A Humanist Year’s major festivals occur four times throughout the year, at the solstices and the equinoxes. These are times for celebration. They are times when we laugh and sing and come together with others to revel in the turning of the year. They are also often transitional times between the liturgical seasons, times when we separate from the previous season’s concerns and refocus our attention on new topics and new ways of thinking and interacting with the world.
THE WINTER FESTIVAL
This past season, we have been investigating where we come from and how that makes us who we are today. Now we turn from of looking backward to looking forward – from what we were and are to what we want to be. Perhaps the most important holiday in A Humanist Year, the Winter Festival is a major transition point. After that longest night, the Winter Solstice, the days start to lengthen and light and life come slowly back into the world. This reminds us that, even in our darkest hours, there is hope for the future. The celebration of the New Year calls us to make that future a reality, to change ourselves and our world for the better. As the year itself is renewed, so can we be renewed. Throughout the Winter Festival, we will engage in activities which, symbolically and literally, mark the ending of the old, the beginning of the new, and which celebrate our hope of good things to come.
TRADITIONAL OBSERVANCES OF WINTER HOLIDAYS
During the Winter Festival, we encourage you to do things because they connect you to important people in your life or to fond memories of your past or simply because they are beautiful. Many of these things will probably be the traditions which have already grown up around winter holidays. Some of these traditions are religious in nature, some of them are not (or have become so secularized that it hardly makes a difference). During these two weeks, let yourself enjoy traditional things. If you want to sing Christmas carols and exchange gifts with friends and family, then by all means do so. Being a Humanist should be about love, not anger. Celebrating holidays in a Humanist way should be about joy and connection, not resentment and division.
At the same time, there is value in adapting or reinterpreting many of these traditions so that they speak to Humanist values. It is worthwhile to think about what people get out of these traditions and to separate what is good in them from what is unnecessary or even harmful. There are many secular mid-winter songs which are also fun to sing together with friends and family. Gift giving connects us as people and can be a way to cement friendships you want to grow into next year (not to mention, it is fun and gives us something to look forward to in these cold, dark times). Giving gifts to families in need can also be a wonderfully Humanist way to make some people very happy. Whatever you do, think about the reasons behind what you do this holiday season and about how those activities might help you celebrate the Winter Festival.
● Make gingerbread houses.
● Sing traditional songs like “Auld Lang Syne.”
● Set off fireworks.
● Decorate your home with lights and symbols of life like the evergreen bough (in the depths of winter, when deciduous plants lose their leaves and all seems dead, evergreen plants remind us that life persists). Invite people over, fill your home with laughter and good cheer.
OTHER SECULAR WINTER HOLIDAYS
There has been much thought in recent years about how to observe this time of year in a Humanist way. We encourage you to check out these other projects which also seek to create a Humanist winter holiday: HumanLight, Raymond Arnold’s Secular Solstice, and even the comedic Festivus.
TRANSITIONS FROM THE OLD YEAR TO THE NEW ONE
The Winter Festival is an opportunity to close the current chapter of your life and to begin a new one. It is an opportunity to leave behind those habits, negative influences, and worries that are dragging you down and to fill your life with the habits, positive influences, and hopes that make for a good life. During these two weeks, we encourage you to finish up old business and to start new projects (or recommit to good ones). We also encourage you to engage with secular rituals designed to help you free your mind from the grip of things you want to leave behind and to fully commit yourself to your new way of life.
Rituals are activities which help you feel or think in a desired way through the use of symbols and other similar things. And in fact they can be very useful tools, if you work with them. Don’t worry, there is no magical thinking here – only psychological thinking. Rituals work in a non-rational way, by engaging with your emotions and by making metaphorical connections between sometimes disparate things. But non-rational is not the same as irrational, and these rituals do nothing contrary to reason. They simply acknowledge that human beings are more than mere logic machines and that we need to cultivate ourselves in broader, more holistic ways.
As you approach New Year’s Eve:
● Bring the promise of spring into your home. Have an indoor picnic complete with picnic foods and a picnic blanket on the floor. Place flowers around to evoke a spring feel.
