A year ago at the Winter Solstice afterparty, I had a 5 hour discussion with various folk about what things are or aren't appropriate for Solstice. Some example debates: 

  • "Is Solstice primarily a rationality holiday? An EA holiday? The broader secular community?"
  • "How essential is the journey from light, into darkness, into light?"
  • "Is it okay to have a Solstice where we don't sing Brighter Than Today?"
  • "How important are singalongs vs speeches?"
  • "How important is it for singalongs to sound polished, vs for them to feel like an organic part of the community? Is it appropriate to pay professional musicians?"
  • "How important is transhumanism or x-risk?"
  • "Is it good or bad to change lyrics over time?"
  • "How important is it to celebrate Solstice on literal astronomical Solstice? If you don't, why are we calling it Solstice? Is it important for the name to be clear?"
  • "Is it okay to have one solstice someday with a 'bad ending', where instead of climbing back out of the darkness hopefully, we just... sit with it, and accept that maybe it might be what the future holds?"

Many of these answers are subjective. But are they entirely subjective? I think this is a super interesting question. 

I generally support individual solstice organizers doing whatever they think is right, and not worrying much about what other people think. But I think it's an interesting question whether or not a "True Spirit of Solstice" exists.

You can have whatever arbitrary aesthetics you want. But, some aesthetics can be more or less self-consistent than others. And some aesthetics can be more, or less, in alignment with reality than others. 

It's important to be able to propagate facts into your aesthetics.

Ancient, Eternal, and yet Personal 

Here are two reasons I think people want holidays:

  1. To be connected to something greater than themselves. To know that they are part of a story that started before them and will continue after them, something vast and eternal and powerful and beautiful.
  2. To celebrate something oddly specific about them. My tribe, my family. A costly signal that I am part of this ingroup instead of that other one over there.

These are in tension. Holidays vary in how much of each they offer. 

Often, people want to know that they are not alone in their oddly-specific narrative. That their oddly-specific-ness is, in fact, powerful and vast or at least enduring. A central frustration of Solstice is that for many people, it is so close to being a holiday that encapsulates them. But, it is subtly off. Someone else's ritual often feels quaint, and you can appreciate it artistically and anthropologically. Ritual that almost succeeds but then does something weird you don't like is cringy and terrible.

And, for now, Secular Solstice is frankly one of the only games in town. If it doesn't work for you, your alternatives are either to hold a much smaller event for people you're highly aligned with, or to go to very different events that are more pagan, or vaguely-unopinionatedly-humanist, or more social-justice-flavored.

People often want a sense of grandness, of something greater than themselves. So there's something dissatisfying about splitting off to run a smaller solstice for highly aligned people. 

So we have a bunch of interest groups with slightly different aesthetics, all vaguely hoping to steer solstice in a direction that gives them more spiritual oomph that aligns with their beliefs, and an uneasy truce where you can't push a particular city's Solstice too far in any given direction without making people upset.

When it comes to individual solstices, I'm highly in favor of the organizer putting together a program with a strong, unified vision. But a question that comes up sometimes is "What is the spirit of Solstice?" Is there any objective foundation for it? Is it "whatever Raemon thought in 2011"? Is it "whatever each individual organizer thinks"? Is it all relative and "whatever the people want?"

My bullshit made up answer is:

  • Solstice is 65% "vague social consensus" (heavily influenced by whoever shows up and runs solstices and then writes about it on the internet. That vague consensus includes some arbitrary founder effects and accumulated tradition)
  • It is about 35% "objective aesthetic reality."

I could imagine flip-flopping on this, but it's what my gut says at the moment.


It seems like ultimately Solstice is for people. If you cleave really closely to some set of principles but it turns out people don't care, they won't come. 

But also, if your holiday is a fully arbitrary, with people hewing to vague consensus with no spiritual core, I think you end up with a vapid holiday that doesn't do anything important (which fails to even retain people's interest). And if your big community holiday changes every single year as each new organizer executes a totally different vision... then you don't really have a tradition, which was part of the point.

