Saturday, December 27, 2014

Neil deGrasse Tyson's Controversial Tweet and Xmas History

Neil deGrasse Tyson lit up the Internet and provoked an angry response from some Christians with some controversial tweets poking fun at Christmas. Some pointed out the Pagan origins, the modern-day crass commercialism, and that while it is often touted as expressing universal sentiments, Christmas is in actuality specific only to those of European, Christian heritage.

Responses were quick and caustic. One person called Tyson a "bigotedhack." Others referred to him as "Scrooge" and a "joyless bore." Another said his messages were "unnecessarily provocative."

Frankly I don't understand why anyone dismayed with his tweets cares enough to comment. Neil deGrasse Tyson is simply doing what secular Americans tend to do in the midst of all the seemingly-compulsory holiday revelry. Are we cranky goat non-theists (deGrasse Tyson has said firmly in interviews that he is an agnostic, not an atheist) not allowed to have our fun and express ourselves in the ways that best suit us in December? Some people like caroling and making cookies, some like making nerdy, sarcastic quips. Deal with it.
But defending deGrasse Tyson was not my main motivation in writing this blog post. I want to address one particular tweet of his, the one pictured above mentioning Isaac Newton's birthday.
According to Tom Flynn in his book The Trouble With Christmas, it is unlikely that Isaac Newton was born on December 25th. (Almost as unlikely as Jesus being born on that date.) Newton was born in 1642, a time when Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans had taken over England and banned the observation of Christmas. The Puritans hated Christmas because it had no Biblical origins, many Pagan ones, and it was generally observed through riotous behavior such as drinking, gambling, having lots of sex, wassailing, and mumming. However, Christmas-keeping was deeply ingrained in popular culture at the time, so many citizens rebeled against the ban in various ways, including marking December 25th as the birthdays of children so they had an excuse to celebrate on that day. Isaac Newton came from one such family.
We use an Isaac Newton finger puppet with a red bow as our holiday tree topper. I started doing this before I even knew that Newton's birthday is officially listed as December 25th, and before I found out that many fellow non-theists have done the same thing!

Put in historical context, this adds an interesting layer for us secular folks, for whom Isaac Newton might be a figure connected to secular Christmas celebrations. Not only does including references or images of Newton in our holiday celebrations emphasize our value of science and skepticism. It can also connect us with those who opposed Puritans who would forcibly suppress holiday traditions all secular in nature.
Have a toast to Isaac Newton this holiday season!


Sunday, December 14, 2014

Explicitly Secular Christmas Trees

Many of us heathens who like to celebrate secular Christmas also like to make it clear to any onlookers that we aren't necessarily part of the eighty-some percent who are celebrating the birth of their god. One way to do this is with unconventional takes on the good ol' Tannenbaum that emphasize secular values.

Atheist activist Margaret Downey started an annual tradition of getting a "Tree of Knowledge" (an evergreen tree decorated with books by freethinkers) erected at the Chester County Courthouse in Pennsylvania, alongside religious displays. Here's a link to a video of Margaret speaking at a rally for the Tree of Knowledge in 2010. The ideas has caught on with some others. The photo here is of the Tree of Knowledge displayed this year at the Ethical Humanist Society of Philadelphia.

For those who desire more ideas in-line with the heavy-handed approach to asserting one's atheism during the holiday season, here are some ideas posted on Friendly Atheist: How To Decorate Your Tree Like A Good Atheist.

Of course there are other, secular deviations from the traditional tree. One idea that has some things in common with the Tree of Knowledge, and has caught some traction on the Internet is simply creating a whole tree out of books. Yes, books and Christmas trees can be mashed together for more than a public, political statement. It can also just be a really nerdy (but awesome!) way to decorate for the holiday season! As you can check out on The Mary Sue, there are many  more ways to do this than just the way featured in this photo. 

Speaking of nerdy takes on the Christmas tree, fans of science fiction will love this idea of festively decorated Dalek. Yes, nothing says peace on earth and good will toward men better than transforming a supreme villain bent on exterminating all other life in the universe into a tacky, livingroom centerpiece. 

Another option that really brings together the old and new is the alcohol tree. You see, before Christmas was a family holiday centered around bringing joy to children, it was a holiday for drunken revelry by adults. (But don't just take my word for it.) So why not a tree made entirely of wine bottles? The Genesee Brewing Co. has really gotten into the old-fashioned holiday spirit this year with a tree made out of 300 kegs of beer

Of course if one doesn't want to celebrate debauchery or be cynical about the whole thing, there's always the option of celebrating the natural world. Buy a potted tree or decorate one growing out in the yard, and decorate it with beautiful objects found in nature - driftwood, pine cones, shells, etc. Here's one I saw like that at a local nature center.

