Celebrating Holidays

I have a rather unique perspective on holidays.  Many of my family members are or were JW’s, but I was not.  My sister and I followed the path of my Protestant mother rather than “the Truth” espoused by my dad’s side of the family.  I was quite familiar with why Witnesses don’t celebrate holidays, as I had been given a number of Watchtower articles on the subject to read.  Some of my younger cousins (whom I barely knew and who acted afraid of me… they probably were) would occasionally slip up and talk about “bad cakes” in references to photos of birthday parties that could be found at our home.  My JW family were (and are) pretty loose about associating with us worldly family members though it does seem as though they discouraged the youngest members from doing so.

Anyway, I’ve always celebrated holidays quite gladly.  I still do.  I’m sure that doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone reading, JW or not.  However I have the additional perspective of celebrating them now as an atheist.  So I’m familiar with three different perspectives, as well as even some of other friends of mine who don’t care for certain holidays.

In this article I’m simply going to state my feelings about holidays, both past and present and why I still thoroughly enjoy them, but for very different reasons.  I’m going to approach them one holiday or holiday category at a time.

Bank Holidays

Also known as federal or government holidays, we call them bank holidays because banks are almost always closed on these days.  They usually occur on Mondays so as to create a nice three day weekend.  Among these are Memorial Day, Veterans Day, Labor Day, President’s Day, Martin Luther King Day and Columbus Day.  Christmas and Thanksgiving are federal holidays too, but we’ll talk about them separately.

Each of these days has its own history.  The point of most of them is to set aside a day to remember some important individual or individuals, such as those who died in military service (Memorial), those who are veterans of military service, civil rights leader Martin Luther King and “discoverer of America” Christopher Columbus.

I personally know individuals who served in the military, including my grandfather who served in the Philippines in World War II.  I’ve heard the stories.  War is among the most terrible atrocities committed by man.  I detest it and think that it is shameful that some feel it is necessary.  However, this is a situation where the one bad apple is spoiling the rest.  We are still a young species and probably have a fair number of generations before war will no longer be necessary.  But the peaceful people of the world live among wolves.  And sadly, we must occasionally protect the peaceful people from the wolves.  War is evil and I hate it, yet it seems that until we grow up as a species, it is a necessary evil.

I’m quite thankful for the men and women who have fought the wolves in the past, especially for those who made the ultimate sacrifice.  They gave their lives and they will not get them back.  As an atheist I see this as the ultimate form of altruism.  These men will not be resurrected three days later.  They are gone.  The least I can do is take some time once per year to give my respect for them.  They were willing to deal with the worst kind of bullshit humanity has conceived.

I don’t exactly get warm and fuzzies about Columbus Day, however.  Columbus was kind of a jerk and he didn’t really discover America.  He’s just the first European to have done it.

In all of these cases, it’s a nice Monday off.  On some of them I do take time to remember those for whom the holiday is dedicated.  Sometimes I see posts on social media that will show a photo of a woman and child at the gravesite of a fallen warrior and state “Just in case you thought Memorial Day was all about barbecue”.  I get the sentiment here, and I truly doubt very many people really think that’s all it’s about.  I also think that if you were to ask any of these fallen soldiers how they would like us to spend the holiday, I have a feeling many of them would suggest spending it with friends and loved ones, perhaps, I don’t know… at a barbecue.  It’s what I would want.

Mothers/Fathers Day

First, the admonition: “We shouldn’t need a holiday to show our mother/father that we love them.  You should do that EVERY day!”

Well, duh.  If you only show your mother you love her one day per year, you suck, plain and simple.  I would hope that the majority of people who take part in these two holidays also know how to show it for the rest of the year.  I certainly do my best to.

So why bother then?  If you already show the mothers and fathers in your life love and respect for the rest of the year, what’s the point in a holiday?  I would argue that something great happens when we all collectively acknowledge our feelings at the same time.  It leads us to think about our mothers and fathers, daughters and sons, grandparents, friends and neighbors, wives and husbands in their parental roles.

For example, I have a lovely neighbor named Jane.  She and her husband are great neighbors, great to talk to, trustworthy and the kind of people you want to live near.  We say hello to each other all the time, we watch each other’s homes while the others are away (or even when we’re not), we borrow tools, we share the responsibility of mowing the grass between our yards, share extra desserts, have a beer or two together and many other ways of being neighbors and friends.  But on Mother’s Day, it encourages me to see Jane as the mother she is.  I’ve met her daughter, who is an outstanding, intelligent young woman.  On that day, I see Jane as a mother and make sure to acknowledge that to her.

And so it is for many of the others in my life who are mothers and fathers, even if they aren’t biologically so.  When almost an entire nation shares the same sentiment, something powerful happens.  I like to think that Mother’s Day and Father’s Day help keep us mindful of our parents and caretakers and increase the likelihood that we *do* continue to show that love and respect for the rest of the year.