A Negotiation Game

A coordination problem is when there's extra utility on the table, if only people would choose the same strategy. This requires something of a negotiation. The process of negotiating involves Schelling Points – you can theoretically haggle over anything, but certain features of physical reality, social reality, or negotiation theory have an impact on the negotiation landscape. (See The Prototypical Negotiation Game)

People could go celebrate their own teeny solstices tailored exactly for their worldview, but then they'd miss out on the feeling of being part of a huge community that is (largely) aligned with their values. 

Not only that – if people only ever celebrated teeny solstices optimized exactly for them, they'd have trouble finding even a few other people to celebrate with. But by having large solstice events that are heavily advertised, you can draw in people who are like "oh, Secular Solstice exists? Cool, I'll go to that." This grows the pool of people to celebrate with over time.

Twelve years ago, if I wanted to celebrate Exactly The Perfect Solstice For Ray, I wouldn't have been able to find anyone to celebrate with. But last December 20th I was able to casually message a few friends and say "Yo, I want to do a small private solstice with properties X, Y and Z. It'll be weirder than usual. It's not for everyone, and might not be for you. Are you in?" And because they'd been to a few solstices, they had a rough understanding of what to expect. 

6 people came. 

That's not a lot. But it's more than I think would have come 10 years ago.

So, two payouts for a negotiated Big Community Solstice include:

  • People get to feel part of something bigger, in the moment. (You might care about this for yourself, personally, as well as for some broader social cohesion)
  • Big solstices help attract attention and build momentum towards people participating in other rituals.

Most people agree that Rationalist Solstice isn't completely arbitrary. They aren't here to celebrate a generically big holiday, they are here to get something oddly specific and sacred-to-them (otherwise, they'd probably be happy with Secular Christmas). 

But many solstice organizers, despite probably agreeing there is something "more important than social consensus" at stake, disagree strongly on the answers to the opening questions. 

Sacred Schelling Power

Epistemic status: mulling it over in realtime.

Winter Solstice is pretty Schelling

Lots of cultures have a sun god, because the sun is a giant burning orb in the sky that everyone can see. Most cultures don't celebrate the story of Hannukah, because that was an oddly specific thing that happened to one particular group of people one time.

Lots of cultures somehow commemorate the Winter Solstice. Fewer cultures celebrate Stanislav Petrov or Smallpox Eradication Day

You might still want to celebrate the latter, if they are important to your ideology. In fact, both of the latter holidays are driven by being relevant to humanity-writ-large, and they each have some global-scale Schelling power.

But Winter Solstice is one of the ultimate Schelling Holidays. When you choose to celebrate solstice, you are engaging in a many-thousands-year-old tradition, which humans across the world converged on independently, without communicating. No matter where you lived, it was important that once a year it got dark, and then light, and the world renewed.

It's not quite a human universal, but it's very common. It happened in at least some equatorial regions where "winter/snow" wasn't even a thing – my guess is that "longest night of the year" is just an obvious point to orient your year around regardless of how seasons work for you.

So, it's significant to me to celebrate winter solstice in particular, as a way of aligning myself with humanity writ large. To be part of not just my small rationalist ingroup.

Perhaps even more than that – insofar as there exist aliens that celebrate holidays (admittedly a big conditional), they also evolved on spherical planets with axial tilt. That probably also affected their lives and their cultures. I'd expect a disproportionate number of their holidays to be influenced by a winter solstice. To celebrate winter solstice is to align yourself with any symbolically literate sapients who built civilizations-with-holidays, in a world that sometimes grew darker and colder on regular intervals.

(I currently lean towards 'aliens are rare, if not nonexistent, in this universe', and am unsure how likely axial tilt is to be a thing in a broader multiverse. The principle here still feels important to me though)

Truthseeking is pretty damn Schelling.

Plenty of winter solstice celebrations already exist. Some of them are even secular. But the second term in my "core values of solstice" is a commitment to truthseeking.

