They Say Merry Christmas–and You Say . . .?

Christmas is a perennial problem for secularists: the tender sensibilities of the Christian majority are grievously offended by neutral phrases like “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings,” yet the same majoritarians seem unmoved by the nonreligious minority’s reciprocal displeasure with the obsessively repeated “Merry Christmas.”

It’s been a long time since this country’s population could be described as monolithically Christian (thanks to the Constitution’s authors, our government never was), so anyone who uses the phrase today is making an unwarranted assumption. And there’s an obvious element of aggression: the speaker presumes that you are Christian or that you ought to be, creating an awkward situation because there’s no socially acceptable way to reject the ostensibly innocuous greeting as inappropriate or undesired.

What would you think of a book called Please Don’t Wish Me a Merry Christmas? I’m not making it up; in 1996, Stephen Feldman, then a law professor at the University of Tulsa, published an extensive history of church-state relations in America with that exact title (NYU Press). One of his principal themes is the difficulty faced by people who don’t celebrate Christmas—how to respond to the uninvited annual barrage of “Merry Christmas” from strangers who don’t know (or care) what your beliefs are.

If you’re on the receiving end of the unwelcome phrase, Feldman’s suggestion is to respond with the title-phrase of his book. But that doesn’t seem like an ideal solution; it’s defensive rather than “proactive,” and it would probably sound grumpy even if you said it with a smile. My approach is very different: resurrect a long-dead festival.

For centuries, starting on December 17 and running for almost a week, the ancient Romans held an event called Saturnalia, dedicated to feasting and drinking (wine was the only classical alcoholic beverage), casual dress and merriment, gift-giving, and, for domestic slaves, one day of “freedom” during which they actually switched places with their owners. The festival, which by the time of Julius Caesar had become more secular than religious in tone, was hundreds of years old when Christians, in the fourth century c.e., settled on December 25 as the birthday of Jesus—the mutually contradictory (and largely fictional) “infancy narratives” in Matthew and Luke have no specific information on the subject. It’s clear that the early Christians “borrowed” some features of the traditional Saturnalia (as they often did with pagan holidays), especially the elements of good cheer and gift exchange.

This virtual genetic linkage seems like an open invitation to create a selective revival of Saturnalia as an alternative to Christmas. Accordingly, in a December 2009 op-ed published in the Austin American-Statesman, I formally declared the inauguration of the New Secular Saturnalia, to be celebrated, in principle, on the Saturday nearest to December 25.*

I further declared that bright blue and gold (with white as background) should be the official colors of the festival, for example in Saturnalia cards, gift-wrapping paper, and especially strings of lights (outdoor use would make a quiet but effective public statement of one’s non-Christmas position). One of the festival’s primary icons should be a golden sunrise, an allusion to the winter solstice (already celebrated by some secular groups but without invoking this larger theme), or, more expansively, a symbol of the dawn of a new Enlightenment. Both colors can be treated as having a variety of suitable references: the gold-standard value of reason, the Golden Rule, the endless bright blue sky of a superstition-free world, and so on. This conveys the secularist stance with a lighter touch than, for example, the recent “Brights” campaign or Professor Feldman’s rather brusque response.

None of these product lines exists right now, but given the growing segment of the populace that describes itself as nonreligious, this seems like a market eagerly waiting to be served. Would supermarket and drugstore chains, and even big-box outlets like Target (but probably not the overtly religious Wal-Mart), really make space in their card and holiday-decoration aisles for explicitly secularist (but not otherwise offensive) items? What is 15 percent of 250 million adults? That gives a rough estimate of the potential customer base, most of which is a completely untapped resource. I would say there is a huge opportunity here for secularists with a strong entrepreneurial streak.

I proposed in the op-ed one more feature that would elevate the modern version above its ancient predecessor. A mere restoration will allow those not enamored of Christmas to hold Saturnalia parties and engage in seasonal gift-giving to family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers with a free and unencumbered conscience. But there should be a larger dimension. In a world where one person in every four lives in (to us) almost unimaginable poverty on $1.25 a day, I suggest that all who participate in this new festival resolve to donate at least $100 each year to some globally oriented charity focused on the basics, be it food, shelter, clean water, health, human rights, or “one laptop per child.” That’s not even a pizza per month.

If even 10 percent of the estimated secular cohort (perhaps 40 million people) embraced the Saturnalian “Pizza-a-Month” campaign, it would generate $400 million—a tiny fraction of what’s needed but a positive gesture entirely consonant with humanist and rationalist ethical principles. And it would let secularists feel even better about using my recommended response, unambiguous but cheerful: when people say “Merry Christmas,” just smile and say “And Happy Saturnalia to you!”

That’s how my op-ed ended, but I’m pleased to report that the Center for Inquiry/Austin held its first annual Saturnalia Party on December 19, 2009; we were able to rent space in the First Unitarian Universalist Church and filled it with almost seventy adults and children. Longtime CFI stalwart Eric Osterholm took the lead in making arrangements, which included decorations and lights (blue and gold, of course), a “white elephant” gift exchange, a substantial quantity of potluck food and drinks (nonalcoholic, somewhat unclassically), and separate activities for kids. We sent e-mail notices to our Austin-area CFI list, as well as members of the Secular Family Network, the Austin Freethinkers, the Austin Philosophy Discussion Group, and the Atheist Community of Austin via both Yahoo! and Meetup, seeking to expand our contacts with like-minded folks in Central Texas.

So I invite one and all to adopt, with local variations as they see fit, this attractive and enjoyable substitute for the unacceptable holiday of Christmas. It would be very satisfying to see this idea sweep across the country, building on the momentum created by the New Atheists to create a viable—and, with its charitable element, meaningful—form of secular celebration.


* The Satur- in Saturday does in fact come from the Latin Saturnus; any dictionary will confirm that all our English-language names for the days of the week come from the ancient Roman system, referring to the Sun, the Moon, and the five then-known planets (named for gods). We use the Germanic equivalents Tiw, Wotan, Thor, and Freya, whereas Latin and the Romance languages have Mars, Mercury, Jupiter (Jove), and Venus. The only Christian elements, some- how rejected in the Germanic tradition, are the Romance-language words for Saturday (Italian sabato, Spanish sábado, French samedi, which all derive from sabatum, “sabbath”), and Sunday (domenica, domingo, and dimanche, from dominicus, “the Lord’s day”). Perhaps we should be glad that no Christian group has come forward to demand that the obviously pagan word Sunday be changed to Godsday.

Christmas is a perennial problem for secularists: the tender sensibilities of the Christian majority are grievously offended by neutral phrases like “Happy Holidays” and “Season’s Greetings,” yet the same majoritarians seem unmoved by the nonreligious minority’s reciprocal displeasure with the obsessively repeated “Merry Christmas.” It’s been a long time since this country’s population could be …

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