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The Journal Of The InnKeeper
Ranty Lessons by Joreth
Skeptical Atheist Polyamorous Holidays 
12th-Dec-2010 10:18 pm
holiday, Xmas Kitties
 So, it's the holidays, and being a member of several minority groups, everyone wants to know how I handle the traditional holiday season as a non-traditional person.  I was interviewed for a UK magazine about how polys spend the holidays, because apparently the idea that we spend them pretty much the same way monogamous people do is an unusual concept.  I'm also reading The Atheist's Guide To Christmas, a book I have been curious about for some time.  I know it's difficult to imagine, but atheists, and polys, are actually made up of more than one person, and sometimes we actually have different thoughts, ideas, wants, likes, and dislikes!  Shocking, but true.  So that means that there isn't a single way to exist during the holiday season, for either polys or atheists.  But with everyone reminding me that I'm "different", it got me to thinking ... how does a skeptical polyamorous atheist deal with a holiday that is more or less seen as a religious family holiday?  Apparently, people want to know.

I can only answer for myself.  Everyone else will have a different story, just like every monogamist and every religious person will have a different story.  Because, and here's another shock, they're not all the same person either!

The poly story is actually quite simple.  I handle the holidays in the exact same way that monogamous people do (I know that sounds contrary to what I just said about not all being the same person, but let me explain).  First, I talk to all the partners and metamours who will actually be able to be present (i.e. the local ones and anyone who can travel).  We discuss who has any pre-existing traditions, and how strongly everyone feels about those traditions.  Once these discussions have happened at the beginning of a relationship, they don't generally need to be discussed in the same depth again - when you start a family tradition, it kinda just keeps going on unless someone mentions doing something different.  Usually, only the details need to be worked out in following years, but the basic plans are laid early on, just like mono families.  When mono people get married, the spouses usually discuss what each of them traditionally does around the holidays with their own families.  They negotiate which traditions to keep and which to discard, usually based on who feels the most strongly about which tradition.  The method of deciding what to do for the holidays is pretty much the same no matter what kind of person you are, and that method will naturally result in a wide variety of actual holiday celebrations (or abstinence from celebrating) depending on the individuals involved.

When it comes to visiting relatives, the answer is also the same.  Discuss for which relatives is it actually practical to visit, which ones will get offended most if you don't, which of us cares the most about those relatives being offended, add it all up and choose.  Sometimes the new joined family will host the holiday celebrations and all the extended relatives can come together.  In our case, my family is thousands of miles away, I'm broke, and there are too many of them to travel here.  So I just don't go.  I used to visit them every year, and it used to be a Big Thing.  So, back then, I just invited my poly family to travel with me back home, but regardless of who came with me, *I* was going back home for the holidays.  Now, the amount of hassle, money, and my moral stance against TSA outweigh the desire to visit my hometown.  For the last couple of years, I have set up a Skype video chat with my parents, sister, and nephew, and they called to wake me up at an unholy hour on Christmas Day, so I could watch my young nephew open his presents through the magic of technology.  Skype and a good internet connection makes a lot of these kinds of decisions much easier to make.

One of my metamours has a very strong attachment to decorating the tree, exchanging gifts, and spending the 2 days with her loved ones.  On Christmas Eve, she likes to sleep out in the living room, under the lit tree.  On Christmas morning, she likes to exchange gifts while sipping hot chocolate.  Well, the rest of us think this is a fine and dandy way to spend a couple of days with loved ones, and since no one has any other traditions that they feel more strongly about than she does about her tradition, that's the one we all do.  There are only a couple of parents who are alive and within driving distance, so the choice of whose parents to visit is reduced to a manageable level.  Again, we go with, to whom does it matter most?

So, that's all well and good, but I'm an atheist.  Shouldn't I be out in the trenches on December 25th, fighting the War On Christmas?  Well, I do, sorta, in my own way, for what little "War on Christmas" there actually is.  I make a public fuss where appropriate (like, online) to remind everyone that Christians do not hold the patent on parties in December.  I don't want to do away with Christmas, I just want people to recognize, and accept, that other celebrations are equally as valid.  I also do not support a government-sponsored Christmas celebration (like closing offices, holiday pay, etc.).  Now, if they want to call it a "winter holiday", and let their employees celebrate their day off in whatever manner they choose at home that would be more inclusive of all the religions that government employees (and US citizens) follow, that I *would* support because it is exactly in line with the Constitution's clause on not supporting any specific religion above all others.  