People have a lot of different goals. Some of those goals are mutually exclusive. Some of those goals involve social reality. Some include anti-epistemic ideologies. 

But, objective reality is a forcing function on values. If you're trying to get anything done, even something rooted in anti-epistemology... sooner or later you need to interact with the physical world. The physical world doesn't care what you believe. Some part of you (or your civilization) needs to understand this, at least on some level.

A focus on truth may feel cold and lonely. Even the parts of society nominally on Team Truthseeking often conflate objective truth with political posturing.

I think it'd be worth celebrating truth, even if it were and would always be lonely.

But insofar as there are aliens who celebrate holidays... well, okay I'm making a prediction here that is hella philosophically murky. But my guess is that across the multiverse, truthseeking wins. I think civilizations get better at it over time, they develop better intellectual tools, those intellectual tools make into wider swaths of society, and those civilizations go on to generate a disproportionate percentage of the portion of the cosmos settled by civilization-like-things.

To celebrate truth is to align yourself with any sapients who built civilizations-with-holidays, who decided it was important to Actually Figure Things Out.

It's noteworthy, if you were living alone on an island trying to survive, "truth" might not stand out as something important, it'd just be a matter-of-fact part of doing stuff. Celebrating truthseeking seems like it's most important for societies which have built up some manner of social-reality-beliefs that differ from object level truth, which then need a counterbalancing culture.

Survival and Flourishing?

"Winter Solstice" and "Truth" are sort of about "facts-of-the-matter." But there's an important third component – how do we relate those facts of the matter? Why do we care?

Unfortunately, this is where I think people start being less on-the-same-page. You might call the third thing "survival" or "flourishing" or "human values" or "effective altruism" or "ambition." Different people relate to those quite differently, and sometimes find each other's frames pushy and controlling, or off-base. 

But there's something important here, about humans working together for a better future. 

I think "human survival and flourishing" is the lens that's both "relatively unopinionated", as well as "narratively cohesive." 

What's the deal with winter? The world becomes harsh and it's hard to survive. What's the deal with truth? It helps you survive. And the thing that's really exciting about humanity is that we not merely survived our hardships, but we overcame them, developing enough surplus to thrive.

Extrapolating Holiday Definition

For now, let's ignore the Mysterious Third Thing, and focus on the first two, "solstice" and "truth."

Properties of Winter Solstice:

  1. The night is long. The world is dark.
  2. The world is colder.
  3. Tomorrow will be brighter than today.
  4. (But, tomorrow will be colder than today – the thing that changes tomorrow is that the rate of getting-colder slows down, eventually switching to "starts getting warmer" sometime in February)

Darkness means that it's harder to see. There might be a cliff you could fall off, or a dangerous animal lurking in the shadows.

How the coldness plays out varies by region. If you're sufficiently north, it means the world is withered. The coldness specifically conveys resource scarcity, and the threat of death. It means that people draw close together into their houses where it's easier to conserve heat. Huddling close together comes with other downstream social effects. 

If you're in Berkeley, it means a rainy season where things are actually more lush and green. (I invented Secular Solstice in New York, where it actually snowed, and it sure has been awkward since people started celebrating in the Bay, or Austin Texas. I'm still not sure what to do about that. The status quo is to vaguely pretend Winter Is Actually Hard, or to feel connected to ancient people who occupied particular latitudes where winter WAS Actually Hard, or, to just sorta ignore it)

Properties of Truth:

...almost everything, really? 

In some ways "truth" is a catch-all for "everything real that matters." The question is "what matters, though?". 

In addition to "knowledge about what matters, mattering", "relevant-truth" matters to Solstice because it's the mechanism by which oddly-specific details enter into the ritual. Oddly-specific details help bridge the gap between a holiday connected with global-Schelling-power, and your specific ingroup. 

The intersection of Truth, Solstice, and Survival and Flourishing:

So, on the longest night of the year, we're here to celebrate how we survived and thrived.

