Steve Martin has the hymnal covered. Or at least started. But I’m thinking we need a holiday. Now, I’m perfectly aware of the etymology of holiday. The word now also means a day exempt from work, and a period of relaxation.
The other night I went to see Penn Jillette at a book store in Marin where he was pimping his new book, God, No!. He was, as usual, funny, charming, and profane. It was the first time we had seen each other in person in something over ten years. When he recognized me I pointed out that, the last time we spoke face to face, I was heavier and still a Mormon.
Anyway, after the long line of autograph-seekers dissipated the people at the store gave Penn a nicely-wrapped gift. Smiling like a big, goofy kid, Penn asked, “Ooh! Can I open it now?” I was about to make a crack about waiting for Christmas when it hit me. “Penn, atheists need a holiday!” We ended up chatting for a minute about Christmas. I like it. (I”ve called myself “The Merry Christmas Atheist”). So does Penn. His wife, not so much. I mean, there’s a lot to like about Christmas, but it has baggage.
In his book there’s a touching chapter about why New Years is the Jillette family “special night”, complete with a simply lovely new family tradition. I wouldn’t want to hijack that because it’s so personal. But I still want a holiday. And if an FBI stool pigeon in jail can invent a holiday out of whole cloth then, dammit, so can I. But mine won’t be restricted to members of a certain race, ethnicity, nationality or religion.
Operating on the shoot from the hip idea that most atheists are humanists, I propose that the new holiday be called Human Day. What could be a better cause for celebration? Family, history, love, and kindness are uniquely human traits. (Basic levels of meta-cognition required for entry.) We are the only species that cooks, writes music, and builds space ships. We came up with the best idea in the history of ideas: Science. Right there you’ve got enough to celebrate. But we’re also the only ones who can think and organize ourselves in ways to help each other, and create art for the sake of creating it. We’re a damn fine animal.
I’m not married to the name, though. If you’ve got a better one, sing out.
When should the holiday be? I say December 25th. “Wait!”, I hear certain Christians shout. “That’s our holiday!” You do know, don’t you, that it was the pagan Roman holiday of Saturnalia (plus a mish-mash of winter lights festivals) before it was Christmas. Some have said that “atheist is the new gay” because so many are “coming out of the closet” in the face of persecution by much of society. In America many (but, as Penn points out, certainly not all) religious types think that atheists must be immoral, unhappy, or (if the person really flunked theology) satanic. Don’t think atheists are persecuted in America? Ask yourself what the odds are of one being elected president. The early Christians were also a persecuted group in ancient Rome so, to run under the radar, they moved their holiday to line up with the Roman festivities. Nobody questioned the parties that way.
The proximity to the winter solstice makes it a nice time, at least in our hemisphere, to decorate. Adorning the house with lights, putting an evergreen tree in the living room, having friends and family over for a nice meal, exchanging presents, singing songs (as soon as Steve writes us some more) – what’s not to like? “Happy Human Day!”, you greet your neighbor. It means “I’m happy that you are alive, that I am alive, and that we have a chance to be happy.” And you don’t have to worry about accidentally offending anybody because everybody you talk to just happens to be human!
Peace on earth, good will toward men, is a fine idea and not unique to just one religion. I know that the quotidian reality is war. Starvation has been the rule through most of history. But I agree with Penn that most people are good. Let’s celebrate that at least one day of the year.
Besides – having Sundays free is nice, but how about a day off work?