Keeping the merry in Christmas. Humanism in the cold of winter

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I understand the inclusive spirit of saying “Happy Holidays.” But holidays are still “holy days,” which leaves out the non-religious. At any rate, what we need most in the dark of winter is mirth and merriment. The cheerful exuberance of making merry is not the sedate joy of Christian salvation. Rather, it’s the laughter of children looking for Christmas loot. It’s the exuberance of skiing down a slope. It’s the pleasure of giving gifts to those you love. I have no problem with Christians keeping Christ in Christmas, if they don’t force the idea on others. But humanism teaches us best how to make merry at Christmas time.  

Christian joy and sorrow

Donald Trump often suggested that to win the “war on Christmas” people need to say “Merry Christmas” again. This is nonsense. No one stopped saying “Merry Christmas.” And why should we? Christmas means all kinds of things, including cookies, Santa Claus, and Christmas trees. For most Americans, “Merry Christmas” means “Have some fun this winter.”

The culture warriors forget that Christmas is not in the Bible and that the nativity story is contested by Bible scholars. Christmas is a human creation that combines myth, pop culture, and family traditions. Only the stiffest Christian thinks it only means “a messiah is born to save you from Hell.”

That bit about Hell may sound extreme. But Christian salvation is a response to sin. Christmas carols make this theology clear. “Silent Night” says “Christ the savior is born.” “Joy to the World,” tells us that “the savior reigns.”

With all of the good news about salvation, Christians often insist that Christianity is not the morbid religion that Nietzsche suggested it was. But Christian joy is not merry. C.S. Lewis said Christian joy is more than pleasure. It comes from a metaphysical desire that is unsatisfied with ordinary merriment. Pope Francis explained the “joy of the gospel” as salvation from sin. Francis said, “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness.”

Francis and Lewis are focused on the joy. But the back story is gloomy. Joy to the world means that you are saved. But to be saved, you first had to be lost.

Humanist merry making

Humanists think otherwise. Some melancholy humanists may maintain that life is unsatisfactory. But a merry humanist would say that life is pretty good. Sure, there is death and grief and loneliness. But there is also friendship and books, electricity and modern medicine. Human life is better today and more enjoyable thanks to human ingenuity and inventiveness.

Christmas is one of those human inventions. We decorate our homes with electric lights. We eat fruitcake and drink mulled wine. We go sledding or watch old movies. The point is to fill the winter with fun. Sin and salvation are far from people’s minds when they drink eggnog or build a snowman.

Life is not perfect or permanent. An asteroid could wipe us all out. And death comes for each of us, as surely as every snowman melts. But here we are, playing on a watery planet swinging around a minor star. As the solstice nights grow cold and the waters turn to ice, we turn up the heat and party. It’s a tribute to the human spirit that we can feel jolly even in the bleakness of winter. This is not eternal salvation. Loneliness and sorrow are never completely defeated. But we can make merry. And for humanists, that’s enough to get us through the winter.

Merry humanism in the ancient world

Such a merry humanism, has roots in ancient Epicurean philosophy. Epicurus explained that pleasure is easy to find and that evil can be endured. He suggested that the gods are indifferent to us and that death is like a dreamless sleep. He encouraged us to stop worrying and start living.

And the ancients liked to party. The Romans warmed the winter with their wine-soaked Saturnalia. Of course, excessive carousing can cause a hang-over. So, we need wisdom in making merry. The Epicureans suggested simple pleasures and moderation.

One inspiring source is the Roman poet, Horace. In one lovely poem, Horace sits beside a fireplace in winter, observing a snow-covered peak. He is an older man, with snow white hair. He tells his young servant, whom he calls “Master of Revels” (“Thaliarchus”), to stoke the fire and tap a keg of wine.

Dissolve the cold.
Throw another log on the fire
And be generous with the old vintage,
My good Thaliarchus, you Master of Revels,
The gods will take care of the wind, the snow, and everything else.

Horace, Ode 1.9 (my translation)

Horace goes on to encourage his young servant not to fret about tomorrow. Winter does not last forever. Nor does life. But none of that is in our control. The gods take care of the seasons. Our role is to tend our hearths and make this life worth living.

Don’t worry about the future, seize the day

Merry humanism embraces the fragility of the present. As the poem continues, Horace advises, “Don’t worry about the future.” He encourages his young servant to enjoy what fortune brings.  Make love before the green sprouts of youth are covered in snow. And in old age, you can find solace, sipping wine by the fire and sifting through your the memories of spring.

Horace is also famous for coining the phrase carpe diem. In the poem (Ode 1.11) where he suggests that we should “seize the day,” the poet reminds us that this winter may be our last. We never know when the end may come. So be wise, he suggests. Drink some wine and live in the moment. We are here, now, on a rock in the vastness of space. We don’t know what tomorrow may bring. But rather than fearing the cold, we can light a fire and make merry in the darkness.