We survived and thrived, despite facing inhospitable, mysterious challenges. 

Through solstice, I choose to feel connected to the various human tribes who independently converged on 'winter solstice' as a time to celebrate. I celebrate the story of humans throughout history who found ways to survive and thrive. And I celebrate the particular hardships and mysterious challenges we face today. 

There are some object-level-fact-of-the-matter about those present-day mysterious challenges to our surviving and thriving. I think AI existential risk is real, and pretty likely to kill everyone this century. I think there are particular obstacles to humans thriving, and particular work being done to fix it, that are worth celebrating. 

Which high level facts make sense to emphasize depend on what problems the world in fact faces. We could turn out to be wrong about some of them. I think it's important for claims at a rationalist Solstice to focus on areas where there's a reasonable consensus among the participants, and to avoid frame things in a "we believe" fashion that pressures people to think. But, I think a holiday that celebrates truth should IMO deal in specific concrete facts/claims, not just vague high-level platitudes. 

That said...

Reminder, I do think Solstice is still, like, 65% convergent historical cultural happenstance, and that's okay. Communities acquire traditions that are oddly specific. The particular cluster of music genres and styles of speeches are a bit arbitrary. I think Brighter Than Today is important to sing every year (unless you're deliberately making a symbolic point by dropping it), but, this is only because it turned out people really liked it and converged on it feeling important.

I'm interested in taking everything I just said, and then re-applying it to the questions I asked way back in the beginning, but, I've been working on this post for a year and it's Solstice Season so I think it's time to just Ship It. I'll leave "the answering of the questions" as an exercise to the reader and call it a day.

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31 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:26 AM

Hmm, I cannot relate to anything in this post at all. Feels so foreign to me. It's a weird feeling, like reading something written by an alien, only apparently I am the alien.

Is the alien thing "holidays" or "the particular way Raemon is relating to holidays?"

Mostly the latter. I understand logically that everything you write is genuine and comes from the heart (and mind), but if I try to say any of it, it sounds completely fake. It's... weird.

How do you do Holidays? Are they meaningful to you?

Mostly go along with my partner's wishes. So, it depends on the partner. Also, nice to have some comfort foods and watch pretty decorations and lights. Gift giving is an effort and a chore.

I realized it was a bit of a mistake to post this the week before Bay Solstice rather than after, because all the people most involved were pretty busy last week. So have done the "draft and re-post" thingy which puts it back on top of home page. (The intended site etiquette for this AFAICT, as a guy on the mod team, is "it's okay to do this occasionally but not often, and if it turns out people are abusing it we may change our mind about that")

Thanks for explaining! I feel like that call makes sense.

Incidentally: once, I wrote a speech for a solstice that was sort of a Very Early Proto Version of this blogpost, that talked about how Solstice was the ultimate Schelling Holiday. And the person who ended up giving the speech swapped out the word "Schelling" for "default", presumably because they thought Schelling was an overused word that rationalists accidentally used when inappropriate. 

And I was silently like "noooo it was very technically important that it be 'Schelling' in this context" but also there was a million things going on and we were tired and overworked and probably nobody other than me would notice, so I let it go. 

It seems to me that if you are aiming to be compatible with aliens using a lot of words that are eponymous runs contrary to that asthetic.

I mean, the aliens don’t speak English, period. I’m also not trying to communicate with them, just feel connected/oriented.

Interesting post! It’s cool to see the reasoning you put into it. Reader exercised:

"Is Solstice primarily a rationality holiday? An EA holiday? The broader secular community?"
First 2? I could see it expanding into the broader secular community in an appealing way and generally don’t like things to be insular, but I do think that some of the weird EA prioritization/x-risk/transhumanism is like… very big to my personal worldview and so it’s really nice to bond with other people who agree. 

I do think there's often a useful thing about it for getting new people involved - so maybe, like, don't assume everybody agrees with you or knows what you're on about, but it seems reasonable to assume that many do, and to see it as a chance to sell it.

