Squandered! A whole year. A great idea, but poor follow-through. Eleven months ago, I invented a religion. Or resurrected a religion. Modified a religion. Whatever. I plotted a way for my non-Christian family to participate in the holiday season. Solstice Plus Four. A plan to take the winter solstice back from the Christians.
We made a rare church visit last Christmas Eve. We? Me, Susan, twelve-year-old Sophie and nine-year-old Eli. Many Christians are Christmas-only church-goers. Since Susan and I are no longer Christian, that category doesn’t fit us. But we both grew up in church-going families. The Christmas Eve service is a standard part of our experience. Sort of a nightcap to the holiday season. Plus we like the music, especially the candle-lit singing of Silent Night. Although for Eli, it might just be the allure of handling fire.
For the past three Christmas Eves, we’ve gone to the same church, and it has always seemed welcoming. It’s a nice blend of sophistication and fun. The kids’ pageant is a significant part of the service, but for some reason, it all still comes off as reasonably adult, just with a lot more mistakes.
The pastor and his wife have kids in the same schools as we do, so we know them a bit. Certainly well enough to say hi in the grocery store. The first year we went to this Christmas service, the pastor’s wife approached me a few days later and told me that she was happy to see us there. She invited us to come back, to join their church. I decided that nothing was to be gained by talking about our Christian beliefs, or lack thereof, so I just thanked her.
The second year, I felt the same welcoming vibe. Satisfaction at our joining their celebration. But last year, while walking out, I felt something different from the pastor. A sort of “Where is this going?” Were we planning to join the church, or just continue using them for Christmas Eve? This is a lot to pick up during a handshake, so it was probably all manufactured in my head. But the pastor didn’t seem as pleased to see us there. He simply acknowledged our presence and moved on to the next person – just like he did with everyone else. I wasn’t looking for more, but I’d become accustomed to getting more.
We live in what would be called a Christian community. I know one Muslim family, one Hindu family and two Jewish families. After that, everyone is Christian or nothing. I suppose we fall into the nothing category, but that isn’t accurate. Susan spends a lot of time immersed in Buddhism, but since there is no place to practice locally, she’s mostly on her own. Me? I haven’t established a spiritual routine. It isn’t a lack of interest, just skepticism. At times this bums me out. I’d love to have Christian faith, or any faith – something greater than myself to be certain about. When I look around church on Christmas Eve, I’m envious. People are joyful. For them, the service isn’t just a pleasant way to cap-off holiday shopping. I see their excitement in celebrating the birth of a savior. To me it’s just a story. A metaphor. An ancient attempt to Christianize the solstice.
So participating in Christmas feels fraudulent. As if I’m one of those people who identifies as Christian, but doesn’t go to church. Christian because my parents were. Christian because I’m white and American. Christian because I grew up in the suburbs. If we call it Christmas, it should be about Christ. At least acknowledging the story and recognizing his impact on the world.
Like many Christian holidays, including Easter and several of the saint-days, the timing of Christmas is suspect – purposely aligned with pagan holidays that already existed. Seventeen hundred years ago, Emperor Constantine convened hundreds of Christian bishops in an attempt to solidify and unify worldwide Christian beliefs. In this convention, December 25 was ratified as the accepted date for Christmas. This date coincided with the end of one pagan winter festival and the beginning of another. This gave the Christmas feast some traction. Those existing festivals? Both celebrations of the winter solstice, celebrations of the sun.
As it should be. For six months, the days have been shrinking. Imperceptibly on a day to day basis, but obvious over the course of weeks. Making room for darkness, for night. Serving as a herald for the coming winter. Solstice celebrates a new year, rebirth, a fresh start. The return of the sun. Page one on a scientific calendar, the natural rhythm of our solar system. Solstice is a holiday that everyone can celebrate.
A few days after Christmas last year, I told my family that I wanted to start celebrating “Solstice Plus Four” or S+4 – which is celebrating the solstice, just four days late – on Christmas day. I’m pretty sure they thought I was joking, but the more I thought about it, the more resolute I became.
