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.