Another option in-line with expressing love for nature and secular humanist values? Do the recycling thing. Here's a tree made of recycled spoons, and another with recycled cans.

Maybe we can combine all these ideas into one glorious secular Christmas tree masterpiece: a thirty-foot tree made of recycled beer cans, decorated with literary ornaments, appearing to be devoured by a giant Cthulhu tree topper!

Who am I kidding? Can't top the butt plug tree.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Santa verses Genie

I'm re-reading The Trouble With Christmas by Tom Flynn, the Executive Director of the Council for Secular Humanism and so-called Anti-Claus. I certainly don't agree with everything Flynn advocates (especially the parts where he keeps telling freethinkers such as myself what our values are or should be.) But I still think it's a fun, must-read for any freethinkers (or "infidels" as he calls us) who grow up in America, so immersed in holiday hubbub for 1-2 months out of every year.

Today's post addresses the passage on page 143, from the chapter Ho Ho Ho? No No No!:

Beyond the usual complaints about holiday materialism, the Santa Claus myth prepares children to become docile members of consumer culture. In a study of children's letters to Santa Claus, kids always asked Santa for material items, not new skills, intangible benefits for other family members, or good health. By contrast, when the same children listed their desires in contexts not associated with Santa Claus, fewer than half of their requests concerned material objects. 

The footnote after the passage refers the reader to Richardson and Simpson, "Children, Gender, and Social Structure: An Analysis of the Contents of Letters to Santa Claus," Child Development 53 (1982.)

Curious, today I asked my 5-year-old daughter, "If you could have three wishes from a genie, what would they be?"

Without much hesitation, she answered that her three wishes would be that her two sets of grandparents and two beloved cousins who live in another state would move close by so she could see them every day. My heart was quite touched by this answer.

Then, of course, I asked, "If Santa really existed, and you could ask for three things, what would you ask for from Santa?"

She pondered this a bit longer, then said she'd ask for a Barbie fashion doll, an Ariel fashion doll, and a bucket of pink paint to paint a wall in her bedroom.

She already has two princess fashion dolls, and she plays with them less than her stuffed animals, 18" dolls, LEGO, and paints, so I'm skeptical that those are really the toys she most desires. I suspect fashion dolls popped into her mind first because they are pretty and glitzy, and very well marketed to her age group.

Finally I asked, "If you had to choose only one to really exist, would you want the genie or Santa?"

Her answer echoed the shocking discovery the Grinch makes about the Whos at the conclusion of Dr. Seuss's famous Christmas tale. She said, "I would want the genie to be real because Christmas is not about presents and lights. It's about the people you love and the love that you show."

Seriously, she said that verbatim. I know because I immediately grabbed a pen to write it down and asked her to repeat herself. Despite all the commercial crap swirling around her, she still managed to pick up that sentiment and push it to the top of her priority list. As a mother, I beamed.

Hey, Virginia, that editor was blowing smoke. We don't need no Jesus OR Santa because we got love, baby, and as the song goes, Love is all you need.  

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Art, Ads, and Butt Plug Trees

 Over the weekend vandals deflated a giant, inflated sculpture (pictured here) because they were offended by its resemblance to a butt plug. The Telegraph explained: 

"The 79-foot-high inflatable green exhibit was called 'Tree' because it looked vaguely like a Christmas tree, but the American artist, Paul McCarthy, told Le Monde newspaper that it was inspired by a sex toy known as an anal plug and was meant 'as a joke'."

This isn't the first time Paul McCarthy has caused international scandal by combining the holiday season, public art, and sex toys. In 2001 he created Santa Claus, a statue originally commissioned to be placed next to the concert hall in Schouburgplein square in the Netherlands. 
After its creation, the statue (pictured here - 2nd image) caused so much controversy that it was never placed there and came to be nicknamed the Butt Plug GnomeThankfully the citizens of the Netherlands have enough of a sense of humor that by 2005 they came to accept its permanent placement in the less-famous Eendrachtsplein square. 

Apparently a minority of Parisians are angry enough to not only vandalize, but also physically assault the artist (he was slapped several times in the face) over this temporary sculpture. Neither the artist nor the officials are willing to re-erect Tree. So I guess humorless, dull-minded thugs win this round. 

But, gee wiz, ain't it great that no innocent, little kids will be exposed to such a racy double-entendre? I mean, my goodness, it's not like there's any other kinds of overtly sexual imagery found out in the public. 

My gosh, there's so many innocents who would of course instantly recognize the obvious resemblance Tree has to a sex toy. After all, kids encounter sex toys that look just like this far more often than they encounter other abstractions of plant-life in, say, plastic or wooden children's toys, video games, or company logos. 

