Are you there, holidays? It’s me, Average Agnostic American
December 13, 2010 8:45 PM   Subscribe

I’m looking for holiday and cultural traditions from any and all cultures that an agnostic American can easily and festively incorporate into the year.

It’s my first Christmas as a married homeowner, and Mr. Hansbrough and I went and got a Christmas tree today. However, neither of us is super big on Christmas, and neither of us is religious. (We were both raised in non-strict Christian households.) I do like the smell of pine trees and I plan to enjoy unpacking ornaments we’ve collected on our various journeys. It’s gotten me to thinking, though, about how weird it is for us to recognize this one particular holiday alone, especially given that the religious aspect is not significant to either of us. I started thinking why not get a menorah for this season, too? And then I realized I know nothing at all about the menorah and what it signifies or when to light things or anything. Lame! I have a similar experience every year around Dia de los Muertos. I’m really drawn to the art and iconography surrounding that holiday, but I don’t really know how to observe it in a way that is doable for me, respectful of the tradition, and festive/fun.

I would like to know more about other cultures’ holidays and traditions (not just in December, but all year round). I’d like to understand some of the symbolism/mythology behind the different foods or objects involved in the celebrations that are important to people, and I’d like to observe some of the same traditions and holidays myself -- to the extent that it’s possible for me to do so given that I live in the USA and such. I’m not shopping for a religion; I just want to incorporate some new-to-me holidays that will be fun and enriching for my newly-created family.

(tl;dr) So! My question is what holidays and cultural traditions would you suggest I include, and how are they celebrated, and where can I learn more? Thanks for your ideas!
posted by hansbrough to Society & Culture (22 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
If there's one thing American holidays don't have enough of, it's beating one another with sticks!
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:03 PM on December 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

The good news is that many of the Christian traditions were just dropped on top of already existing pagan traditions celebrating natural passings. Christmas basically corresponds with the farthest south that the sun will rise and set (flip over for Southern hemisphere), meaning it's almost time to be able to plant food again (can't come up with birth of the sun pun right now). Easter is the spring festival, when everything is blooming and humping, so rabbits, lillies, and eggs only make sense. Thanksgiving isn't really a Christian thing, but the fall harvest is a big deal, and you should eat more beets and acorn squash anyway.
That said, can you maybe do something for Arbor day? Good day to volunteer somewhere and plant a tree. Or perhaps Mayday? Spring is springing, and everything is green, hooray! I might also consider some things like a kite flying day in March (in like a lion...), or a beach day in July. Of course, any time between then and labor day can be barbecue day.
posted by Gilbert at 9:06 PM on December 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Oh, just to clarify: I am 100% for creating new traditions (like planting a tree on Arbor Day which is a lovely idea), but for the purposes of this question, I'm more interested in learning about things that I can co-opt from other cultures who are already observing them. Like how do people in Kenya or India or Thailand or Norway recognize the winter solstice, if they do?

Krampusnacht is along the lines of what I'm looking for, although I'm not sure exactly how to observe that one. Getting drunk and hitting with sticks sounds like a start. I had heard of the Krampus but wasn't aware of his own special holiday! So sad I missed it this year.
posted by hansbrough at 9:17 PM on December 13, 2010

Building on what Gilbert said: I think just about every religion in the world has a light festival around the winter solstice. For Christians and others, that's Christmas. For Jews, it's Hannukah. I know there are others. Instead of adding a menorah, why not look into solstice celebrations? Light some candles and make bright the darkest time of the year.

Similarly, many religions have a spring fertility celebration. Easter may ostensibly be about Jesus, but what's up with all those eggs if not fertility?

Dia de los Muertos is connected to Halloween.

In terms of borrowing stuff from other religions: do tread carefully with this. We white (right?) American people tend to do things like without realizing how it can be offensive to people who practice these religious and cultural traditions to see them co-opted by us just because we find them interesting and exotic.

For a snarky take on this, see Stuff White People Like: Being An Expert on Your Culture.

