Silly Seasons Greetings
Olympia is ground zero for the latest battle in the Holiday Wars. This year’s holiday display at the Washington State Capitol includes a decorated tree in the Rotunda Lobby and elsewhere a nativity scene and a sign noting the Winter Solstice and superstition of all religion and gods. The latter was placed at the request of the Freedom From Religion foundation. It’s come to be known as the Atheist sign. The sign’s mere presence so enraged Fox News mountebank Bill O’Rielly that spent ten minutes directing his offended followers to call the governor and protest this grievious insult to Christian America. Apparently, they did. I’m sure that talking with these Christ-loving, mostly non-Washingtonian callers was a pleasant diversion compared to figuring out how to balance a $5 billion budget deficit. (Other stories here and here.)
So much excitement in sleepy little Olympia. I stopped by on my bike ride today. The tree is very nice—tall, brightly lit and highly decorated. As tall as it is, it still seems small in that vast space. The Atheist sign is on the balcony above the main hall. It’s about ten meters from a spare three-figure nativity crèche with a small sign stating that Christians around the world celebrate Christmas as Christ’s birth date (although I’ve heard reports that the date was more springtime-ish). The Atheist sign, neatly printed and framed on a pedestal stand is surrounded by several thundering denunciations of this blasphemy. The display area is cordoned off to prevent another theft. When I was there the lobby was bustling with people and nobody seemed particularly distraught by the theological debate. Olympia’s infamy is not the first Holiday War skirmish in the Northwest. SeaTac airport had some foolishness about a Christmas tree and a Menorah maybe a couple of years ago and decided against all such displays, lest travelers be inconvenienced by thinking of too many holidays.
The Atheist sign at the capitol simply states the obvious facts about religion and superstition, all of which I believe. As a holiday feature it's not much. The statement notes the Winter Solstice but does little to celebrate it or explain its meaning. It’s just a sign. The nativity scene, isn't much, very spare, seemingly tucked in a corner. No shepherds, no angels or wise men. No star. Compared to church displays, this one doesn't project the grandeur and hope of Christian myth. It's just a small reminder, wedged in the corner of a public space. The tree in the lobby skunks them both.
Of course, as a pagan I’m partial to decorated trees and think it’s cool that they so appropriately fill public spaces like the Capitol rotunda. Few of those public display trees are Pagan in our culture but the link is still there. I’ve heard a couple versions of the origin of cutting and decorating trees at the dark of winter but the differences are minimal. I can appreciate the symbolism of a holiday tree. I grew up celebrating Christmas, a Christian holiday when I was a child and a secular one as an adult. I found the natural world as a source of my spirituality early in my adulthood and have celebrated the Solstice and the darkness of winter pretty much ever since.
I’m probably not that much of a pagan, either, since I don’t believe in gods, supernatural powers or divine intervention. I don’t know exactly what ancient pagans believed but I know theirs was an Earth-centered belief system that recognized, celebrated and found meaning in the change of seasons. In my own life I have developed a great reverence for Earth and Sky. That reverence encourages me to respect all creation, to harm nothing by my presence or actions in life. I don’t do it for any eternal reward or to escape damnation, I do it because I know that is how I would want others to act toward me. It’s that simple. (disclosure: Lest I sound too perfect, I will remind you that I’m not always equal to my beliefs.) When I sit on a mountain top or gaze into the night sky, I understand my connection to these many other human beings and the world in which we all live. I don't need a church to tell me what is sacred. I'm fully capable of understanding that on my own.
One account of the Christmas tree’s origins tells of a Christian missionary challenging pagan belief by cutting down a sacred tree. When no harm befell the Christian, the pagans saw the impotence of their beliefs and converted to Christianity. I don’t know if the story is true but I do know that Solstice was a pagan holiday long before Christians appropriated the date for Christ’s birth. All in all, I can celebrate Solstice while others celebrate the holiday of their choice. (I don't cut trees, though. Destroying a tree for a few week's decoration does not celebrate anything for me.) What’s more important than whose day gets recognized how in what public space is that many of our western cultural beliefs celebrate this time of year and by extension, much of the world. The Christian version of events has dominated for centuries and for America’s entire history. Christians have come to expect preferment. The fact that other beliefs challenge that preferment undoubtedly frightens them. They never have been comfortable with competing thoughts.
Apparently, neither are some Atheists. It would seem that unless you accept the rationality and science behind Atheist thought, you are hopelessly superstitious. I certainly don’t think that of Believers. They can believe what ever they want, especially if they find meaning or solace in their belief. Sometimes I wonder just how some Believers can so completely ignore modern thought but as long as they don’t try to force me to live by their unique interpretations of ethics and morality, I pay them little mind. When they try to force their beliefs on society at large I will challenge them and sometimes use ridicule in my opposition. Otherwise, I have no problem co-existing with any Believer.
As for Atheists, I accept their beliefs and thought. What I don’t accept is the certainty. Yeah, all logical thought denies the existence of gods but, hell, in the end none of us know for sure. I’ll stick with pagan. Combine pagan respect for the natural world and the Golden Rule and I have all the moral compass I need.