jewish ritual does particularly well. Most Jewish holidays (with a few notable exceptions) commemorate joyous events or concepts, but the rituals themselves often have a sort of gravity, a seriousness to them. Not every song is loud and cheerful. There is an opportunity to acknowledge adversity, loss, and melancholy.

Perhaps those who lead secular observances worry that people will be pushed away by too much solemnity, that it’ll be too much like religion. Many some people would be, which is why I understand why events like Sunday Assembly are the way they are. But the Secular Solstice differs in that it has so many quiet, beautiful, powerful moments, some of which might even feel quite sad. This, too, was an integral part of the experience for me.

But it had joyful and funny moments, too, as well as plenty of hopeful ones. I felt like I experienced pretty much a full gamut of emotions throughout the concert. Moreover, when it was over, I felt like I had actually observed something, in the sense of observing a holiday or a tradition. I had connected with the other people in the room, as well as with ideas that I believe in–the hope that we can overcome challenges, the ability of scientific progress to improve our lives, and the fact that it is okay to feel sad and scared.

Traditions, including new ones, help me mark the passage of time and find some sort of meaning in it. They also help me connect with people who share my values. While religious values serve a similar function, the values themselves are obviously quite different.

Unfortunately, unlike religious observances, secular ones appeal to a small minority of people and do not have the financial and social capital that theistic congregations can provide. That’s why, if you want to see secular traditions and communities flourish, it’s important to support them.

If this is something that matters to you too, I urge you to support the Secular Solstice through their Kickstarter campaign.

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Secular Solstice and the Importance of Ritual
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18 thoughts on “Secular Solstice and the Importance of Ritual

  1. 1

    I like the idea of this. I think the description at the Kickstarter is inspiring. If it were up to me, I might find some way to relight the candles once there is only one — the Solstice is when the light starts coming back to the world after all, and that’s why I celebrate it.

    If you aren’t sure you have full blown Seasonal Affect Disorder, is it possible you get what is more colloquially known as “Cabin Fever”? A general agitation of being cooped up for a couple of months?

    And, as I generally take many long minutes to check over my comments, I have come to the conclusion that I may want to host my own little Solstice event this year. Helps that it is a Saturday.

    1. 1.1

      @ajb47: I wouldn’t call it “agitation”; more sadness and fatigue because I can’t use many of the coping methods that keep depression at bay. And I’m not exactly cooped up, either. I still have to go to work and I still do almost as many social things, but being outside is miserable and a source of stress.

      1. I am under-informed when it comes to depression, I admit. I just tried to relate something that I deal with in bad winters where I can’t spend much time outside.

        I am now considering some sort of dinner/celebration for the Solstice, though. Since almost all of my friends are religious, I’m not sure how it would go over.

        1. In terms of celebrating it with religious people, I don’t think you need to necessarily frame it as a “secular” holiday in the way that this particular version does. For instance, if your friends celebrate Christmas, you could present it as a chill, thoughtful celebration that will let them escape from the clamor of The Holidays for a few hours.

          1. However it works out from here on out, I will be trying to do something similar with the candles with my wife and kids (daughter and son) the night of the 20th at the least. So maybe it’s just the 4 of us, memorializing the past year and raising hopes for the light returning — talking about the latest discoveries in science or the humanitarian efforts to help those in trouble. Or talking about the loss of our dog, and the hopes for a new one rescued from one of the many terrible fates that await dogs.

            My wife and I really like to feed people. For me, there is a, “Join me at my fire,” anthropological slant to hosting people for food. I think we could really have an interesting gathering if, as you say, we present it correctly. My religious friends aren’t fundamentalists by any stretch of the imagination, and they would go along with the idea of reminiscing and hoping I think.

            I am going through the Kickstarter page and looking for pieces I can adapt for my own circle. Unfortunately, the last two months were bad for us, so I can’t donate. I can, however, share on my own blog, which is not read much, but still, maybe it will help.

            As an aside, I like your blog, though I don’t comment much (until now). I learn things here, and (as I read in some book/novel somewhere) no day is a loss in which you learn something.

  2. 2

    It’s important to me. It’s not important to a lot of other people, some of whom politely shrug and say, “Not my thing,” and others of whom sneer condescendingly at those of us who need it, claiming that they’re above such silliness.

    Just to register the existence of still another category: there are people who yearn it perhaps as much as you do … but they just can’t have it. A mental bloc. Chronic inability to identify oneself with a group to a degree permitting you to experience the ritual … but with the need being there alright, which makes a polite shrug and the words “not my thing” somewhat hollow.

    I don’t know if any of you is familiar with the phenomenon.

    By the way, a question about donations. I’m one of those people for whom anonymity is very important (never mind the reasons; most of them are stupid and/or obsessive, but realizing it doesn’t help). It has already happened a couple of times that I was really tempted to donate but I refrained from it because it involved revealing my identity. Does anyone know if there is a way around it?

    1. 2.1

      @Ariel: I’m sorry to hear about the conflict you’re facing (wanting ritual but not being able to experience it). Depending on how that issue manifests, it might be worth noting that the Solstice includes two components – connection to each other, and connection to ideas and the overall story of human history. It’s possible you might get something out of the latter, even if not the former. (Or it might be possible for you to pursue private ritual of your own that doesn’t involve connection to a group)

      I’ve definitely met people who would have thought ritual wasn’t for them, but it turned out all the ritual they found wasn’t quite right, and made them feel alienated rather than connected. I’ve had people come to the Solstice expecting to find it offputting but who instead enjoyed it. I don’t know what you’ve experienced in the past, but I’d at least consider that.

