[Χμας repost from 2014]
aturnalia week draws to an end with the decidedly nontraditional celebrations of Festivus and HumanLight. Festivus is the older of the two, going back to the 1970s (and first popularized by a Seinfeld episode of 18 December 1997), while HumanLight is the invention of members of the New Jersey Humanist Network in 1998 (first celebrated 23 December 2001).
Both seem to be intended as alternatives to the familiar Pagan / Christian / Commercial holiday of Christmas. Where Christian Christmas celebrates the intrusion of the paranormal into the natural world, HumanLight features “the unique human capacities for reason and compassion”. Where Commercial Chri$tma$ promotes consumerism, Festivus deliberately strips down the holiday (as symbolized by the unadorned aluminum pole rather than an elaborate Christmas Tree). Neither celebration has yet acquired the annoying religious advertising that unfortunately infests Christmas.
HumanLight, honestly, is so stripped-down you can hardly call it a holiday at all. It doesn’t really happen on any particular day—just whatever convenient occasion (a day off say) falls near the 23rd of December. There are no fixed elements because “Humanists tend to shy away from both rigid thinking and rituals”; it looks like little more than a social gathering with a color-scheme—red, blue, and gold, standing for reason, compassion, and hope. Celebration suggestions include those things that used to make Unitarian parties for kids so dismal—educational entertainment, audience sing-alongs, face-painting. Performances by magicians, jugglers, and comedians are also suggested. Forgive me for saying so, because I admire the sentiments of the occasion, but a HumanLight celebration is pretty damn close to my idea of hell.
Festivus, on the other hand, has its rituals. There is the low-maintenance Festivus pole, for example. There is the Airing of Grievances, where “each participant tells friends and family of all the instances where they disappointed him or her that year”. There is a Festivus dinner, followed by the Feats of Strength, in which “the head of the household tests his or her strength against one participant of the head's choosing”. It’s minimalistic, rather like a Samuel Becket play performed by a community theatre sans budget, but at least there is something distinctive about it. I believe I’ll pass, personally, but it sounds more fun than a HumanLight dinner featuring readings from Humanist authors, thank you.
As far as I can tell there are no Festivus songs. HumanLight has co-opted John Lennon’s “Imagine” and Madonna’s “Holiday”, and created in addition its own “HumanLight” and “Decorate the Tree of Knowledge” (Sonny Meadows), “These Three Flames” (Monty Harper) and “HumanLight Song” (Sara Brown). I haven’t heard any of them, except the ubiquitous “Imagine”, but they’ve got to be better than “The Little Drummer Boy” or “Do You Hear What I Hear?” (I say rashly).
Both holidays eschew the solstice with its pagan religious overtones. That may be a good thing, but ultimately seems to leave them rootless. At least the old traditions and symbols are ultimately rooted in the natural world around us. Evergreen boughs and holly, lights and candles—it doesn’t matter whether we are honoring Odin or Jesus or no-one at all. We continue the custom even as we assign different meanings to it. After all, as Latka Gravas (to borrow from a different situation comedy) observed, “the only things that separate man from the animals are superstition and mindless ritual.” These denatured holidays have all the fizz of flat cola. They leave out the heart of the thing, and are ultimately as unsatisfying as decaffeinated coffee or alcohol-free beer.