In 2007 the American Humanist Association became the first national sponsor of HumanLight, the humanist holiday celebrated on or around December 23. The HumanLight website describes the holiday as celebrating and expressing “positive humanist ideals and values: Reason, Compassion, Hope, Humanity.” I loved the idea of having a humanist holiday, but on a forum promoting HumanLight, I had to ask why we needed it “when we have a perfectly, brilliantly secular holiday in the winter solstice?”
“Because the winter solstice has no meaning,” one participant informed me.
No meaning? It took me a while to understand why this answer shocked and offended me so much. Having read the wondrous musings of Carl Sagan, Isaac Asimov, Jacob Bronowski, Jared Diamond, and many other modern exponents of science, I know that in the context of human history, of evolution, and our place in the cosmos, the winter solstice is arguably the most significant day of the year for all of human civilization.
The longest night of the year for our planet’s Northern Hemisphere, the winter solstice occurs between December 21 and 22. At this time the majority of the world is tilted farthest from the Sun, and therefore receives the weakest nourishment from that colossal sphere of incandescent plasma powering nearly everything on our planet. The plants on which all animal life depend, the rains that nourish them, the ocean currents, winds, and even the coal and oil that power our cities and cars all come from the Sun. For 3.5 billion years it has sustained life on Earth.
It’s no coincidence that over forty winter celebrations take place worldwide in proximity to this astronomical event. Pancha Ganapati, Saturnalia, Mōdraniht, Christmas, Yule, Anastasia of Sirmium, Malkh, Kwanzaa, New Year’s Eve, Hanukkah, Yalda, Soyal, the Dongzhi Festival, and, of course, HumanLight all take place right around the solstice. There’s a wealth of human history behind these celebrations—threads that extend all the way back to our ancient ancestors. When we celebrate the winter solstice, we are celebrating our place in the awesome epic of human history.
The winter solstice connects me to my prehuman ancestors, those primates whose biological clocks were set to the yearly rhythms of Earth’s seasons. Subject to the whims of nature, their diets consisted of whatever was available that time of year. The fruits they ate were sour, tough, and bore little meat because we had yet to cultivate the fat juicy pears, apples, oranges, and other delicacies we enjoy today after thousands of years of artificial selection. The grains they ate were little more than the grasses we would eventually cultivate into corn and wheat.
The winter solstice connects me to the world of my nomadic ancestors, who carried their homes on their backs and herded their livestock north and south, year after year. Their culture was vibrant and cooperative in comparison to their ancestors. It was also limited in growth by its impermanent, transitory nature.
The winter solstice connects me to the world of my agrarian ancestors who, year-after-year for over ten millennia, transformed the plants and animals around them into the many conveniences we enjoy today. More than for any human culture before them, the skills of measuring time and thinking ahead were crucial to their survival.
The winter solstice connects me to that final tragic winter of the Norse colonies in Greenland, when they must have known their harvest was insufficient to see them through to spring. First forced to slaughter their breeding livestock, later they would even eat the seed meant to plant the next season’s crops. How many untold times did this same tragedy play out for our ancestors? How many tribes, villages, and settlements in human history were extinguished by exposure or starvation in these darkest months of the year?
The winter solstice connects me to the prehistoric cultures that built Stonehenge and Newgrange, both of which are aligned with the southernmost Sun. While these ancient monuments had religious purposes, superstition was layered over a natural astronomical phenomenon. The Germanic Yule celebration, when livestock were culled to save on feed and meat was most plentiful, the Roman Saturnalia, which honored the god of agriculture and made slaves masters for a brief time in an egalitarian social exercise, and Christmas, which borrows rituals like trees and gift-giving from preceding celebrations, are all based on this shared human experience of the seasons.
The winter solstice connects me to Galileo, who revealed humanity’s true relationship to the Sun, usurped our place at the center of the universe, and was among the myriad revolutionary intellects that ushered in the Enlightenment. Those rational minds set humanity on the path of scientific and cultural progress to which we owe all our technological conveniences, modern egalitarianism, and a quality of life that would appear magical to all the generations before us. Every day our news is filled with the scientific discoveries of their philosophical descendants, always further resolving our understanding of our place in the cosmos.
And so the most significant yearly event in human history, the one upon which all other major winter holidays are founded, is quintessentially humanist. Before our ancestors began seeing “fairies in the garden,” as Douglas Adam describes it, and added religious layers over the solstice, they simply looked out over the dawn horizon and saw the Sun rise over a particular mountaintop or tree and knew it was going to start climbing north again. And that gave them hope.
The winter solstice marks the point in our yearly journey around the Earth when the days will start growing longer. I look forward to the darkest day because it’s the summit from which we can see Spring, which means warmer weather and brighter days. But really, I’m just looking forward to the end of a temporary, inconvenient cold. While a harsh winter can be treacherous, it’s hardly the yearly trial of survival it was for our ancestors. This fact should fill us with awe and appreciation.
Finally, the winter solstice connects me to our decedents—to a distant future we will not see. Carl Sagan described these future relatives as a species “with more of our strengths and fewer of our weaknesses, more confident, far seeing, capable, and prudent.” In other words, a more humanistic species.
What better time to celebrate reason, compassion, hope, and humanity than on the longest night of the year?