      In any case, donating to the kickstarter requires a kickstarter account, but I believe you can set that up fairly anonymously (you can enter any screen-name you want). If you’d prefer something more anonymous you could contact me directly and we can work something out.

  3. 3

    This event and Sunday Assembly both sound interesting to me. However, I’m not the kind of person who likes to jump in and participate in something right from the start.

    With Secular Solstice and Sunday Assembly, is there room to stand back? Or are they set up in a way that everyone kind of has to participate?

    1. 3.1

      @Scr… Archivist:

      Hello, this is Raymond, organizer for the Solstice *and* music director for Sunday Assembly NYC. You’re certainly welcome to attend but sit in the back and wait till you get comfortable. At the Solstice, we’ll be opening up with some words of encouragement to make people feel comfortable singing if they don’t normally think of themselves as singers, but if you wanted to hold off that’d be fine.

      Hope you can make it!

  4. 4

    I’ve been an atheist all my life, and I simply love Christmas and I celebrate the heck out of it.
    Christians stole it in the first place, they can’t keep it. No, we don’t go to church, we don’t read stories about baby Jesus, but we have tons of cookies and a tree and presents and too much to eat…
    I agree with your love for ritual and familiar things. they give comfort and stability. I’ve tried to creat our own small family rituals, so when they kids grow up they will have little things that will make them instantly feel a bit better (hopefully).

    1. 4.1

      I don’t think Christians “stole” Christmas. Whatever other meanings and/or cultural detritus it has accumulated over the centuries, it is fundamentally a celebration of the birth of their most important holy figure.

      1. I think you should read up on history. The Christian “christmas” happily coincides with many pagan festivals, most noticably Roman Saturnalia and a lot of solstice celebrations, down to some of the very traditions. Same with easter, where they didn’t even bother to get rid of the name of the paga goddess

  5. 6

    I’ll only disagree with the notion that there is no rational reason for enjoying ritual and tradition. It promotes a sense of belonging and community, and as social animals, we’re all about that.

    It’s very, very rational to be emotionally connected to a community through ritual and tradition.

    FWIW: I dread every day from November 15 to Valentine’s Day because of the lack of light. I try to counter it by going outside in the afternoon–my dog gets his longer walks in the afternoons during the winter months. I also moved from a northern latitude (NYC) to a bit further south so that the shortest days aren’t quite as short as they used to be and the weather’s a bit nicer. That’s helped me tremendously.

    1. 6.1

      I was about to say the same thing in regards to a sense of belonging. In fact, I read an article reporting on a mediation analysis study as to why religiousness is correlated negatively to suicidal ideation and attempts (meaning the more religious you are, the less likely you’ll contemplate or attempt suicide). There were two hypotheses at the time: persuading followers that suicide is wrong and that followers have greater social support than non-followers. Turns out it was the latter.

      To read the article, click the following link:
      http://www.psychotherapybrownbag.com/psychotherapy_brown_bag_a/2009/10/why-does-religiousness-predict-lower-rates-of-suicidal-ideation-and-attempts-examining-the-roles-of-.html

  6. 7

    I wish I could politely shrug and say, “Not my thing” – my usual reaction to new rituals is somewhere in the range from “creeped out” to “freaking out”.

    …I’m trying to figure out why that’s how I feel about it. A lot of it is probably an irrational association of non-religious rituals with cults, part of it is that I’ve seen a lot of terrible/terrifying rituals proposed, but part of it is the fear of having my brain rewired by social pressure rather than reason. There’s nothing intrinsic to the practice of ritual to make it harder to instill false or dangerous attitudes or beliefs than to instill true or valuable ones. Or to stop charismatic predators from hijacking them and twisting the community into a stronghold within which they can operate to their heart’s content.

    I think my brain registers religious rituals as something which the practitioners don’t have much of a choice about – if your religion tells you that this is something you need, you’re going to listen – but it recoils at the thought of risking it voluntarily.

    I do know that it’s not my decision to make any more than it’s my decision whether you should have cosmetic surgery, though. And your description of it makes it sound like a good thing – helpful, valuable – that probably doesn’t have the problems I worry about (assuming they have a good Code of Conduct in place and the will to enforce it). But it’s still something that makes me frightened.

  7. 9

    (I tried to post on this back when you first posted it, Miri, but for some reason Freethought Blogs had me flagged as a spammer… maybe… all I know is I couldn’t post anywhere. But I just posted in Pharyngula and it went through! So I’m trying again here with this post.)

    I’ve been interested in Secular Solstice for a while, now. I won’t be able to attend this year, but since I’ll be living in New York by summer 2015, I very much plan on attending that year.

    Also, while I realize this is more specific than Secular Solstice, I kind of always wanted to do secular Passover seders. I absolutely adore Passover in terms of food, ritual, and so on, and I’d love to take a critical look at the story itself (which I do have issues with) with fellow social-justice-leaning skeptics and such. I think it’d be a hell of a lot of fun. Sadly, I can’t do it down here in Florida, but it’d be fun to do it in New York, where I know I’d be surrounded by what you once called “my people”… which I’m very much looking forward to.

    Plus, if I am able to put together secular Passover seders, there WILL be one or more chocolate seder plates… 😀

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