I just went to the NYC Solstice and, reflecting on it, feel strongly that Solstices are both EA and rationality-themed and anyone who thinks otherwise is wrong. <3

"How essential is the journey from light, into darkness, into light?"

Big to the tone for me. If you replace it with something better or different, I’m interested. If you just ditch the structure, why? It was good!

"Is it okay to have a Solstice where we don't sing Brighter Than Today?"

That’s okay. What’s not okay is having a solstice in which nobody reads the snippet at the end of Matches by Guante (the last chunk at this link) at the end of the moment of darkness. 

“But Eukaryote, nobody does that outside of the Seattle Solstices you’ve been to.” Yeah, and they’re great but they’ve suffered for that obvious mistake.

… Which is to say, apparently having some continuity of Big Moment Content feels important. But perhaps this ship has already sailed re: All Solstices Everywhere, so I guess I’d instead suggest that regional organizers ask around about people’s favorite parts / what they’d miss if it weren’t there, and try to keep those bits for their recurring solstices.

"How important are singalongs vs speeches?"

I think both are good. Singalongs get people involved and also the songs are very nice. To get me emotionally on board you need some speeches with un-lyrical fact-shaped material to drive the point home. Also, it seems good to have a wide variety of content types - different things resonate with different people. Get some narratives in there! Get some lists of facts! Get some poetry in there too! Get some visual art! Whoo! Yeah!

"How important is it for singalongs to sound polished, vs for them to feel like an organic part of the community? Is it appropriate to pay professional musicians?"

I could go either way! Paying professional musicians, if you have the budget and interest, seems great! Some friends noodling around with 0.5 practice is also great. I just like music.

Broader than just music, but if you have artists in your community, I think this is a community thing and it’s good to have some content made by them (music, writing, speeches, other people’s writing that members thought would be good Solstice material, etc, whatever) if you can swing it.

"How important is transhumanism or x-risk?"

Big to me! I could imagine a solstice that was more normal-beliefs-appealing and still struck me as, like, a Solstice, but it’d be different, and, like, if you’re not talking about human extinction or glorious transhuman futures, you’d have set the arc up differently to have it … still mesh with what you think the future will be like. So I’d be disappointed in a solstice that just filed the serial numbers off of x-risk and living forever to be more widely appealing, but I think one designed with a different expectation of the future could be fine. … Also, I do very much like that it’s an affirming event for believing in weird things. Seattle (when I was there) included some wild animal suffering stuff in our solstices, which I think is not common. Depends what the attendees care about.

"Is it good or bad to change lyrics over time?"

I think that’s fine and I kinda like that it happens, and so organically, but also just swapping in topical new songs is fine and cool.

"How important is it to celebrate Solstice on literal astronomical Solstice? If you don't, why are we calling it Solstice? Is it important for the name to be clear?"

Yeah. That’s fine. It’s near the solstice. It’s a metaphor. Come on.

"Is it okay to have one solstice someday with a 'bad ending', where instead of climbing back out of the darkness hopefully, we just... sit with it, and accept that maybe it might be what the future holds?"

...Yeah, I mean, that’s fine to do, could be interesting, but by god you have got to warn people in advance; if I went to a Solstice and got really invested in it and then it didn’t bring me back up by the end, that would mess me up and probably do negative good for the world.

Matches by Guante

that was really good thanks for mentioning it!

I know I complain every year, but I wish we could fix "Brighter Than Today" so that it was easier to sing. There's some weird things about the melody and the prosody. For example, folks trip up on the middle line of this part of the chorus because something changes (not exactly the time signature, but you have to say the words faster to fit them in and it feels like you have to rush to get them in):

Tomorrow can be brighter than today,
although the night is cold….
the stars may seem so very far away...

It happens in a weird way that sounds off every time to me. There's also some surprises singing the verses where it's not clear you have to hold a particular note or not.

Sorry if this isn't very helpful since I just keep complaining, and I'm not a good enough song writer to really fix it. I just know this song is full of things that make my brain go "ERROR! ERROR!" every time we try to sing it.

