Most people recognize the word holiday comes from “holy day” (actually, according to etymonline it comes from Old English “halig dæg,” which means… holy day), but in America we often use it to mean any day we would normally go to work and don’t, regardless if the reasons are secular or religious (such as the Thanksgiving holidays... a celebration of colonial Europe’s one day of amicable intercultural relations with New World natives).*
In the religious melting pot of American culture, there are more holidays than any one person can likely name. Of course our work schedules are oriented around the most celebrated holidays, and almost everyone gets Christmas and Easter off. In fact, Christmas, with its tree-trimming and gift-giving fun, has become so popular that it is celebrated by many Americans who aren’t Christian but love the traditions of the season. It’s become a secular holiday.
While personally I think it’s a testament to the power of the holiday that people want to celebrate it — even if they don’t agree with all the religious wrappings — I know this bothers some people. There have been campaigns to “Put Christ back in Xmas” (although I’m not sure those offended by “Xmas” realize that the ‘X’ comes from the Greek letter chi, the first letter of Christ’s name as written in the New Testament: Χριστος; it’s not ‘x’-ing Jesus out of the holiday; the shortening was started by Christians who knew some Greek). But the message is clear: “It’s my holiday, and you’re treating it wrong.”**
Halloween has had a lot of the same fate. Though like Christmas, it is a pagan holiday that was “re-Christened” so to speak, the Christian version of All Hallows Eve and All Saints Day is not the one we remember in America today. Today the people I know who celebrate Halloween are either pagan or they celebrate it as a purely secular holiday – an atheist’s Christmas is a Christian’s Halloween. But I don’t know a single pagan that is bothered by this.
I’ve heard that we’re “hanging on to the holiday to indoctrinate children” or some such twaddle. Anyone who knows any real pagans knows that “evangelical pagans” are shunted from the community unceremoniously. The Pagan Princesses may work to promote our image to garner respect for our faith, but we do not work to promote our faith in an attempt to convert others. To us these are manifestly different things. One of the few commonalities among different pagan faiths is that proselytizing is not encouraged… so much so that is considered taboo by most of us.
Here’s what I think… we don’t mind others playing on our holiday turf because at its heart, Neopaganism is not proprietary. This is shown in religions like Wicca that pick up and borrow from a hodge-podge of religious sources with no apology. If there is something in our culture that you like and want to use, then go for it. Take what works for you. Leave the rest behind. If costumes and candy are the part of an ancient holiday about harvest and death that you find attractive, then dress up and indulge your sweet-tooth. Dress your children like goblins or crones… or Spongebob Sqaurepants. We think they look cute, too.
And it’s fun to see an appreciation, no matter how shallow, for something we love. It must be a powerful holiday if you want to take some part of it, even if you don’t agree with all the religious wrappings.
I have no problem with secular holidays. They’re a way of appreciating each other without being “unfaithful” to one’s own beliefs. To close, I’m going to link you to “White Wine in the Sun,” a Christmas song that’s not written by a Christian. It’s atheist singer/comedian Tim Minchin’s beautiful and quite sincere ode to a holiday he doesn’t believe in, and why he loves it anyway.*** It’s a lovely reminder that holidays are about faith… but they’re also about family. And love. And marking the passing of our years with something good. No matter whose holidays you choose to celebrate, be they secular or sacred, I wish you a blessed day of it.
**Of course, I know some pagans who’ve followed that up with “Put the Yule back in Yuletide,” a reminder that Christ was not likely born in winter, but in spring when the shepherds would indeed be watching their flocks by night. December 25 was the Saturnalia, a Roman pagan holiday that was absconded by a new religious movement due to its popularity with the locals. *cough, cough*
***Minchin’s intended audience is other atheists, and he doesn’t pull any punches about his opinions on some things. If you find critiques of Christianity offensive, skip the song. Adding a little anger to your day is not our intent!