By golly, I'll go so far as to say this so-called sculpture isn't even really art. I mean, we all know that art elevates and enlightens the human condition. It isn't just something that people would gawk and snicker at while thinking dirty thoughts. Just imagine what a city would look like if we replaced commercial advertising with art that we all agree is truly masterful, like classical paintings!

None of this "humiliating" butt plug nonsense. Butt plugs are just disgusting and immoral. They certainly aren't a safe, healthy aid for stimulating sexual pleasure that comes in a fun and exciting variety of shapes, sizes, and colors. 

Comparing a butt plug to a Christmas tree, a symbol of a sacred and ancient holiday that has been celebrated with drunken revelry and consumer excess, er, I mean with solemn prayer and worship, that's just humiliating to the French people, and if you think about it, all of humanity. Oh, for shame! 

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Adrian Mitchell's "Nothingmas Day"

I picked up this book of children's poetry at a used book store in Philly a while ago. I bought it mainly because I love the illustrations of John Lawrence. But the poetry by Adrian Mitchell is wonderfully absurd; playful, but often in a dark sort of way. I now have a favorite poem for the holiday season. It captures the love/hate relationship so many of us have about the holidays. While telling us about its absence, Mitchell vividly describes so much goofy hubbub and cheer. I feel I have been shown a funhouse mirror that in reflecting an unexpected and distorted image. also reveals a forgotten truth.

Nothingmas Day
by Adrian Mitchell

No it wasn't.

It was Nothingmas Eve and all the children in Notown were not
tingling with excitement as they lay unawake in their heaps.
          s their parents were busily not placing the last
crackermugs, glimmerslips and sweetlumps on the Nothingmas

Hey! But what was that invisible trail of chummy sparks or
vaulting stars across the sky
          Father Nothingmas -- drawn by 18 or 21
          Father Nothingmas -- his sackbut bulging with air!
          Father Nothingmas -- was not on his way!
(From the streets of the snowless town came the quiet of
unsung carols and the merry silence of the steeple bell.)

Next morning the children did not fountain out of bed with cries
of WHOOPERATION! They picked up their Nothingmas
Stocking and with traditional quiperamas such as: "Look what
I haven't got!" It's just what I didn't want!" pulled their stockings
on their ordinary legs.

For breakfast they ate -- breakfast.

After woods they all avoided the Nothingmas Tree, where
Daddy, his face failing to beam like a leaky torch, was not
distributing gemgames, sodaguns, golly-trolleys, jars of
humdrums and packets of slubberated croakers.

Off, off, off went the children to school, soaking each other with
no howls of "Merry Nothingmas and a Happy No Year!", and
not pulping each other with no-balls.

At school MIss Whatnot taught them how to write No Thank
You Letters.

Home they burrowed for Nothingmas Dinner.
The table was not groaning under all manner of
          NO TURKEY
          NO SPICED HAM
          NO SPROUTS
          NO NOT NOWT
There was not one (1) shoot of glee as the Nothingmas
Pudding, unlit, was not brought in. Mince pies were not
available, nor was there any demand for them.

Then, as another Nothingmas clobbered to a close, they all
haggled off to bed where they slept happily never after.

          and that is not the end of the story. . . . . . .

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Ganulin v. U.S. Ruling Means Christmas Is Also a Secular Holiday

From the ruling of U.S. District Judge Susan J. Dlott on the case of Ganulin v. U.S., which ruled that the federal Christmas holiday did not construe an unconstitutional government endorsement of religion, Dec. 6, 1999:
The court will address
Plaintiff's seasonal confusion
Erroneously believing Christmas
Merely a religious intrusion.

Whatever the reason
Constitutional or other
Christmas is not
An act of Big Brother!

An extra day off
Is hardly high treason
It may be spent as you wish
Regardless of reason.

After the ruling, Kevin Hasson of the Becket Fund (whose mission is to protect the free expression of all faiths) said:

"You can't weed religion out of the culture without uprooting the whole culture in the process.”

However, it might have been more accurate for him to have stated "you can't weed tradition out of the culture..." Christmas has always been more a holiday of customs than religious observations.

On the issue of the Constitutionality of "Christmas" as an official federal holiday, Austin Cline wrote:

“If Christmas is declared a secular holiday, then fundamentalists lose again because our courts will grant recognition to the fact that American society has moved beyond our history of Protestant Christian domination to a more multicultural and multireligious society where holidays which are celebrated on a national level are secular in nature.”

As far as I can tell from the Ganulin ruling, that has already happened.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Reverend Billy, Festivus, and Bringing Whoville Home

How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss is one of the most beloved holiday stories. And though it's about "Christmas", it's a story that transcends sectarian divisions and speaks to a broader audience.

