The Humanist Hub at Harvard commemorated its one-year anniversary this past weekend with a holiday celebration at its home at 30 JFK Street. And while there was no visit from Santa Claus or menorah burning away, the congregation of atheists, agnostics and humanists did welcome thinkers like Harvard U’s own Steven Pinker and former United States poet laureate Robert Pinsky to their seasonal celebration.
Why recognize the holiday at all if you’re not a religious person? According to Harvard University’s Humanist Chaplain Greg M. Epstein, there are a lot of secular reasons to celebrate at this time of year. There’s the solstice (December 21) and the New Year (December 31). And then, there’s the fact that this dark, cold, dreary time of year can be downright depressing for those who don’t feel connected to any religious belief system.
“It’s hard not to notice that every single day at this time of year there’s less and less light,” Epstein says. “It gets darker and darker when we’re walking home or out running errands, and it really does get depressing for a lot of us. To me, the idea is it takes brave and creative people to say, at this time of year, especially, ‘We are going to bring life and joy and hope into each other’s lives.'”
The Humanist Hub, which welcomes visitors from the Greater Boston community and as far away as New Hampshire and Vermont, has never celebrated the holidays before (this being their first full year at the center). The congregation is still working out the kinks – for example, they haven’t yet reached a consensus on whether they’ll participate in traditions like decorating a tree or burning a yule log. But Epstein, who is also the author of the New York Times bestselling book Good Without God, says that he’ll happily engage in those rituals if his fellow atheists and agnostics decide they’d like to, especially because they only have a tenuous connection to religion. In fact, in the early days of Christmas, many of those now-common practices were considered taboo by the Christian establishment.
“[They were] too festive, basically. Or considered too pagan,” Epstein explains. “A lot of the Christmas traditions that we now know and love were created to give people a common form of celebrating at a time when celebration is really important… We’re just taking it one step farther by saying, ‘Hey, we can get together as a community of atheists, agnostics and the nonreligious and have our own celebration and have that be really meaningful, too.'”
For more information about the Hub’s upcoming holiday events, including a secular carol sing-along on December 21, check out harvardhumanist.org.