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!


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