Most everyone knows the tale: the cranky "Grinch", annoyed by the Christmas celebrations in "Whoville", plots to destroy the Whos' good cheer by stealing all their gifts, decorations, and food in the middle of the night. The next morning, instead of wails of anger and sorrow, the Grinch hears joyful singing. So moved by the discovery that Christmas "means a little bit more", the Grinch returns everything and joins in the festivities.

As I read this book to Lysi this week, I asked her, "Why do you think the Whos were so happy even though they didn't have all their stuff?" She looked down at the open book depicting a line of beaming Whos, hand-in-hand, their mouths open in song, and answered, "Because they're with each other."

Woo hoo, my daughter gets it! As much as she likes getting more toys (and she does), she likes visiting with her grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles more. When she's tired and sad, she looks up at the pictures of her extended family members on her dresser; her eyes tear up and she cries that she misses them.

Because love is better than stuff.

To non-religious folks, the point of the holiday season can be to spend time with friends and family and act in a way that strengthens those relationships. It can also be a time to consider those less fortunate and if possible take action to aid our fellow human beings. 

There are movements to combat the materialistic greed and cynicism taking over the spirit of the holiday season. Charitable giving, while overshadowed by retail purchases, is still a major part of holiday celebrations. In contrast to Black Friday, there is Buy Nothing Day, an international protest against excessive consumerism. There are the pushes to buy local and buy handmade to cut down on damage to environment, communities, and so that we have a more humanized relationship with the people who make our stuff. An old college friend of mine and his wife just started Gift Instead, a purchase-free gift registry to encourage people to buy less and express their love in more meaningful ways. 

Then there is my personal favorite, Reverend Billy and the Church of Stop Shopping. The good Rev and his gospel choir are a performance art and activist group. They have appropriated the form (but not the divisive theology) of Christian revivalism as way to raise public awareness about the harm that rampant consumerism has ravaged on the health of our communities, our personal relationships, and our very planet. In his latest podcast, Reverend Billy gives a stirring sermon about climate change from the water's edge as the tide comes in: 

Celebrating Festivus (an alternative to Christmas, first introduced to the public by the sitcom Seinfeld) is another reaction to the pressures to buy buy buy during the holiday season. Festivus has become especially popular among freethinkers, with college organizations and local clubs holding annual Festivus parties. 

Festivus is pretty much an anti-Christmas holiday. Instead of exchanging gifts, those celebrating Festivus air grievances and do feats of strength. Instead of a tree, the symbol of Festivus is an unadorned, aluminum pole which means nothing. 

This year many in the media made a big deal over a beer can Festivus pole which was erected alongside the nativity scene in Florida's capital building. While I do think it makes the point about religious freedom and pluralism, I don't really want the secular alternative to Christmas to be meaningless symbols and ritualized complaining about each other. 

A few years ago a bunch of us local freethought groups got together and put up our own holiday display beside the the nativity and menorah at the National Constitution Center. We chose a globe of the earth and the message: "Peace on Earth from your friendly neighborhood atheists, freethinkers, and humanists." Of course news outlets didn't cover that. In order to get media attention, we have to be cynical jerks. 

If Reverend Billy, with his earnest and passionate cry for better behavior is my favorite form of holiday protest, Festivus is my least favorite. 

Festivus as it first appeared on Seinfeld was a rather mean-spirited affair celebrated by rather horrible people. George wanted to use it to get out of holiday obligations, while Cramer wanted to use it to gain the benefits of having a holiday to celebrate. Both were acting on selfish impulses. 

One year my mom actually received a card that read "Happy Festivus!" and which informed her that a donation had been made in her name to "The Human Fund." Since she hadn't seen that episode of Seinfeld, I had to explain to her that the card was an exact imitation of a card the character George had given to co-workers in order to avoid spending money (George just made up "The Human Fund"). That way he could still enjoy the social benefits of participating in holiday gift exchanges and being perceived as a generous person.  

Shouldn't Festivus inspire us to give to charities, buy less stupid crap as gifts, and try to celebrate the holiday season in a way which is meaningful and compassionate? When Jonathan Swift wrote A Modest Proposal, he aimed to inspire compassion and real aid for the poor, not get people to write their own versions of his essay over and over again and then revel in their own cleverness. 

There have been times when I've read the Grinch and thought it was a nice tale about how things should be, but aren't. For so many people in the real world, it seems it's the stuff that matters most. But now I think Seuss was speaking the truth.

It's not that there's anything wrong with expressing our feelings of gratitude, admiration, or love with purchased gifts. Note that in the end, the Grinch gave everything back. The problem comes when we feel we must do it that way. When we lose sight of what really gives our lives meaning.

It truly doesn't matter to me if I get presents from the people I love. I just want to hear from and visit them. I want to know they're okay, and help if they're not. I don't need to give presents to anyone either. Nobody who truly knows and cares about me would think less of me if I gave up gift exchanges altogether. The gifts are merely an expression of what's already there.