About Rationally Speaking
Rationally Speaking is a blog maintained by Prof. Massimo Pigliucci, a philosopher at the City University of New York. The blog reflects the Enlightenment figure Marquis de Condorcet's idea of what a public intellectual (yes, we know, that's such a bad word) ought to be: someone who devotes himself to "the tracking down of prejudices in the hiding places where priests, the schools, the government, and all long-established institutions had gathered and protected them." You're welcome. Please notice that the contents of this blog can be reprinted under the standard Creative Commons license.
Friday, December 15, 2006
Here we go again, it's grumpy atheist time!
Take, for example, an interview conducted this week by Time Out New York, a major weekly that deals with the thousands of happenings in the Big Apple. They asked a Buddhist, a Muslin, two Jews (why not just one?), a theistic satanist (whatever the Hell that is), and an atheist. The latter, the president of one of several NYC atheist groups, replied: “We don't celebrate Christmas: it's a foolish holiday. We don't get into gift giving because we don't recognize Christian Christmas. ... We don't have an official event, but we have a nice dinner [on the 21st].” What an insufferable load of unnecessary – and even downright wrong – complaining!
First, “it's a foolish holiday.” Maybe it's because I'm Italian, but I don't think any holiday is foolish. Holidays (or whatever you want to call them) are times for rest and relaxation, to be spent with friends or family. What can possibly be foolish about that?
Second, “no gifts because the Christians do it.” So, if the Christians start eating tiramisu as a ritual I'm supposed to give it up in spite? And who, exactly, would the loser be here? Besides, the gift-giving tradition goes back at least to the pre-Christian Roman festival of Saturnalia (in honor of the god Saturn), so it is simply historically incorrect to associate the two. Incidentally, the Romans also used evergreen trees to honor Saturn, because these plants survive the winter and were therefore a symbol of endurance. So even the “Christmas” tree ain't Christian at all (the German tradition is younger than the Roman, dating only to Reformation times).
Third, “no official event, just dinner.” Boring, and unnecessarily cantankerous. This is my first Winter Solstice in the big city, and I have tried (unsuccessfully) to locate a secular event to go to, just to be with like-minded people. What's the matter with you guys? In the end, my partner and I decided to go to a holiday-appropriate, if a bit mischievious, play entitled The Reindeer Monologues, where Santa's work animals candidly expose the corruption, drinking and sexual abuse that goes on at the North Pole. Funny, no?
Lastly, celebrating the Winter Solstice is in fact perfectly appropriate (it's the beginning of Winter, but also the moment after which days become longer, anticipating the spring renewal), and would remind Christians what the real “reason for the season” actually is: the “pagan” celebration was so entrenched in tradition that the new religion arbitrarily decided that their savior was born on the 25th of December. In reality, that date was the culmination of the Roman celebration of Sol Invictus (the Unconquered Sun), which started on the Solstice. The 25th was referred to by the Romans as Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (the day of the birth of the unconquered sun), and “Natale” is still Italian for Christmas. Apparently, the festival of the 25th was created by the emperor Aurelian around 274, because the sun-god was associated with the gens Aurelia, his family. And by the way, you know that funny thing the Christians call a halo? Just look at Roman coins or shields representing Sol Invictus, and you'll see where that one came from too (Jesus was referred to as the Sun of Justice beginning in the third century). Oh, and you know how modern Christians celebrate Sunday as the day even God rests (as opposed to the Jewish Sabbath)? Well, that goes back to the emperor Constantine, who established the weekly break in honor of, you guessed it, the Sun-god!
So, atheists should embrace the celebration of Winter Solstice because it teaches history to the Christians, because it marks an important astronomical event that effects our lives every time we complete a free roundtrip around the sun, and because it's fun to eat, drink and exchange gifts with people you love.