The official logo of HumanLight, the secular Humanist holiday dedicated to reason, compassion, and hope. (Source: HumanLight Committee)

December 15, 2013

Happy HumanLight!: The Nonbeliever’s Alternative to Christmas

It’s nearly that time of the year again. Late December rolls around, and friends and family gather to celebrate. There’s food, singing, dancing around the tree, and games! And at the end of the celebration, you all come together to remember the reason for the season; the nonexistence of God and the bleak darkness that comes with death. Happy HumanLight, everyone!

Yes, I’m talking about HumanLight, the new secular alternative to Christmas. I had never heard of HumanLight until I read a piece by a Huffington Post senior religion editor, in which he refers to “the newly minted secular [holiday] HumanLight.” Naturally, I decided to research the holiday for myself. HumanLight, it appears, came about in the early 2000’s when a group of New Jersey Humanists decided that they needed a December holiday that they could celebrate instead of religious holidays such as Christmas and Hanukkah. Since then, the holiday has spread slowly. (So far, the founders are aware of only seven parties planned this year in the entire United States, and one in the UK).

HumanLight takes place on December 23rd, a date that was strategically picked to avoid conflicting with the major December religious holidays. The HumanLight website (because don’t all legitimate holidays have an official website?) notes that “December 23rd is close to the shortest day of the year (Solstice), a natural event of note…” Why not place it on the winter solstice, then? Because, “the Winter Solstice is an event celebrated by, and often associated with, ancient pagan religious traditions. Thus, Humanists celebrating the Solstice may run the risk of being confused with god-worshipping people.”

One might think that by setting up a late December holiday only days before Christmas, the risk of “being confused with god-worshipping people” is present from the get-go. But if that wasn’t enough, many HumanLight celebrations appear to be modeled after traditional Christmas celebrations. Instead of advent candles, HumanLight has a candle-lighting ceremony with candles representing Truth, Reason, and Compassion.  The HumanLight website sells ornaments for a “holiday tree” and “holiday cards.” Instead of Christmas carols, practitioners sing HumanLight hymns, some of which are apparently just reworked Christmas song. Take this tune, overheard by an RNS reporter last December:

“O come, all ye doubters, Joyful and united,

O come ye, O come ye, to share HumanLight.

Come to our potlucks, born of many recipes…”

Not exactly Bing Crosby. There are original compositions the HumanLight website suggests, but even those have an odd, quasi-religious prayerful tone to them:

“HumanLight, O shine so bright

Lead us through these darkest nights

Beyond belief to what is known

HumanLight, O guide us home”

The opinion of most outspoken atheists on religion is perhaps best summarized by the subtitle of Christopher Hitchen’s God is Not Great: “How Religion Poisons Everything.” But despite the constant protestations of how religion is the source of all ignorance, immorality, and paper cuts in the Western world, atheists are increasingly modeling their community after the very religions they reject. HumanLight is only part of that trend. There is a push for atheist military chaplains. There is also the rise of atheist churches in the US (and not just any kind of church, but the dreaded megachurch).

Taken at face value, the constant mimicking of religion doesn’t prove or disprove irreligion by any means. After all, the major religions have spent millennia successfully organizing and tending to its adherents; it makes sense that atheists would take steps to copy them. But at the very least, it strikes at the heart of common attacks on religion. It becomes difficult to mock the rituals and superstition of organized religion when atheists and agnostics across the country light candles in deference to vague philosophical concepts and implore a holiday to lead them through the darkness. It becomes difficult to sell nonbelief as progressive and more forward-thinking than religion, when nonbelievers take active steps to emulate ancient belief systems.

But above all, despite lighting a candle to Reason, HumanLight perfectly encapsulates the lack of reason at the heart of organized irreligion. Not ‘reason’ the way HumanLight’s inventors mean it, but its other definition: the meaning or purpose behind something. Christmas and Hanukkah aren’t just “the Christian/Jewish holiday in December.” They celebrate actual occurrences, and the results of those occurrences: the birth of mankind’s Savior and the miraculous survival of Judaism under foreign oppression. In short, they have reasons for existing, beyond “We want a holiday, too!”

This lack of reason extends even to the HumanLight traditions. Why, for example, does HumanLight include the lighting of a candle to Reason? How does that add to the amount of reason in the world? Surely the ever-logical Humanist would realize that a purely symbolic lighting of a candle is an appeal to emotion, not reason. Any person who acted more reasonable because of a candle would be betraying Reason itself. Likewise, what is the meaning of a “holiday tree”? Long before the first Christmas, evergreens and other trees that did not lose their green in the winter were seen as a symbol of eternal life by Pagans and Hebrews. Christians later adopted the same symbol to represent the eternal life promised by Christ. Tradition has it that Martin Luther himself was the first to cut down and decorate a tree with lights to celebrate Christmas. What great tradition does a “holiday tree” have? What hope for eternal life do Humanists have?

A popular refrain around Christmastime is that Jesus is “the Reason for the Season.” While admirable, the phrase is actually an understatement. A Christian believes that glorifying God is the reason for all seasons, for our entire lives, for the universe itself. Atheists are often faced with the difficult task of explaining why, as one of seven billions of people alive, in a galaxy with four billion stars, in a universe of more than a hundred billion galaxies, their lives possess any meaning. But perhaps the more unenviable task is explaining the reason anyone would ever want to celebrate a hollow, meaningless Christmas knock-off.


  • James Gibson

    I believe the author of “God is Not Great” was the late Christopher Hitchens, not the still breathing and ever obnoxious Richard Dawkins.

    • Alexander Griswold

      You are correct, I will have to fix that. Thanks for the pointer!

  • Marco Bell

    Good article!
    I’m still not sure why it is important to believe that there needs to be anything after this life.
    The dark bleakness that you spoke of… is that a bad thing? Shouldn’t the inevitable end urge all of us to make this life (more) significant?
    Sincerely,
    Marco

  • Hiram

    I agree with you that reason (both in the Platonic and in the semantic sense) is overrated but dismissing Humanlight, I don’t think that’s prudent. One fourth of the US population is no longer a believer, and traditions have to evolve just as Christianity evolved from Pagan traditions, taking them over (the date was set by Christians, ironically, to take over the Mithasmass feast so it’s kinda hypocritical for a Christian to criticize the taking over of Christmas’ date by another group). So this is a evolution.

    Plus: Santa Claus is not Christian, he’s secular. The holiday already is secular.

    Plus: The holiday has become about consumerism. I hope humanists turn Humanlight into a place for anti-consumerist discourse.