Maybe as an exercise, if I can find the time, I should try to write something like a new version of the song that carries the same message but fits a standard meter so we can fit the lyrics to many melodies and try things out.

When you say "folks trip up on the middle line", can you say more about what your observations are?  (i.e. concretely, how many other people have you seen having trouble?)

I'm totally down with "Solstice songs can be improved", but I haven't heard any other complaints about this song, and more positive comments on the song than any other solstice song. I definitely support you experimenting with it, but, I do predict if you ran a solstice with a different version you'd get a lot of annoyed people and not many people who are like 'that was an improvement.' 

(I realize that's largely due to cultural lock-in. And the more fair question would [normally] be "in another 10 years, would the overall solstice enjoyment be higher after people had time to get over being upset at the changes." I think there are probably optimizations to Brighter Than Today that could be made but it's a particularly costly song to change)

I'm not sure quite how to explain it other than people say the words at the wrong time relative to the melody because they get lost because of changes in where words fall relative to beats. My guess is you don't notice this much because you're not often in the audience near folks who may be hearing the song for only the first or second time.

I'm also acutely aware of the issue because I struggle with the song. I can hear how it's supposed to sound and it's very hard to make myself sing it correctly so that it doesn't sound like I'm doing that thing where you get a little lost in a song and have to catch up, like during karaoke.

Nod. There is definitely a thing where the people nearby me have a pretty different music experience (both because of selection effects on where I sit, and because I'm singing fairly confidently so people around me have an easier time). But, I was mostly basing my existing opinion off the feedback form. That has it's own set of biases, but we do have ~9 years of it now which I think counts for something.

My question was some thing like "what percentage of people around you seem to having a hard time", and "are there any of them you know of who'd be willing to chat about their experience."

(I also, like, don't think it's necessarily that bad if people don't sing the song perfectly on their 1st or 2nd time, as long as their subjective experience is good. I'd want to see a second person say explicitly "yes, please change the song to make it easier" before it seemed worth changing, since the cost of changing is pretty high)

I wrote up the following a few weeks ago in a document I shared with our solstice group, which seems to independently parallel G Gordon Worley III's points:

To- | morrow can be brighter than [1]
to- | day, although the night is cold [2]
the | stars may seem so very far
a- | way... [3]
But | courage, hope and reason burn,
in | every mind, each lesson learned, [4]
[5] | shining light to guide to our way,
[6] | make tomorrow brighter than [7]
to- | day....

  1. It's weird that the comma isn't here, but rather 1 beat later.
  2. The unnecessary syncopation on "night is cold" is all but guaranteed to throw people off.
  3. If this is supposed to rhyme with "today" from before, it falls flat because "today" is not really at the end of the line, despite the way it's written.
  4. A rhyme is set up here with "burn"/"learned," but there is no analogous rhyme in the first stanza.
  5. It really feels like there should be an unstressed pickup syllable here, based on the expectation set by all the previous measures.
  6. Same here.
  7. The stanza should really end here, but it goes on for another measure. (A 9-measure phrase? Who does that?)

To clarify some of these points:

  • 1 & 3: There's a mismatch between the poetic grouping of words and the rhythmical grouping, which is probably why bgaesop stumbles at that spot. This mismatch is made obvious by writing out the words according to the rhythmical grouping, as above.
  • 2: The "official" version has "night is cold" on a downbeat with the rhythm "16th, 8th, quarter", which is a very unusual rhythm. Notice that in the live recording here, the group attempts the syncopated rhythm the first time, but stumbles into "the stars may seem...", and then reverts to the much more natural rhythm "8th, 8th, dotted-8th" in all subsequent iterations.
  • 7: Mozart's Musical Joke makes fun of bad compositions by starting off with a 7-measure phrase. Phrases are usually in powers or 2 or "nice" composite numbers like 6 or 12; a large prime number like 7 is silly because it can't be imagined as having any internal regularity. You could maybe get away with 9 if it can be thought of as 3 3-measure subphrases, but this song doesn't do that.