I fully support nationally-recognized celebrations.  I think people need celebrations in general, and I think national celebrations help to foster patriotism and a sense of community.  Independence Day, Veterans Day, Labor Day, MLK Jr.'s birthday, President's Day, Thanksgiving, these are all holidays that celebrate things that are specific to this country and, I think, are completely reasonable to have our government officially support.  New Year's Eve is not a country-specific thing, but the calendar system that our country uses marks this day as the start of a new year, so I'm fine with government support of that too - none of these give implicit or explicit support to any religion over any other.  They are secular holidays, but if an individual citizen chooses to infuse his celebration of such a holiday with his own religion, such as a praying for our soldiers on Veteran's Day, he is free to do so and I have no interest in removing his right to do so on his own time, dime, and property.  I won't come to your house and remove your painting of Jesus on velvet if you don't come to my house and insist I pray for my daily bread.

People seem to really need a reason to celebrate in the middle of winter.  Way back when, mid-winter celebrations served 2 major purposes:  1) to relieve depression caused by lack of sunlight (vitamin D deficiencies) and "cabin fever" caused by being cramped indoors (cave, hut, log cabin, tent, castle, whatever) with the entire tribe to conserve resources and survive the cold winter elements; and also 2) to eat up the last of the stored fresh food before it went bad and got wasted or attracted vermin.  After the final fall harvest, people did their best to store up food for the winter season, and many foods were dried or otherwise treated for long-term storage.  But who wants to eat nothing but beef jerky and dried apples for several months?  So food that was not preserved, for whatever reason, (and some that was, but still expiring) was stretched out as long as it could be, but eventually, you have to either eat it, or waste it.  A big feast is a convenient and enjoyable way to get rid of large quantities of food in a short amount of time, while, coincidentally, improving morale and reducing "cabin fever".

At some point, other reasons were given to justify this celebration.  Some people celebrated the shortest day of the year because the next day marked the upcoming return of good weather.  Some people added esoteric and mystical motivations to the shorter days and cold weather and/or used the ceremony to implore deities to stop fucking them over and bring back the good weather before any more of them died from exposure.  Some people celebrated historical events like successful revolts or past battles or famous people's birthdays.  Eventually, the Christians came along and, realizing they were having trouble converting these crazy pagans who worshiped all manner of deities and ghosties, simply moved their own magic man's birthday celebration to mid-winter to say "Look, see? We can party on the same day as you!  So how about you just attend our own party and give up yours?"

So, to me, although Christmas has a long history of magic and mysticism attached, by way of the justification for mid-winter celebrations, I go back even further and recognize that people just like to party and we'll make up a reason why later.  We like to celebrate, and we especially seem to like to celebrate in mid-winter.  So, I like a good party, and I like to spend time with my loved ones.  I also like big feasts.  I don't celebrate Christmas, exactly, it's more like I have a celebration of life and family coincidentally at the same time as Christmas because that's when everybody has the day off from work and can get together for the celebration.  If the country gave a paid holiday off on December 14th or January 19th or any other day of the year, it wouldn't actually make a difference to me.  The important thing, to me, is that this is when my loved ones have time off of work and all kinds of stuff goes on sale so I can show my appreciation of my loved ones by buying them stuff they want and spending quality time with them.

As a socially-conscious atheist, I support this trend of moving towards a generic "holiday season", rather than calling it "Christmas".  The Christians have it all wrong, I'm not trying to "take the Christ out of Christmas".  They can have their little birthday party and fill it with all the Christ they can stuff into it, I don't care.  I'm just fine with calling the day of celebration of Jesus's pseudo-birthday "Christmas" and calling all other celebrations something else.  

What I object to is the idea that only Christians are allowed to celebrate something on December 25th, or in December at all.  There are other people with other religions, and people with no religion, who just like a good party now and then or who have a completely valid historical remembrance to celebrate that has nothing to do with some desert nomad talking to the voices in his head and trashing market places.  There is absolutely no valid reason for Christians to have December 25th all to themselves, especially when certain other holidays came before theirs and just happen to be on or around December 25th, and when certain people can't help being born on December 25th and shouldn't have to lose a celebration of their life just because some jackass insists that he's the only one with the right to have a party on that day and everyone else has to either celebrate his own party or fuck off.