For a more nuanced approach, take a look at the excellent blog Racialicious and their entry on "culture vultures." The entry says a look of good stuff, including that taking on others' traditions can be a sort of fetishization of the culture that doesn't actually respect it.
posted by bluedaisy at 9:28 PM on December 13, 2010

On the 25th April, play some two-up.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 9:30 PM on December 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I have no intention of celebrating Christmas when I "grow up" (i.e. have my own family and my own traditions), but I will always dye Easter eggs. It's just so fun. Especially egg dyeing parties with friends and carrot cake.

Other good ones: Groundhog Day (Feb 2), Constitution Day (Sept 17)
posted by phunniemee at 9:37 PM on December 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

I feel like as long as you keep it really light, it's possible. For instance this year I made myself (agnostic paganish former Episcopalian) a "Chanukah" themed running playlist with lots of Klezmer, the score from Yentl, that new Matisyahu thing, and Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah*. Nothing too serious, just something to keep me spiritually sane as I jog among the JESUS IS THE REASON FOR THE SEASON signs in my bible-belt hometown.

As far as I know, Christianity, Judaism, and the various Neo-Pagan faiths are the only major religions that have explicit and permanent solstice-based holidays. There are a few others that sometimes fall close enough to the commercialized November through January "Holiday Season", like Ramadan and Diwali, but those aren't specifically about the solstice and sometimes don't fall at this time of year at all.

*This was right around the time that this awesome FPP appeared on the Blue.
posted by Sara C. at 9:38 PM on December 13, 2010

Response by poster: In terms of borrowing stuff from other religions: do tread carefully with this. We white (right?) American people tend to do things like without realizing how it can be offensive to people who practice these religious and cultural traditions to see them co-opted by us just because we find them interesting and exotic.

Yes, this is one of the reasons I'm asking, because I want to be able to learn about other cultures in a respectful way and without being an asshole. That's possible, right? I hope?

Thanks everyone so far! I'll stop thread-sitting now. :)
posted by hansbrough at 9:39 PM on December 13, 2010

Well, there's always Festivus.
posted by Sal and Richard at 9:42 PM on December 13, 2010 [1 favorite]

The midsummer Japanese holiday (although it seems to have originally come from China) Tanabata is a nice holiday about love, stargazing and making wishes. Get some bamboo, hang some wishes on, burn when done. Hope for a clear night so Orihime and Hikoboshi can meet! If it's cloudy or rainy you just have to hope for clear skies next year. It's not really a religious festival, as far as I know, and it's not really celebrated in the way that Christmas is, but you'll see people put up decorations around during the summer.
posted by that girl at 10:21 PM on December 13, 2010 [2 favorites]

Chinese New Year
posted by vespabelle at 10:24 PM on December 13, 2010

Hiderellez is absolutely my favorite holiday/celebration ever, and I greatly looked forward to it each year when I lived in Turkey. It's a Turkic festival marking the beginning of Spring, when they believe the prophets Hızır and Elijah met.

Traditionally, participants tie their wishes to rose bushes with ribbons, in the belief that at midnight, Hızır will come around and collect them, granting them their wishes. They also bury various item in the roots of the bushes, to represent their desires, i.e: a hair ribbon for a suitor, a coin for money, etc.

Also, they collect 40 (I think that's how many, I may be wrong) different types of plants from around their village/city, boil them, and bathe in it, so as to prevent illness in the upcoming season. Maybe as a symbolic gesture, you could have a "tea potluck" where your friends and neighbors each bring over a different spice or herb, and you make a big tea out of them, and drink it together to wish for a good summer?

Also, even though I am not Muslim, I love fasting for Ramazan each year. Hard as shit, yes, but a fantastic experience. Choosing something to obstain from during that time, along with the communal feasts come sunset, might be a great experience for you as well.
posted by hasna at 4:07 AM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

It's not religious, but I don't think anyone would object to you co-opting Guy Fawkes Night. November 5, celebrated with a bonfire and fireworks to commemorate the foiling if a plot to blow up the British parliament (bonus - was then parliament ruling colonial America).

