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photo by Lin Zhang Jones

Winter Celebrations in a Secular Family
by Jane Wynne Willson
Contributing author, Parenting Beyond Belief

“Do you celebrate Christmas?”

I’ve been asked this question many times and was asked it again just this week, when speaking to a group of seventeen-year-old students at a local girls’ school in Birmingham, England. Although I am used to the question, it still makes my hackles rise, implying as it often does that humanists who celebrate Christmas are hypocrites.

I pointed out to them that more or less all the ways we celebrate ‘the festive season’ predate Christianity by hundreds of years. In fact, rather than humanists stealing a Christian festival, the exact reverse is nearer the truth. For Christians to accuse us of hypocrisy is the height of impertinence.

From the plum pudding to the evergreen tree, from the turkey (or, earlier, the goose) to the pantomime, it is hard to think of a “Christmas” custom that does not find its roots in paganism. Just as re-birth has been celebrated in Spring since time immemorial, so a celebration in the depths of Winter, at the time of the shortest day when the sun appears to stand still in the sky, is a natural instinct. It is a desire shared by those of different religious faiths and none. Christmas, like Easter, has quite simply been hijacked by the Christian church.

Scene from “How the Chrinch Stole Mithrasmas”

Even more interesting to me than these ancient symbolic customs, which are still practised usually quite unwittingly today, are the so-called “Nativity” stories that reappear in mythology all over the world. The Virgin Birth, the Star of Bethlehem, the Three Kings, the Stable, the Shepherds and the Massacre of the Innocents, are by no means unique to the Christian version of the story. Much scholarly work has been done on these traditions and, in many instances, the similarities are remarkable.

So we humanists must certainly not apologize for sharing in the winter celebration widely known as Christmas. We can exchange gifts and secular cards, enjoy good food and wine and, if we are lucky enough (like I am) to have family and friends whose company we enjoy, then we can have a happy few days together.

If Christians have a dig at us or, even worse, if they blame us for “taking the Christ out of Christmas,” as they do—well, we do our best! We tend to refer to “the festive season” and prefer “Season’s Greetings” in the cards that we send. It would be an uphill struggle to seek to change the well-established name of the festival. Although one possibility, living as I said in Birmingham which is known affectionately as ‘Brum’, would be to initiate a campaign to substitute the name ‘Brumalia’. This was what the Romans called the Winter Solstice.

brum lamp

One extraordinarily irritating reaction to humanists who celebrate the festive season in a secular way is to blame us for the materialism that has crept into much of what goes on in the Western world in December. The buying of wildly expensive presents, which can often be ill-afforded, most humanists would see as a dreadful development. Some people seem to imagine that the bigger the present, the greater the love you are showing the recipient, usually your child. How sad! The real culprits in this must surely be the advertising industry and other commercial forces. Secularism and the decline in religious belief should not be blamed, and we need to argue this case.

A Winter Festival is a time for mutual tolerance and a “live and let live” attitude to others. People will celebrate in their own way and according to their own beliefs, or, in the case of children, according to the life stance into which they happen to have been born and are being raised. From their early years at school, children from humanist families will be familiar with the other religious festivals that fellow pupils celebrate, such as Diwali, Eid and Hanukkah, as well as Christmas. Joining in each other’s festivities, and learning to understand each other’s traditions and beliefs, is important, particularly in a multi-cultural, multi-faith society.

So, fellow humanists, Happy Winter Solstice! Happy Brumalia! and Happy Winter Festival!


jwwA lifelong agnostic, JANE WYNNE WILLSON became involved in the Humanist movement in the UK when her oldest child met religion head-on at a state primary school. Since then she has been active at local, national and international levels, serving as president of the London-based International Humanist and Ethical Union and Vice-President of the British Humanist Association. In addition to authoring Parenting Without God, New Arrivals, Sharing the Future, and Funerals Without God, she contributed the essay “Humanist Ceremonies” to Parenting Beyond Belief. A retired Special Needs teacher with four children and ten grandchildren, Jane has a deep interest in bringing up children happily with a strong basis for morality but no religion.

For information on secular celebrations, visit Secular Seasons.

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Dale McGowan is the author of Parenting Beyond Belief, Raising Freethinkers, and Atheism for Dummies. He holds a BA in evolutionary anthropology and a PhD in music.