“For the most part, we who live at the end of the twentieth century no longer celebrate these ancient festivals. Or, if we do, we observe them in unrecognizable forms…these are often highly commercialized affairs. Gone is the sense of participation in the cyclic interaction of the Earth and the heavens. Now we seem to be interested only in our human business. We rarely look up at the night sky, and we tend to observe a sunrise or sunset with only casual interest.” -Richard Heinberg, Celebrate the Solstice, p. 6
I am an atheist. Yet I am acutely aware of certain things that organized religion has, at times, done well: creating community for its adherents, fostering enduring traditions, and even encouraging good works. I’ll assume that the harm caused by religion need not be addressed or cataloged.
That said, I find myself without much in the way of tradition and the holidays I have thus far tended to celebrate have not necessarily been very meaningful; they do not necessarily reflect my values, or focus my attention on what matters to me. They have been enjoyable in that they often afford time with family, a break from work, and, of course, delicious food but there is an arbitrariness about them that detracts from their significance.
An atheist on Christmas, a vegan (or really anyone who opposes genocide) on Thanksgiving, and an anarchist on the Fourth of July must all feel at least somewhat out of place.
This is why for the first time I will be genuinely celebrating the Winter Solstice and staking claim to a holiday that resonates with me. I am not so much observing a holiday as I am asserting a holiday. I am, of course, not creating this holiday as it has been celebrated since ancient times in a multitude of creative ways.
The Winter Solstice represents the point in the year when days start getting longer rather than shorter; the point when the presence of the sun stops shrinking and begins asserting itself again. This is worth celebrating. To celebrate the Solstice is to acknowledge that the change in season matters in ways that go beyond fashion and to acknowledge that our days are not simply a series of 24 hour intervals that can be carved up in whatever manner we (or more often others) wish to carve them. Our days are not interchangeable parts.
In Celebrate the Solstice, Richard Heinberg explains: “We have gradually but decisively cut ourselves off from many of the cycles of the cosmos and of the biosphere and substituted arbitrary, economically determined temporal patterns. We have overridden the natural daily rhythms of light and dark with the artificial illumination of cities; the rhythm of the seasons with greenhouses and supermarkets, jet travel and central heating.” (p. 22).
When we make it through the longest night of the year to find the sun shining in the morning, our faith in what the Earth may provide us with is confirmed.
Dougald Hine of the Dark Mountain Project has said of the Solstice that: “Much of winter’s harshness and hunger may lie ahead, but we know that the world is headed towards comfort and fruitfulness again.”
If we are to remake our culture in such a way so that it respects the “more-than-human-world” (to borrow David Abram’s rich phrase) and embodies the values that we hope to see flourish then we must set about the work (or is it play?) of creating and perhaps, more often than not, re-discovering the holidays, festivals, traditions, and dare I say ritual, that matters to us. As an atheist one might suspect that I have no need for such things (“childish things”?) and yet I am growing to see them as increasingly important.
For people such as me who are used to going through the motions of prefab holidays, the business of rewriting the calendar should be both challenging and exciting. It is a creative endeavor without formulaic answers.
For the Solstice this year, I plan to stay up through the night spending time with someone I love as together we wait to greet the sun and feel cold night air give way to the warmth of sunrise. To acknowledge our kinship with our fellow animals who are also currently experiencing long cold nights, we will leave offerings of food for them to find. We may stay warm with a fire and read words that focus our attention on the significance of the time and place we are in.
This is not activism in any conventional sense. It is instead part of the process of falling in love with Earth and the many beings who, along with ourselves, comprise Earth.