Values and Meanings: Celebrations

By Gleb Tsipursky

"Celebrations" was the topic of the "Values and Meanings" Discussion and Potluck that was held on December 21st. The goal of the "Values and Meanings" discussions is to provide nonbelievers with a forum to talk about our individual values and the kinds of meanings we find in our lives. It aims to create a safe space to share, listen, and explore together without debating, arguing, or trying to convince others.

Preliminary activties included a potluck, introductions and an icebreaker, where participants had the opportunity to talk about a recent event they experienced in the last month or so that made them think about our values. After everyone had a chance to speak and a brief round of responses, we moved on to the main theme of the day - "Celebrations".

Values and Meanings: Celebrations

Participants read a number of quotes about celebrations, and these quotes are listed at the bottom of this post. Next, participants shared their perspectives about celebrations, especially in association with the late December holidays. Participants in the discussion drew attention to the history of festivals around the solstice dating back many thousands of years, long before organized religion co-opted these festivities. In the darkest time of the year, human beings gathered together for mutual warmth and shared light around the fire for ages. Such celebrations, it was pointed out, are not an explicitly religious activity, they are simply a way and part of being human.

Nonbelievers choose a variety of ways to mark the holidays. Some incorporate certain elements of religion into their celebration. For instance, one participant described how his family draws different elements from Christianity, Kwanza, Hanukah, and other religious traditions, and combines them into a unique mix. Others talked about their family traditions, the meaning and community they experienced as children in celebrations religious and secular alike, and how they strive to bring out the positives from their childhood experience, while leaving behind the dogma. Some still celebrate these holidays with religious family members, and have to endure religious activities they would rather avoid, in order to minimize family tensions.

However, for many, these holidays have become a means of celebrating in a secular fashion. For instance, for Christmas, some visit Asian restaurants and do other explicitly non-Christmas activities on this day, while still taking the day off and enjoying themselves. Another means of celebration discussed was attending explicitly secular events, such as the Humanist Community of Central Ohio's Winter Solstice Banquet, or "A Secular Solstice" in New York. Others found meaning in doing social justice activities, such as HCCO's Annual Blood Drive.

Some nonbelievers choose to avoid participating in these celebrations altogether, both due to the religious and the commercial nature of the holidays. They discussed the off-putting effect of consumerism around the holidays, and a number chose to avoid engaging in the gift-giving tradition. Some chose to instead donate money in the names of their family members and friends to charities, while others asked friends and family members to give them a list of preferred gifts.

Overall, we had a great conversation about celebrating holidays as an atheist and the challenges some of us have balancing traditions, family members, and gift giving. Those who came shared that they really enjoyed the opportunity to build community and have a serious discussion with fellow nonbelievers. On the feedback sheets passed around after the event, one participant wrote that he gained a "fuller understanding of the interconnectedness of many cultures, especially during the holidays."

Next time at the "Values and Meanings" Discussion and Potluck, Saturday, January 18 at 2:30, we will discuss "Hope," to help deal with the midwinter blues. Come join us to gain insight on this topic and to build community together.

Quotes used during the discussion:

Celebration is not owned by any one culture and especially not by any one religion. It is part of our humanity. - R. Elisabeth Cornwell

When we gather with friends and family for a holiday, feelings of gratitude flow spontaneously. We are glad to be together, pleased that we have come from far and near, glad for this special day and the special meal. If such feelings can be educated, at our holiday toast we can freely express their actual sources, both natural and social, in the past and in the present.... An entirely secular giving of thanks is possible and necessary, and if we're not shy about voicing it, it will find its own shape. In stumbling to do so, we'll notice some remarkable things. Reverence for the forces beyond ourselves, normally projected onto a deity, is no less deep for finding its actual sources, and our bond with each other need not be weakened by being expressed without reference to a supreme being. Celebrating in this way does something new for us. - Ronald Aronson, "Living Without God"

It should be possible to remain a committed atheist and nevertheless find occasions such as Christmas useful, interesting and consoling – and be curious as to the possibilities of importing certain religious ideas into the secular realm. The real issue is not whether God exists, but where one takes the argument to once one decides he evidently doesn't. We invented religions to serve two central needs which continue to this day: the need to live together in communities in harmony, despite our deeply rooted selfish and violent impulses; and the need to cope with terrifying degrees of pain which arise from our vulnerability to failure, to troubled relationships, to the death of loved ones and to our decay and demise. God may be dead, but the urgent issues that impelled us to make him up still stir and demand resolutions which do not go away. … The secular world often sees in rituals such as communal singing or eating a loss of diversity, quality and spontaneity. Religion seems bossy. But at its finest this ritual-based bossiness enables fragile but important aspects of life to be identified and shared. Those of us who hold no religious or supernatural beliefs still require regular, ritualized encounters with concepts such as friendship, community, gratitude and transcendence. We need institutions that can mine, harvest and mold precious ideas for us, remind us that we need them and present them to us in beautiful wrappings – thus ensuring the nourishment of the most forgetful sides of ourselves. The wisdom of the faiths belongs to all of mankind, even the most rational among us, and, throughout the liturgical year, deserves to be selectively reabsorbed. Religions are intermittently too useful, effective and intelligent to be abandoned to the religious alone. - Alain de Botton


Thanks Gleb for the insightful post about the the discussion about celebrations as a non-theist.

Thank you for letting us know what's going on in this fascinating discussion group. People have valuable experiences and strategies for living well as Humanists to share. It's great that you're offering time for problem solving, community building discussions.