Universal Holidays

City life is, by definition, noisy, and Oakland is certainly no exception. Not only that, but according to our local news source, Oaklandside, the neighborhood where I live in is the East Bay’s hot spot for going out.

But beginning in mid-afternoon on Sunday, December 24, and continuing through all day on December 25, it was so quiet around here that I kept looking outside just to see if anyone at all was around. When I went for a walk I discovered all the restaurants and bars were closed; only the drug and convenience stores stayed open and they weren’t doing much business.

Despite this being a city with an ethnically diverse population and despite the polite references to the “holiday season,” the truth is that everything shuts down for Christmas.

And while I love the idea of having occasional holidays when most everything is closed, it bothers me that the day when it is most absolute is a very distinctly Christian one. Even if you want to argue that U.S. Christmas is at heart a secular holiday – and giving the focus on shopping days and “the economy” that is not an unreasonable argument – it is still far from universal.

People who aren’t invested in Christmas accommodate themselves to the holiday in various ways, some by strictly following their own traditions, others by adopting some form of celebration that elides over the religious part. I know a lot of people who put a huge store by the holiday who are in not religious in any significant way.

Now I was raised Episcopalian in a very U.S. and Christian culture, so celebrating Christmas is in no way alien for me. But the fact that the whole city shuts down for something that is, in fact, not universal still leaves me unsettled.

If I were still religious, I might not even notice. But I am not. It is not that I am “lapsed,” but rather that I realized that I do not believe in any kind of god. And while I have quite a bit of respect for the teachings of Jesus, I don’t think he’s the “Son of God.”

My connection to Christmas, once I outgrew Santa Claus, was always religious. It was church and ritual and music – especially the music. Yes, we had family gatherings and gifts and fancy meals, but what I miss from that time is choir practice and midnight services.

For years after I left religion behind I would seek out church over Christmas just for nostalgia, but I’ve reached my limit with that. I can tell a story of something I loved in my past with the best of them, but nostalgia can lead to the slippery slope of pining for the good old days even though we all know they weren’t good for many.

I’m nostalgic for a better future, not for the experiences of the past.

The thing is, I want a holiday that means something to me, not just an excuse for a fancy meal or a family gathering. And I want that holiday to mean something – perhaps many different things – to everyone.

So I’ve been thinking that it’s time to officially celebrate the Winter/Summer Solstices and the Spring/Fall Equinoxes. They have the advantage of being absolutely universal worldwide, though of course it depends on which hemisphere you’re in which solstice or equinox you’re officially celebrating.

They also each happen at the same time everywhere.

Imagine if we had a four yearly worldwide holidays where almost everything closed down at the same time.

Now I know that some pagans and others celebrate these dates, particularly the Winter Solstice here in the Northern Hemisphere, but the nice thing about solstices and equinoxes is that they do not belong to any one group. Certain ways of celebrating do, but the events themselves do not.

They are based on the fact that we live on a planet that rotates and orbits a star. And when we celebrate them, we are reminded that we are very much a part of this planet and this Solar System.

We’re also reminded that everyone else is part of it, too. In fact, everything on Earth is part of it, from the depths of the oceans to the rocks that define geological time to the uncountable numbers of living creatures.

I’m not suggesting solstice and equinox celebrations as a replacement for the already existing religious and cultural holidays out there, but rather in addition to them. And people could celebrate them in all kinds of ways. There is no one right way to acknowledge the solstices and equinoxes.

In a recent newsletter, my friend, the philosopher and Aikido teacher Susan Perry hinted that we humans should remember that that such things as the winter solstice are cosmic events tied to nature and not something centered on humans.

I think that’s an important reason for celebrating them. We need to be reminded that we’re part of something so much larger and grander than ourselves that it boggles our minds when we try to think about it. We human beings have gotten out of touch with that reality.

I’d like to think that greater awareness of the cycles of life on our planet would make us more reflective about everything from climate change to war.

But right now I’ll settle for a holiday that touches everyone and everything.


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