I completely support a nationally recognized "holiday season" that allows everyone, regardless of their religious faith, or lack thereof, to have some kind of holiday celebration in mid-winter, when it seems that humans have a deep-seated need to celebrate *something*.  Saying "happy holidays" does not exclude Christians, it merely *includes* everyone else.  I'm sorry, but even if you are a majority population, you are *still* not the only people on the planet, or in this country.  I have no way of knowing which holiday a given stranger celebrates, so if I want to give someone good wishes, the phrase "happy holidays" covers everyone, not just the arrogant, ego-centric Christians who think they're the only ones entitled to a party in December.  But "happy holidays" includes *even* the arrogant, ego-centric Christians who think they're the only ones entitled to a party in December.

As an atheist, I don't really celebrate "Christmas", I just have a celebration on or around December 25th because of the convenient timing of sales and work days off, and because I like having a celebration in the middle of winter.  I've taken a lot of traditions from the secular version of Christmas mostly because that's just the holiday I'm the most familiar with and I have some happy associations with them.  But if someone insists that I have a specific justification for my generic "mid-winter celebration", then I've been leaning the last couple of years towards celebrating Newtonmas.

Newtonmas (may also be called Gravmas) is a celebration of the Scientific Method and the contribution of science and scientists to society.  The day chosen for the celebration is Sir Isaac Newton's birthday, December 25th, 1642, according to the Julian calendar.  Catholic countries started using the Gregorian calendar in 1582, but Protestant and Orthodox countries (such as England, where Netwon was born) didn't switch over until as late as 1752.  Yes, this means that his birthday is actually January 4th on the current Gregorian calendar, but it has been decided to celebrate his birthday on the anniversary of his birth DATE, not his birth DAY.  Since his birthday is being used as a reminder of science and contributors to science in general, it's entirely valid to choose a representative date, rather than be a stickler for which day he was born.  It's certainly not less arbitrary than other celebrations I could name that moved an individual's birthday to several months before (or after, depending on the legend) in order to co-opt some other religion's celebrations.

Newtonmas goes back at least as far as 1984, when Michael E. Marotta made a radio broadcast on the topic at WKAR-FM in East Lansing, Michigan. He quoted from Alexander Pope: "Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night: God said, let Newton be! and all was light." Science fiction author James P. Hogan described the holiday as ultimately succeeding Christmas in a short story "Merry Gravmas" in his 1988 collection "Minds, Machine, & Evolution".

Newton is best remembered for his Law of Gravity, but he was also Master of the Mint, he showed that white light is actually made up of combining all the colors of light, he built the first reflecting telescope, he demonstrated three fundamental laws of motion, he shares the credit for inventing calculus with Gottfried Leibniz, his Principia Mathematica is the basis for all physical science and engineering, and he is generally considered to be one of the most influential people in human history. He was also extremely religious.

With his explanation of gravity using the illustration of an apple falling (also the reason for the alternate name of Gravmas), Netwonmas can be celebrated by decorating an apple tree, or decorating a tree with fake apples, and exchanging gifts of knowledge.  Netwonmas carols can even be sung to celebrate the holiday.  Newtonmas is a wonderful justification for a mid-winter celebration, since our ability to celebrate in mid-winter is directly related to all the wonderful advances of science, many of which are directly tracked back to Sir Isaac Newton's contributions.  Without Newton, and other men and women like him, we would not have the luxury of arguing online over whether or not anyone else has the right to throw a party on December 25th if the party isn't to celebrate the birth of a fictional/amalgamated baby that, if it happened, actually took place during an entirely different month of the year.  Without science, we would not be able to snuggle up under blankets with hot chocolate and marshmallows, exchanging gifts purchased entirely by the use of credit through a magic box that whisks commands through cyberspace to a warehouse across the country, watching A Christmas Carol for the 6th time that day on yet another magic box, eating food because we like it and not because we have to before it goes bad and starts attracting rodents, and fretting about how we're going to get through yet another dinner with family who insists on prayer before eating or disapproving of our choices in relationship partners.  