● Do some end-of-year cleaning. Get rid of things which you don’t need or which tie you to habits you’re trying to break. Donate these items from your old life to charity if appropriate. Also, clean your clothes, house, etc. to increase the feeling of getting a fresh start in the new year.
● Say the things you need to say to your family, friends, and co-workers – make amends for old injuries, address current problems, or simply express your love and gratitude.
● Finish up any business you don’t want to take into next year. Do those tasks you’ve been putting off. You’ll feel refreshed, freer, and more ready to tackle the new year once you do.
● Practice a small purging ritual. Take a long shower, wash your hands (or exchange washings with someone else), perhaps fast for a day. Do something which makes you feel clean and new, something which makes you feel empty and ready to be filled with the good things to come.
On New Year’s Eve:
As you transition into the new year, we encourage you to participate in two paired rituals, a purging ritual in which you leave behind negative things and a commitment ritual in which you internalize your resolutions. To truly start afresh, we feel that both elements are important.
● First, before midnight, write down on a scrap of paper some things you would like to leave behind in the old year. These can be bad habits you want to break, irrational fears you want to be free of, people you want to dissociate from, problems in the world which you want to help eradicate, etc. Then destroy those leavings, imagining as you do that the paper embodies the concerns written on it. Let yourself feel the weight of those burdens lift as their symbolic representation is destroyed. Our preferred method of destruction is with fire. As the days begin to lengthen at this time of year, light can be a powerful secular symbol of renewal, and nothing is more cathartic than watching your troubles burn away to nothing. Make sure to have some water nearby for safety.
● Second, after the stroke of midnight, write down your resolutions on another scrap of paper (see below for tips on how to write good ones). Then psychologically internalize those resolutions by literally internalizing their symbolic representations. There are a number of ways in which you can do this. You might brew a pot of tea or coffee and put all of the papers into the pot to be drunk. If you smoke (and assuming your resolution isn’t to quit), you could write your resolutions on a rolling paper to be smoked. You might burn your resolutions along with incense or simply put them into a cup of very hot water and breathe the steam. However you do it, imagine as you do that your resolutions are becoming a part of you. They are no longer external, easy-to-ignore things written on a piece of paper somewhere. Rather, they are part of your body, inseparable from who you are as of that moment.
● Optionally, if you are doing this with other people and have an old-fashioned two-pan scale, you can watch the good outweigh the bad in the new year. First, put all of the leavings on one side so that the scale tips in the negative direction. Then put all of the resolutions on the other side so that the scale is balanced. Finally, destroy the leavings one-by-one, tipping the scale towards the positive commitments.
At the beginning of the new year:
● Make a big deal out of visiting people and doing other things for the first time. Putting that emphasis on things can help you make a fresh start.
● Set up a “Good Things Jar.” When something good happens throughout the year, write it down and put it into the jar. Next year you can read them out and celebrate the great year you’ve just had.
As the year itself is renewed, so can we be renewed. We can leave old habits and frustrations behind. We can be happier, more successful, more compassionate. It will not be easy, but we can. That possibility sits, just beyond the turning of the clock, waiting for us to reach out and embrace it. And it starts with making the most of this opportunity to reflect, to hope, and to plan. The dawning of the new year invites us to consciously shape our future. What changes do you want to make in your life? What would you like to accomplish? In the end, the question is: Who do you want to be this coming year?
● What makes for a good resolution? Dr. John Norcross, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Scranton, discusses good resolutions in this NPR interview. Also check out this short article on the subject from the American Psychological Association. Finally, consider making your resolutions S.M.A.R.T.
● Declare your resolutions before your community (or even just one friend). As the Norcross interview and the APA article both point out, sharing your resolutions with others who can provide support makes keeping them easier.
● Write your resolutions down in a letter to your future self. Swap letters with someone and then mail them to each other in six months. It will be a great reminder.
● Use a commitment device to help you keep your resolutions: Beeminder, stickK, 21habit, and Pact are four good websites to get you started. For an interesting and thought-provoking take on commitment devices in general, check out the Freakonomics podcast on them.
If you are in the Boston area and would like to attend our AHY New Year’s Eve party, send us an email.
Have other ideas for how to observe the Winter Festival? Comment below!