The Summer Solstice Paradox

by Raemon2 min read8th Feb 20156 comments

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Secular SolsticeRitual
Personal Blog

In which I call something a paradox that, like most “paradoxes”, isn’t really. But is nonetheless a confusing problem.

After every Winter Solstice I’ve run, I get people asking me “so what’s for Summer Solstice?” It seems like an obvious question – clearly the Winter Solstice is just a small piece of a much larger puzzle. One holiday does not a culture make. And on the flipside, it’s helpful to build off of something already familiar. So a Summer Solstice feels like the obvious next step… right?

Honestly, that doesn’t feel right to me.

What are holidays for again?

Holidays serve a few key purposes – they connect us to our community, they connect us to ideas. Depending on their nature, they may give us an excuse to celebrate and have fun, or they may give us an excuse to be calm and contemplative. The generalized case of this is “give us an excuse to have an experience that society doesn’t normally encourage us to have.”

Used to be, there wasn’t a giant economy churning out more novel things to entertain us than we could ever possibly consume. Used to be, you had more or less one culture per-town, and your community ran a few big holidays per year.

Then we started having melting-pot (“salad bowl?”) metropolitan centers where we had lots of different cultures clashing, along with more and more people/companies/movements churning out novel experiences.[1] Now there are huge numbers of big parades, live-action theater events, conferences about art and science, a dozen new movies each week, as well as numerous small meetups catering to random niche interests.

The positive side is we get access to all these experiences. The downside is that we may lose access to the particular experience “my entire tribe is coming together to celebrate this thing we all care deeply about.”

Humanist culture has the potential to fill that void. But to successfully do that, it needs to create something people go to instead of all the other fun, exciting experiences that already exist.

The Brighter Than Today Solstice was successful because it was doing something that literally wasn’t being done – creating a holiday experience that had a story, had good original music and good art that tied together to create a deliberate experience. It also wasn’t afraid to get dark and explore sadness.

The Summer Solstice Paradox

Winter feels like a time of huddling in the darkness, drawing people close. I want to be reminded that the light will return, that I’m not alone.

Summer… I just want to enjoy the light. June 22nd, I just want to be out in the woods with friends, having a picnic or throwing a frisbee.

You could make a Summer Solstice that deliberately echoed the Brighter-Than-Today-style Winter Solstice – have a big outdoor music festival that celebrates being alive alongside reason and human achievement. But really, I’d rather my Summer Solstice just be fun, and if we’re just doing fun, it’s not something that really *needs* to be uniquely humanist. There are already outdoor music festivals and parties.

The people running those have years of experience, they are better at it than I am, and any unique spins I’ve thought of so far to put on it feel a bit awkward and forced. (If you are good at running that sort of event, by all means run a humanist-focused version of it, but most humanist organizers I know aren’t experienced festival organizers as well).

More generally – I’m not sure that the Solstice/Equinox framework makes for the best wheel of the year, especially if we’re trying to set something in motion that’ll weather the sands of time. Most places on the globe have some form of winter – even if doesn’t have life threatening cold, it typically at least has an encroaching darkness that makes for a potent symbol. But not as many regions have as distinct an autumn or spring. And four “Big” holidays seems to be asking for a lot of limited cultural attention.

But, still. One holiday seems overly minimalist.  So, what to do?

I do have some ideas I’m still mulling over. But first, I’d like to pose the question to people here. Think for a moment about how many holidays you actually want in a given year. Think about what you’d actually want to experience, when you want to experience, how busy you’re likely to be at that time of year and what it’d likely be competing with for your attention.

What do you want out of a humanist holiday year?

[1] I’m not actually certain I’m getting the history quite right here. One bug/feature of the rationalist community is that I start (correctly) second guessing everything I think I know, which means I feel obligated to do lots of research before I make any claims, which means I feel paralyzed and don’t actually get around to writing. But meanwhile, there DO clearly seem to be states of the world that need fixing, which requires writing stuff that motivates people. 

My current strategy is “do minimal research on wikipedia to make sure I’m not grossly wrong about my claims about history, holidays and ritual, and then go ahead and write the damn blogpost.

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6 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 4:22 PM
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You know… setting aside any other objections I might have to the Solstice celebrations (which I certainly don’t want to rehash), there’s one part of this that I could never relate to:

Winter feels like a time of huddling in the darkness, drawing people close. I want to be reminded that the light will return, that I’m not alone.

Summer… I just want to enjoy the light. June 22nd, I just want to be out in the woods with friends, having a picnic or throwing a frisbee.

In the winter, I want to be outside! In the snow! Throwing snowballs, or taking hikes or nature walks, or just enjoying the beautiful, cold, winter weather!

Whereas in the summer, I just want to be inside, where it’s cool, and dark, and the air-conditioning and the drawn shades protect me from the sun.

Surely, there are others who feel the same…? (For instance, doesn’t a group excursion out to the Catskills, in the dead of winter, sound like fun? Eh?)

Certainly seems fair – I don't think the particular bundle of themes and qualities of Winter-Solstice-as-depicted-by-Raemon is the only or best thing to have converged on, just one locally optimal* hill to climb.

*where by "optimal" I mean "not at all optimal, but we've climbed high enough that I can see the summit."

I doubt it quite addresses your concern, but I will note for now that I've since experimented with outdoor Winter Solstices that are much more "hike through the woods to a beautiful sacred place, and then huddle up around a fire". I think this style of Solstice scales less easily but has a different locally-optimal-aesthetic.

I reposted this essay in large part because I now disagree with it, and in a couple days plan to post my new opinions. (Which, unlike Winter Solstice in the Woods, probably would not especially match your aesthetic)

I don’t think the particular bundle of themes and qualities of Winter-Solstice-as-depicted-by-Raemon is the only or best thing to have converged on, just one locally optimal* hill to climb.

I doubt it quite addresses your concern, but I will note for now that I’ve since experimented with outdoor Winter Solstices that are much more ″hike through the woods to a beautiful sacred place, and then huddle up around a fire″. I think this style of Solstice scales less easily but has a different locally-optimal-aesthetic.

Yeah, that’s definitely a good point. One can do the “huddle around a fire” thing in any indoor space, whereas to hike through the woods, it’s a whole big deal… still, seems good to keep in mind what regions of doing-things-together-space are currently underserved—because then you can spot opportunities to rectify that lack, when they arise!

(I just ported this over from secularsolstice.com, mostly so I could link to it for an upcoming post on Summer Solstice)

Agree that there's lots of stuff already going on outdoors in the summer, but there's also a benefit to having a thing outdoors in the summer with this community.

Definitely agree that that's quite good. But it kept leaving me with a strong sense of "something more here has to be possible."