The problem with making up a religious celebration is that it won’t be taken seriously. Regardless of how earnest we are in S+4, our friends and family will believe we are poking fun at Christmas. It would probably make more sense to just celebrate the solstice, but the rest of the country’s holiday prep is still going strong at that point. Also, we never get started on shopping until December 15th. Moving the holiday up by four days would just create headaches. And really what I’m looking for is a meaningful holiday that happens at the same time everyone else is celebrating Christmas. By celebrating the solstice on Christmas day, we’ve come full circle – stolen back the day.
Because S+4 is a brand-new celebration, we are free to make up our own rites, our own traditions. Sort of like Seinfeld’s Festivus, only without the sarcasm. I’ve spent some time fleshing out the religious tenets of S+4: Live your life in a positive fashion. Be kind. Do no harm. Do good when you can, but don’t beat yourself up when you can’t. Don’t gossip, don’t cheat, don’t steal. The cashier gives you too much change, give it back – it isn’t yours. If you find something of value, find the owner. Many of my friends say that this is Christian behavior. That’s a trap. It’s ethical behavior, and it happens to be the behavior that Jesus preached. But it’s not Christian any more than Jesus was Christian. It’s universal, but it’s hard to attain, and harder to sustain.
Marketing is the most important aspect of any religion. Constantine got it. The Vatican gets it. American preacher and televangelist Joel Olsteen gets it, too. So I came up with a logo: a rising sun graphic over the words “Be the Light.” It’s my reminder to live a positive life. But since then I haven’t done much with it. “S+4 – Be the Light” is the signature line on my personal email. But after a year, only one person has asked what it means.
Because S+4 works in concert with other religions, everyone can appreciate it. Sort of like yoga. Recently, Susan suggested that we make some window stickers to give out as S+4 gifts. If people use them, a handful of these stickers will be spotted around town on car windows. Maybe people will start asking what it means. Google it on the Web. Do some research.
This is how religions start – slow, mysterious. Tracing a fish in the dirt. Next thing you know, crusades, missionaries, holiday seasons that last eight to twelve weeks. It’s the natural course of things. It’s clear to me that the traditions cannot be forced. They need to develop holistically over time. But without a standardized way to celebrate, I can’t see S+4 catching on as an alternative to Christmas.
So our S+4 celebration? This is what I’ve got so far: Homemade pizza on S+4 Eve, which is really called S+3. And a family cooked meal on S+4 itself. Everyone participates in the preparation. Last year we made pierogi – a nod to Susan’s Ukrainian heritage. We all assembled them, and everyone had a great time. In addition to the meals, S+4 is time spent with family. Possibly a hike. Maybe a movie with an uplifting message. Pay It Forward would be perfect if it didn’t suck so much.
So, not much of a celebration yet. But I can’t wait any longer. Christmas is a month away, and I’m already sick of it. For all the bitching about the so called “war on Christmas” – the backlash against politically correct statements like “Happy Holidays” and disdain at calling our annual greetings “Holiday Cards” – in my town, Christmas is alive and well. To be fair, the risk of offending anyone here with an off-hand “Merry Christmas” is slim.
My kids are especially assaulted with this. Our scout pack has an annual Christmas party, and our public schools have Christmas concerts. As the year winds down, the teachers start slacking off and showing movies. Which movies? Christmas movies, of course. Elf, The Grinch, and Polar Express. Eli, now in fourth grade, told me that he has already seen A Christmas Carol and Scrooge. He saw them in school over the past two years. I have to wonder what my kids think about this. We’ve talked about the historical significance of Christmas, but we don’t really delve into the spiritual significance. I have no interest in banning Christmas from grade school, but I would like at least some recognition that there are other routes to achieve spirituality.
The most important feature of the last week of the year is that the days are lengthening. Each day offers more light, more time to engage in nature. It’s cold, for sure, but if properly dressed it’s refreshing, invigorating. A unique aspect of the season.
This year, I’ll make notes. Write down the activities that make the S+4 season special. What works, what doesn’t. When people wish me Merry Christmas, I’ll respond with “Be the Light.” I’ll watch the days shrink throughout December, a minute or two per day. And a few days past solstice, I’ll notice that they are a bit longer. I’ll look past all of the crazy celebrating, look past the birth that happened a couple thousand years ago, and I’ll rejoice at the return of sunlight. The start of a new year.