I grew up in a secular home, but Christmas was still a big deal. My brothers and I looked forward to December 25th mainly for one reason: the loot, the goodies, the presents wrapped in ribbons and bows. Primed by TV, lusting for the coolest toy, I was sure to let Santa know what I wanted.
Like Ralphie from A Christmas Story, I dropped hints about how cool it would be to get the Johnny 7, a plastic gun offering seven ways to attack your target: rifle, machine gun, pistol insert, grenade launcher, anti-tank rocket, anti-bunker missile, and bayonet.
I was not, as you might guess, an Ethical Humanist as a child.
Today, as an Ethical Humanist Clergy Leader at the Philadelphia Ethical Society, I serve communities of non-theists who want to celebrate the holiday season, but desire neither the religious traditions of the past nor the shallow American materialism. The founder of Ethical Culture, Felix Adler, also rejected conspicuous consumption. In 1876, he criticized the “chase of pleasure,” the “bazaars of fashion,” and the craven consumerism that seems so American.
I can only imagine what Adler would think of our contemporary holiday month of shopping on steroids. How many people are injured in the American equivalent of Spain’s running of the bulls, Black Friday, with hordes of holiday shoppers camping out to be the first to sprint from mall entrance to the cash register?
Today’s humanists, while as attached to material comforts as many, want something more out of this time of the year. Some, like Ethical Culture Leader Susan Rose, promote Buy Nothing Day, which occurs on the same day as Black Friday. Or you can participate in the Credit Card Cut Up, where folks gather in malls, scissors in hand, and cut up their plastic debt producers to encourage others to stay out of crippling debt.
But if you’re like me and still feel attached to the gift-giving tradition, consider alternatives that take into account social justice, a core commitment of Ethical Culture. Attend “alternative gift fairs” where you can buy for friends and family a month’s supply of formula for an orphaned infant in Africa, an acupuncture session for a wounded soldier, or a day of meals for a homebound senior. Or simply donate in the name of your loved ones to micro-lending programs such as Kiva.
If you have children, one way to teach them the spirit of ethical giving is encourage them to make gifts for others. This is a tradition at Winter Festivals at American Ethical Union-member Ethical Societies in cities like Philadelphia and New York, where kids make candle centerpieces, ornaments, or other holiday gifts. Some Ethical Societies have a tradition of buying presents for local families in need, such as hats and mittens which decorate a “giving tree.”
The importance of a caring community is why humanists, like many traditional faiths, celebrate in gatherings during the Winter Solstice. At the Philadelphia Ethical Society we celebrate the solstice on the third Sunday morning in December. We begin our program in darkness and then members light candles all around the room symbolic of how we all “bring back the light” by working together to make a better world. We share music and readings to help us make it through the long, dark cold winter in community and gratitude, as we look for the return of sun and the rebirth of spring.
We also invite our friends from the Freethought Society to set up a 9-foot tree in our lobby which we decorate with laminated copies of our favorite books. This “Tree of Knowledge” reminds us of the importance of knowledge, culture, and the scientific quest. Our Ethical Society Sunday School kids decorated their own tree with their favorite books too – a good ethical lesson for children.
I didn’t have such lessons as a kid, and I did get that Johnny 7. That Christmas day in my childhood was full of “playing war” with my neighborhood friends. Fortunately, I grew up to prefer less belligerent and more relational types of gifts.
For humanists, there is little more important than being with, and caring for, each other. In the dark times of winter, humanists inspire each other to take responsibility for our world, to be our brothers and sisters keeper, and to honor and protect the planet which we call home. While we are not so ascetic to turn down a gift or two, caring for one another may be the most meaningful gift of all.