In my opinion, a good singalong song must have very low or zero tolerance for any irregularities in rhyme or rhythm. In LW jargon, if you think of the song as a stream of data which people are trying to predict in real time, you want them to quickly form an accurate, low-Kolmogorov-complexity model of the whole song based on just a small amount of input at the beginning.

(I've always hated singing "the bombs" in the Star-Spangled Banner!)

Thanks, this is a pretty helpful breakdown.

I actually do have an alt-version of the first-half-of-the-chorus, which I think (somewhat accidentally) addresses the first half of these. (At the time the main thing I was trying to fix was making there be enough time to breath sufficiently in the chorus. In the process ran into the same "the phrasings are weirdly clumped together" thing). I may attempt to record a sample when I'm less busy in a few days.

One disagreement I might have with you and Gordon is that I think the difficulty setting for Brighter Than Today should be "medium", rather than "low" – I think the early songs in the solstice should be very easy to sing (and agree we often fail at that), but that it's okay to ramp up the difficulty over time, and it is better for the central anthem to make some sacrifices of perfectly easy singability for "interestingness." (Of course, some people disagree with Brighter Than Today scoring well on "interestingness" or "poetry" either. But, just clarifying what goal I personally think makes sense to shoot for)

The target I had for the music here isn't "folk songs you can sing perfectly on the first time." It's "Christmas Carols", which are some mix of "pretty singalongable" but also kinda weird and novel and noticably different from many other songs you might sing, which I think is part of what gives them staying power. (Like, in Silent Night, how many syllables is the word "virgin" and could you predict that in advance on your first time through?)

heh, basically all of the things you note as problems are things that make me actively enjoy the song more! I find the enjambment & mild irregularities & unexpected rhymes clever and fun. agree they add complexity but also that it's okay for this song to be a bit complex (though I'm somewhat biased towards cooler-and-more-complex things since I'm a choir-type person)

Wow! Thank you for explaining what I lack the musical training to!

(Almost all of my musical skill consists of writing parody lyrics and filk, so I have an ear for certain things in songs but no idea what's going on other than being able to fit things to what I hear.)

(while I stand by the previous comment, I sure do note that just today the LW team was working on learning the song, and it sure was an issue that the syllable-emphasis/rhythm is a bit variable and there's multiple "reasonable choices" about how to sing it. Definitely do agree the phenomenon you're pointing at is significant)

As someone who has very meager singing ability, I stumble over the transition from "today" to "although"

Interesting! When I listen back to live recordings I don't hear people messing up at that point. Ex: https://www.jefftk.com/solstice-2022/solstice-2022-08-brighter.mp3 (and the Boston crowd does not have a very high level of singing competence).

Gordon's comment, plus some other comments this year about how Bitter Wind Lullaby being harder to sing than I had previously heard, and the usual yearly discussion of "Does Time Wrote the Rocks belong in Solstice?" has me wanting to make a solstice survey this year that tries to answer some longstanding questions in some kind of more comprehensive fashion.

Feel free to chime in with questions you might want a Solstice feedback form to include

Here are my thoughts on your opening questions:

* "Is Solstice primarily a rationality holiday? An EA holiday? The broader secular community?"

Empirically and normatively, rationalist.

  • "How essential is the journey from light, into darkness, into light?"

    Pretty darn important. As you ask at the end, I could see an occasional or one time "journey from light, into darkness, and that's it" story. It would make for a good "final episode" before the world ends. I'm reminded of the final episode of the sitcom Dinosaurs, where due to out of control technological change, an ice age ensues, and the main characters huddle together for warmth as they slowly freeze to death.
  • "Is it okay to have a Solstice where we don't sing Brighter Than Today?"

    No. Except maybe in the "from light to darkness" one, where we could sing a version with altered lyrics.
  • "How important are singalongs vs speeches?"