Also, I think it's ok to celebrate things that are celebrated locally by others. By me, that would include Chinese New Year, Eid and Diwali. I would not claim them in the same way I do Easter though. And I would be more cautious around things that are not joyful - like Good Friday or Yom Kippur.
posted by plonkee at 4:47 AM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

My friends would all gather together and make Christmas Pornaments, cutting and gluing construction paper and an assortment pornography magazines to creatively decorate our Christmas tree (sadly my tree broke a couple of years ago and I havent replaced it).

Also, on new years day, it's a, I dunno, maybe Southern tradition to cook up some greens and black eyed peas, fry some hog jowl. The greens are to bring you money, the black eyed peas for luck, and the breaded and fried hog jowl for health (ok, I made that part about heath up, you can have a heart attack from being in the same room with that stuff).
posted by yeahyeahyeahwhoo at 4:55 AM on December 14, 2010

You've just missed Sinterklaas. (David Sedaris explains it quite well, if Wikipedia is too long.)
posted by easternblot at 5:20 AM on December 14, 2010 [1 favorite]

Mod note: A couple comments removed. It's fine to link to something you wrote if you're upfront about it; if it's quite long linking is a much better idea than pasting the whole thing in here.
posted by cortex (staff) at 6:22 AM on December 14, 2010

You missed Hannukah this year, if you wanted to do it by the book, but if you're just incorporating everything as a secular pagan, you could just add some judaic ornaments to the tree along with some from various other religions, to clarify that it's not a christian tree, but one that embraces multiple cultures...
posted by mdn at 8:00 AM on December 14, 2010

On New Year's Eve people in Finland melt horseshoes in a fireplace to predict the future. I think it's a great tradition and do it with my family, and doubt that any Finn would be offended by a non-Finn picking it up.

You can by the horseshoes and a ladle here (order quickly if you want it for this year). Some websites about it, picked haphazardly from a Google search: here, here, here.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:30 AM on December 14, 2010

How about a Festivus pole?
posted by SisterHavana at 10:56 AM on December 14, 2010

It's not religious, but I don't think anyone would object to you co-opting Guy Fawkes Night
Not so fast: Guy Fawkes night has also a been celebration of Protestant supremacy in the UK and of persecution of Catholics. Not always, but if you don't want to offend Catholics, don't burn the Pope in effigy.
posted by Fiasco da Gama at 12:36 PM on December 14, 2010

Also riffing on Gilbert: As someone with a similar (Christian, non-strict) upbringing, I've really enjoyed learning a bit about the pagan Wheel of the Year, because, hey: a holiday every six and a half weeks, whether you need one or not.

I have a book called The Year of the Goddess that describes how various peoples have historically celebrated various pagan holy days. Bonus: since it tends to talk about older cultures, the chances of you offending an ancient Roman or Mesopotamian are smaller.

So, for example, for May Day, there are descriptions of Carthaginian, Assyrian, Palestinian, English, Roman, and European stories and traditions.
posted by kristi at 3:28 PM on December 18, 2010

I'm a bit late getting to this, but... Chanuka is not actually about anything to do with the winter solstice. It commemorates the first historically recorded war waged solely for religious freedom (not land or supremacy or the usual reasons for war). The Jews of the time were accustomed to living under different rulers and conquerors, and had no issue with whomever was to be called "king" or whatever. But the Seleucid Hellenist-Syrians, after conquering Judea, committed the faux-pas of prohibiting Jewish religious practices and insisting on idol-worship and suchlike things. The successful victory of the relatively poorly-armed guerilla-fighting Maccabees against the Syrian army is documented in several sources, including the Book of Maccabees in the Apocrypha. Interestingly, God is never mentioned in that book. And Chanuka is considered a minor holiday, not a holy day.

A Chanuka celebration in no way rivals Christmas. Feel free to light a Menorah if you wish -- two candles the first night (the Shammos, which lights the the first candle, and the first candle itself), three the second night (the Shammos and two candles), and so on, till the eighth night where the Shammos lights eight candles.

You will, however, have to understand the Hebrew lunar calendar to know when the holiday begins. It begins in the evening on the 25th of Kislev each year, but that is a different date on the Gregorian solar calendar every year.
posted by RRgal at 7:00 PM on January 8, 2011

« Older Cheap eye exam/glasses in portland?   |   Help me find a metal clock frame. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.