Secular holiday celebrations

It’s that time of year where we all have to find our own way to celebrate or not celebrate the various religious winter holidays. Many of us have families that celebrate Christmas, and it can be difficult to find our own way to participate as non-religious persons. Some of us reject the whole thing, and some of us embrace it, including Richard Dawkins. Some of us enjoy surprising religious people, as Greg Laden of ScienceBlogs describes in Let the War on Christmas Begin. Atheist style. Do you celebrate any version of the winter holidays? If so, how?

AAS will be celebrating the winter holidays when we return to classes in January with sledding at La Casa Grande (Dr. and Mrs. Avalos’ lovely home), baking cookies, and making Flying Spaghetti Monster ornaments out of pipe cleaners and googly eyes!

This is also the time of year where the line between church and state begins to blur, as nativity scenes, Christmas trees, and menorahs go up on the steps of Capitol buildings and courthouses across the US. What is the holiday decoration situation in your home town?

One secular group in Westchester, PA has found a unique way to celebrate and to be included in the religious holiday display outside their courthouse – by decorating an evergreen tree with laminated book covers to represent human knowledge. Unfortunately, local religious groups have been less than accepting. The entire article: Atheist Tree of Knowledge under attack from Examiner.com is posted below the cut for posterity.

Tree of Knowledge 2009, photo by Carol Everheart Roper via Examiner.com

WEST CHESTER, PA – For the last three years, a local group of atheists, skeptics, rationalists, humanists, freethinkers, etc. have joined in the winter festivities by putting up a display representing their values along side other displays in front of the Chester County Courthouse in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

The display, designed by the Margaret Downey, president of the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia (FSGP) is an evergreen tree decorated with laminated book covers from varying subject matters. The Tree of Knowledge is a symbol of humanist values. It represents knowledge, education, science, philosophy, morality, diversity, and of course curiosity. A complete list of all the books represented by the book covers is available here (pdf).

The Bible (also represented as an ornament on the Tree of Knowledge) references a tree of the knowledge of the fruit of good and evil. According to the Genesis story, Eve ate from the fruit out of curiosity and temptation and thus damned all of humankind with the original sin punishable by eternal torture in Hell. The FSGP Tree of Knowledge of course does play into that symbolism, but it doesn’t rely solely on it. While there are multiple books with morality, ethics, and the nature of good & evil represented on the Tree, it also represents our humanist values and our break from the Abrahamic tradition. It is not an attack on religion, but rather an expression of an alternative set of values (i.e. knowledge and reason).

Ever since the Tree of Knowledge first joined the Christmas Tree, The Crèche, and the Menorah, this display has been the center of controversy. Many Christians have claimed that the inclusion of humanist values next to the Jesus Crèche is an attempt to “steal” Christmas. It seems that many Christians are of the opinion that Christians own the winter season. They do not.

Winter is a time of year in which the days get shorter and significantly colder. People are prone to depression during this time of year and as a result, the idea of bright colorful celebrations and gift giving started long before Christianity. Atheists aren’t trying to “steal” Christmas any more than Christians stole Saturnalia… oh wait, never mind.

Over the last two years, the Tree of Knowledge has been vandalized by loving Christians and demonized in the local newspapers and blogs in some of the most hateful ways. This year, the Freethought Society of Greater Philadelphia had to fight new regulations designed to bully their display off of the courthouse lawn. One new restriction was on the height of the display. No display can be higher then 10 feet tall… except for the Christmas Tree. Clearly the County endorses one religion over all other religious viewpoints. So instead of the 18 foot Tree of Knowledge, FSGP had to get a smaller 10 foot tree.

Another regulation on when the displays could go up was apparently changed at the last minute so that the Crèche could get the ‘first come first serve’ space preference and push the now smaller Tree of Knowledge to a less visible spot under the branch of a larger nearby tree.

It now seems that a Christian call campaign has begun asking believers to contact the County Commissioners office to complain about the Tree of Knowledge and demand its immediate removal.

It seems that atheists, humanists, freethinkers, skeptics, etc. have to fight for every inch of ground. Non-theists now make up 15% of all Americans and yet we are being bullied out of the public square because Christians believe they have the Monopoly on the entire month of December. No serious argument can be made claiming that the Tree of Knowledge is in any way offensive or purposefully confrontational or provocative.

The Tree of Knowledge isn’t an attack on religion it is a symbol of humanist values. But at a time in which the inclusive greeting of ‘Happy Holiday’s’ is seen as offensive to some Christians (Bill O’Reilly), we shouldn’t be surprised that so many Christians will attack the inclusion of a Tree of Knowledge.

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