    Singalongs are incredibly important. Speeches I could do without.
  • "How important is it for singalongs to sound polished, vs for them to feel like an organic part of the community? Is it appropriate to pay professional musicians?"

    Organic part of the community: incredibly important. Polished: of negative value. Paying professionals: I would prefer not.
  • "How important is transhumanism or x-risk?"

    X-risk: pretty important. Transhumanism: I think the importance of this varies with how much people think it's a genuine light of a new day that could save us from x-risk.
  • "Is it good or bad to change lyrics over time?"

    Gut instinct says bad but I could see arguments for it being good in certain instances. But I'm the kind of guy who still gets annoyed at Church Latin's pronunciation of "v" and "c" etc in Adeste Fideles.
  • "How important is it to celebrate Solstice on literal astronomical Solstice? If you don't, why are we calling it Solstice? Is it important for the name to be clear?"

    Ideally it would always be on the literal Solstice but scheduling is important too. People ought to be able to actually attend.
  • "Is it okay to have one solstice someday with a 'bad ending', where instead of climbing back out of the darkness hopefully, we just... sit with it, and accept that maybe it might be what the future holds?"

    Yes. See above

"How important is it for singalongs to sound polished, vs for them to feel like an organic part of the community? Is it appropriate to pay professional musicians?"

> Organic part of the community: incredibly important. Polished: of negative value. Paying professionals: I would prefer not.


This is the part I care the most about. If I wanted to hear professional musicians I would go to a concert. At this community holiday, I want to hear, and participate in, communal singing. I don't want to feel self conscious about not being a very good singer. I want me and everyone else to get swept up in the moment and the song. I can recall two different Solstices I went to, one in NYC had some technical issues and wasn't super duper polished and which everyone sang together in, and one in the Bay was much more polished and fancy and professional and had well trained musicians singing while mic'd up. I left the former with a powerful sense of community and a sense of having undergone an important emotional journey. I left the latter with a sense of embarrassment at myself for having attempted to participate in the music, like if I had caught myself singing along at the opera, and frustration at not having gotten the emotional catharsis I wanted. I found myself thinking "maybe Solstice isn't for me anymore". 

I genuinely can't remember if I've been to a Secular Solstice since then, but I have sung Brighter Than Today to myself and been overcome with emotion and cried.

I'm not sure I understand 'polished' being negative? I see how it's negative if it trades off against other things, like being a real community sing-along, but if somehow the community became better singers over the next year, holding everything else equal, that would be positive.

Is it that you think polish almost always trades off against important things in practice?

My own take is that in practice polish puts a new floor on who's comfortable singing along, i.e. if there's a vibe where everyone is singing really nicely, it makes someone who knows (or worries) that they're not as good a singer feel awkward joining in. If hypothetically the entire community became better singers it'd maybe be fine, but then newcomers who weren't as good would feel less likely to join in.

This isn't strictly about quality, it's also about style – certain types of singing sound more delicate and easy-to-screw-up-by-joining in (i.e. choir pieces, operatic solo pieces, etc).

(I've definitely gotten people telling me they felt they were supposed to sing in the middle of the 2016ish NYC Solstices because some of the Night Section songs sounded like they were supposed to be solo pieces. I've also gotten people who went to Bay Solstice, which often is generally fancier-feeling, and come away saying "I know Solstice is supposed to be like a big production thing, but I'd kinda like to have a small rougher solstice" and it broke my heart, cuz, like, that was the entire original point of Solstice)

in practice polish puts a new floor on who's comfortable singing along, i.e. if there's a vibe where everyone is singing really nicely...

That makes sense! I think Boston is far enough from where this would start happening that I don't need to be worrying about it (and it would be positive to agree on the music more than a week in advance) but I see how it could be an issue in somewhere like the Bay where the level of polish is enough higher.

Oh yeah, agreed.

they felt they were supposed to sing in the middle of the 2016ish NYC Solstices because some of the Night Section songs sounded like they were supposed to be solo pieces

Missing negative?