Valentine’s Day

It’s a Hallmark Holiday.  It’s “Singles Awareness Day”.  It’s “Wait Two Hours to Eat Steak and Shrimp Day”.  It’s “Obligation to Buy a Gift for the Lady Day”.  It’s another “Why Should We Wait Until This Day to Show Love Day”.

It’s also whatever you make of it.

I was single once.  In fact I was single for 21 straight years.  I’ve seen many Valentine’s Days without having a “special someone” to celebrate it with.  Does it raise your awareness that you’re single?  Yeah, I’d say it does.  I’m sure that for some people who are really lonely or having a hard time finding that person, it really sucks.  I feel for you, I really do.  I remember having a couple Valentine’s Days when I was frustrated more than anything.  But at the same time, it made me think of all the things I would do once I did have that special someone.  It fostered my own imagination of how to creatively show someone I cared.

However, I refuse to take part in the consumer aspect of the holiday.  My wife and I do not go all-out with expensive flowers, $7 Hallmark cards that get thrown away, waiting in long lines at restaurants or even jewelry.  We make it a more personal holiday.  We use it as an opportunity to be “dating” again.  We write love notes, poems and memories.  We make each other construction paper cards and flowers.  We DO go out to eat sometimes, but never on the 14th.  It’s always a day early or a day late if we go out.  But more often than not, I like to put my cooking skills to use and make my wife an awesome dinner.  So we put more thought and creativity into our Valentine’s Day, and that’s a lot of fun.

Does that mean we don’t do that on any other day of the year?  Heck no, we’re still very much in love and we show it constantly, even after 11 years (as of this writing).

Sweetest Day, on the other hand, we do not acknowledge.  That one truly comes across as a contrived day meant to garner a little more profit for the greeting card industry.

There is one more holiday worth mentioning, but I’ll leave it up to the readers to explore it.  While Valentine’s Day is usually about the ladies, March 14th is a corresponding day for guys.  Look it up, you’ll see what I mean.

Independence Day

The story of the birth of our nation is a complicated one.  While in some ways it demonstrated the courage and strength of the people of the American colonies, in other ways it was the beginning of some of America’s most shameful acts, in particular, the genocide and oppression of the Native Americans.

I’m not a fiercely patriotic person.  I like the US and much of what the American ideal represents.  Overall, it is a pretty good place to live.  Yet there are some aspects of my country that I feel are symptoms of some significant social problems.  It’s not always a good place to live if you’re black, gay, transexual, Muslim or atheist.  We have significant spending and consumption problems.  We have problems with pride and ego, both individually and as a nation.

Yet despite all of that, I feel America has potential.  I think we could learn a thing or two from other countries, if we can ever collectively gain enough humility to consider that maybe we aren’t the best at everything.  It will take a major cultural shift and the death of a few generations of people, but I think we can get to a much better place.

Independence Day doesn’t give me warm and fuzzies either.  I like it mostly as a day off with family and friends.  Sometimes it’s difficult to arrange that, so I’m all for taking advantage of it any time we get.

Halloween

Ahh, now we get to one of my favorites. But first let’s talk about what it really is.

Regardless of what the origins of All Hallows Eve, Halloween today (and for decades) has simply been a celebration of Fall, classic horror movie tropes and iconography and a reason to dress up as some other character.  Of course for many it’s also about a neighborhood social event where the kids who dress up go trick-or-treating.

I think it’s hard to overstate how important classic horror films are to Halloween.  When you think about it, the typical Halloween decoration evokes scenes from Universal Monster films from the 1930’s like Dracula, The Mummy, Frankenstein and the Wolfman.

Bats, spiders, green-skinned witches that look like they’ve flown into the side of the house, scarecrows, jack-o-lanterns and of course Fall colors, cornstalks and leaves.

Devils, demons, evil spirits, actual witches, necromancers… The great thing about celebrating Halloween as a non-religious person (and even for many religious people too) is that you can have fun with these sorts of themes because none of these things actually exist.  They go from being something to be genuinely afraid of to a simple fictional world not much different from The Lord of the Rings.

Thanksgiving

Here is another one of my favorites.  It also happens to fall into the same category with Valentine’s and Mother’s/Father’s Day:  “shouldn’t you be thankful every day”.

Of course.  Gratitude and appreciation for what one has is one of the keys to living a happy, tranquil life.  Stoics and other philosophers figured this out long ago.  Having a persistent feeling of gratitude is enormously beneficial, so saving it all for one day is probably a bad idea.  Here’s the weirdest part about Thanksgiving for me: the way I celebrate it, it’s not all that much about giving thanks for what I have.  As one who lives somewhat of a Stoic lifestyle, this is something I do on a regular basis, almost every day of my life.  So why is Thanksgiving such a favorite of mine?