I take advantage of a nationally-approved day off from work, and spend time with loved ones and exchange gifts gone on sale in anticipation of said nationally-approved day off from work.  I don't call it much of anything, other than "holiday".  But if pressed, I'd rather celebrate Netwonmas, sharing a day with my loved ones being grateful for all the advances that science has brought to make our lives easier, healthier, longer, and generally happier.

So, Happy Holidays everyone, whichever holiday you celebrate!  And if you refuse to accept my wishes for a good holiday because I didn't specify *your* holiday, then you don't deserve my wishes for a good holiday anyway.
13th-Dec-2010 12:06 pm (UTC)
Happy Holidays!
13th-Dec-2010 02:36 pm (UTC)
Great post! So what you're saying is that if someone wishes me "Merry Christmas" I should respond with "Happy Birthday"? I just might consider that under the right circumstances if I'm feeling particularly surly that day. :-)

I see your points and basically agree with them, though in actuality I don't take any offense to "Merry Christmas". The reason is simply that, at least in the US, the "War on Christmas" ended decades before we were born, and Jesus lost. The "Jesus is the reason for the season" crowd are taking a position that, from a cultural standpoint, is only slightly less anachronistic than the redneck with "The South shall rise again" painted on his truck.

Jesus isn't the reason for the season. Setting aside axial tilt, big cozy family get-together with presents and Rankin/Bass specials on TV is the reason for the season. Even as someone who used to regularly attend mass on Christmas Eve and bought into the manger fable hook, line, and sinker, I could see that the primary cultural significance of Christmas had more to do with Santa and Jingle Bells than with Christianity. Sure, the Christian overtones were part of the whole celebratory storm for our family, but the main driver was the secular celebration, regardless of the holiday's origins. I see Christmas as a secular holiday whose name happens to have vestigial Christian roots.

That said, I still prefer "Happy Holidays", for precisely the reasons you stated.

Saying "happy holidays" does not exclude Christians, it merely *includes* everyone else.

May I quote you on that?
13th-Dec-2010 07:01 pm (UTC)
:-) that's why I said "the war on christmas (for what little of it there is)" - it exists mainly in the minds of people who *think* the rest of us are still fighting them. As for the atheist side of it, well, there are a handful of Grinches who think we shouldn't celebrate *anything* because any celebration merely gives those assholes more power, but from what I can tell, most atheists don't follow *them* either. I know I don't, for the explanation I've just given.

I've never been particularly attached to holidays in general. I don't care what you call the holiday, it's what you do with it that matters to me. I liked the food and the family get-together. I'm much less impressed by the presents and decorations, although chopping down the tree was fun, but not because it was an xmas tree, more like because it was something I got to do with my dad that a "boy" would do and my mom and sister refused to do. My gingerbread house can't be built any other time of the year because the decorations aren't available, so that's why it's a tradition for me, not because it's particularly special to "christmas".

If a few radical wingnuts want to "keep the Christ in Christmas", they're welcome to it, but that would require removing it from all government support (one of my relatives sent me a holiday card with that exact phrase on it this year). Can't have it both ways. As far as I'm concerned, the easiest way to do that is just change the name to "holiday break", so nothing *really* changes in the practical sense, but everyone gets whatever they're emotionally tied to, like separation of church and state. But then the xtians get all pissy when we separate church and state. I was once sent an email from family saying "if we separated church and state, we wouldn't get xmas day off from work". My response? Good! We *shouldn't* have it off from work. We can have a "holiday vacation", but not a religious break. I don't think they were expecting me to be in favor of no paid holiday off. Frankly, the entire country shutting down for a day is rather inconvenient anyway.

But I also think of Hanukkuh at this time, and notice that our Jewish population doesn't get any state-sponsored holiday time off. Sure, Christmas is the majority celebration (secular or religious), but it's not the only celebration at this time of year, and neither is big cozy family get-together with presents or Rankin/Bass specials on TV. Everyone has a different justification for why they're celebrating around this time of the year (and some have a justification for why they're not), so it is *for them* that I prefer to say "happy holidays".

Uh, sure, you can quote me on that :-)
13th-Dec-2010 07:07 pm (UTC)
Although, saying "happy birthday" in response is probably exactly what I would do if I were in your shoes! Why not wish someone a happy my-celebration if they insist on wishing me a happy their-celebration? Of course, I'd probably reserve it for people making a *point* about saying "christmas" instead of "holiday", and not pester people who say "merry xmas" out of habit :-)
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