On festivals and marking the passing of time.
We need to find new, non-religious ways of marking the seasons and the passage of time in general – including rites of passage into adulthood, dotage etc.
One of the enduring reasons non-religious people give for retaining religion is the cycle of festivals. What would life be like if we had no Christmas, Easter, Ramadan or Passover? How would we mark and celebrate the passing of time, what reasons would we have to gather with our loved ones? For this reason, among others – the familiarity of times spent with loved ones, the pressure of familial and societal tradition – many people who are non-religious in their everyday lives cling to the religious festivals. Christmas, for instance, plays a huge part in the lives of most secular Western families, regardless of their level of religiosity. Not because they want to celebrate the birth of the baby Jesus, but because this is a time when family tradition has it that they get together with people they love.
So what would a religion-free cycle of festivals look like? How would we mark the passing of time and the rhythm of the seasons, and catch up with those we miss? Allow me to propose an obvious alternative: the Solstices and Equinoxes.
I would argue that the solstices and equinoxes represent the most logical, scientifically-based points to mark the annual cycle of the seasons. Indeed, they were the original means of, and reason for, doing so – even before humans knew what caused them. Ancient people noticed that the sun was always in a particular position in the sky – its highest or lowest – on a particular day of the year, and that certain days of the year were of equal length. They used these facts to evolve their calendars, and to thereby plan the planting and harvesting of crops, and get a broad idea of what kind of weather patterns they could expect. And the plans based on these phenomena were – at least initially – entirely rational and based on observed phenomena rather than manufactured superstition. Indeed, so logical and rational were these cardinal points that any new religion that hoped to usurp the ‘primitive’, nature-based religions had to base its festivals near the sostices and equinoxes to be taken seriously. Not actually to coincide with them, because if they did nobody would turn up, but near enough so that people would both see the relevance of the new festivals and still be in the party mood (or warming up to it) when the usurping festivals arrived. So we have (to take a couple of common examples) Christmas and Hanukkah near the Winter Solstice, Easter and Pesach near the Spring Equinox, and so on.
Friends, it’s time to retake these festivals in the name of rationalism. Let us celebrate the passage of time by marking the natural events that by their very nature, independently of any imposed supernatural meaning, delineate its passing. Let us declare these times as occasions to gather together with our friends and loved ones, not in the name of some ancient superstition, but to celebrate the passing of another good year, to consider where we’ve been and where we’re going, and to generally have a high old time. Let’s take a look at them:
The real New Year* – the bottom of the curve. The point where we can celebrate the fact that the days will get longer, and we’re heading for the renewal of spring and the balmy, heady days of summer. When we (at least, those of us in temperate climes) can sit (or dance) round a log fire with a hearty meal and a warming glass of our favourite drink and look forward to lighter nights and warmer days as we work our way towards spring and midsummer.
The start of the growing season – when the buds begin to burst and the sap (both literal and metaphorical) rises to fuel the joyous exuberance of mating and the beginning of new ventures. Summer, here we come!
The high point of the year! A time to celebrate the longest day with all-night parties and gatherings in beautiful places. Beaches, hilltops and riversides, garden parties, barbecues and masked balls. Let your hair down and take advantage of the long day(s) to do things you can only do in the summer, looking forward to the mellowing of the season towards the bounties of autumn.
Harvest time. A time to mellow down and think on what we’ve achieved over the year so far, and prepare for the closing-in of Winter. And for the cycle of festivals to begin again…
* A note on polarity: I realise that the seasonal terminology could be construed as being biased towards the Northern hemisphere – the Summer Solstice at Avebury, for instance, is technically the Winter Solstice at Uluru, and vice versa – but a little thought will reveal that it’s not. There’s no reason why New Zealanders and South Africans can’t celebrate their Winter Solstice/New Year when Finns, Russians and Brits celebrate midsummer. After all, the Chinese and Indians (to name two cultures) celebrate their new years at different times from the northern/western one. And if we all adopted the rational, solstice/equinox model for marking the annual cycle, at least we’d be partying at the same time, even if for different reasons…