Three things that I love are cooking, sharing a nice meal with others and spending time with friends and family.  Thanksgiving gives the opportunity to combine all three of these into one marvelous day.  It would seem that most Americans struggle to find the time for family gatherings like this due to work schedules and other obligations.  For some, a day off is something hard to come by.  But these holidays often provide an opportunity that happens rarely: for a large part of the family to gather under one roof, share a good meal, good conversations, family memories and share in traditions.

Easter

Here’s the odd one out for me.  Easter is now more or less meaningless to me.  It is easily the most Christian holiday of them all, and aside from Easter baskets and maybe an Easter dinner, there’s not a lot going on that isn’t heavily Christian.  Sunday dresses for church, Easter sunrise services, Maundy Thursday services, Good Friday services… all very Christian.

I don’t believe the events of Easter happened.  Since this is the majority of the meaning and reason for celebrating Easter, I simply don’t have much to do with it.  We make my daughter a fun little Easter basket with some candy and goodies, and we’ll join family for dinner but that’s about it.  The dinner with family is the best part.

Christmas

And here we have the Big One.  The mother of all American holidays.  The holiday that lasts several weeks.  Highly commercialized, lots of good (and bad) music, loads of symbols and traditions.

I do have to give credit where credit is due, the JWs have done their homework on the Pagan origins of many of the traditions and symbols of some of our major holidays.  Christmas is probably the best representative of all, with the Yule log, mistletoe, Christmas tree, gift giving, lights displays and many more.  Many of our favorite parts of Christmas are, indeed, Pagan in origin.  I would argue that so is the Passover, Feast of Weeks, Feast of Booths and Yom Kippur, but that’s another topic.

You know how many people who celebrate Christmas know this?  Very few.  Most of the average Protestant or Catholic Christian has no clue where the Christmas tree originated or what it originally symbolized.  They might have a new symbolism involving Jesus Christ that was contrived to retrofit Christmas trees into Christian belief about everlasting life or something.

When I was a Christian I became aware of this due to the diligent efforts of some of my JW relatives.  But it didn’t bother me.  I saw no problem with it.  The way I saw it, I wasn’t honoring any pagan god.  I didn’t believe in any of them.  For me it was just a pretty tree.  Why would God be bothered that I had a decorated tree in my house?  Why should it matter that hundreds of years ago, pagans put up trees for a very different reason?

For that matter, why should the supreme god and creator of the universe care?  As long as I’m not worshiping the pagan god it was originally meant to venerate, why should he care?

One of the reasons I still enjoy Christmas so much is precisely because I know so many of these traditions are pagan in origin.  It’s not much of a Christian holiday, and the best parts of it are secular.  My favorite parts of Christmas are once again, the time spent with friends and family.  I love that we all get more time off work this time of year than any other.  I love that I get to see so many friends, join them at parties, dinners and gatherings.

I also happen to enjoy the decorations.  Lights are pretty at night, and a nicely decorated and lit Christmas tree is among the very best ways to make a home feel cozy and warm during December.  I love the little family traditions that develop, and believe me, our family has a lot of them.  Some of them are really small, like how I use the same coffee cup my grandfather used when I was little.  It’s may little way of remembering him on that day.

“Peace on Earth and good will toward men” is a great sentiment as well (even though it’s based on a Greek spelling error and didn’t originally say that).  But nonetheless, I think Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” has had a far greater influence on the holiday than Christianity ever has.  I love the idea of everyone finding it in their hearts to feel charity and goodwill toward each other.  I do wish this same feeling extended beyond the borders of Christmas.

I certainly don’t like how commercialized it is.  Christmas has gotten way out of hand and people spend ridiculous amounts of money on it.  My family and I have always tried to be simpler and more modest with our gift giving.  We try to find meaningful gifts, especially those that are hand-made.

Closing Thoughts

There’s a common thread in many of my thoughts above: the best part of holidays is the social aspect.  The ability to spend good, fun and relaxed time with family and friends.  Whether it’s a barbecue on Memorial Day, Trick or Treat on Halloween Night, Thanksgiving Dinner or unwrapping gifts on Christmas Day, the best part is the opportunity to connect with family and friends, some of whom are very difficult to see during other times of the year.

I think holidays tap into the social part of our species.  We like joining together for common reasons.  I think this is why religions tend to inspire so many holidays and feast days.  We love to sing songs together, have meals together, and enjoy family or cultural traditions.

I also have a thought as to why JW’s do not celebrate them: while the surface reason is to avoid angering YHWH, I think the true root of it is cultural identity.  It’s the same reason why Jews have the all the dietary rules and circumcision and why Mormons don’t drink coffee or tea and wear special underwear.  It’s more about having that outward symbol of “who we are” than about what a particular deity does or doesn’t want.

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