Big Community Solstice

by jefftkjefftk1 min read18th Dec 20195 comments

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Secular Solstice
Personal Blog

In 2011, Ray started a tradition in the broader rationalist community of having a gathering around the winter solstice. As the person who started the thing, if he says we should do it differently I'm going to pay attention. But on the other hand I disagree with this pretty strongly:

"Big Solstice" is not Solstice.

The NYC Solstice Celebration is not Solstice.

The Bay Solstice Celebration is not Solstice

(according to me).

Big NYC Solstice was an _advertisement_ I created for Actual Solstice.

Actual Solstice is held on December 21st, or whenever Solstice is this year, with your close family and friends. It is a holiday. It is something you have a lot of ownership of.

  —FB post on the direction of Solstice

Reading the whole post, Ray describes Big Community Solstice and Little Family Solstice, and why he thinks the latter should be the focus. I'm atheist, in a family that's mixed, but that has a strong internal tradition of a family Christmas celebration. Ray has talked about how this kind of family tradition is what got him wanting to make a Solstice holiday, and I see where he's coming from. But I think Big Community Solstice fills a much more important role than Small Family Solstice.

The former fills the role of church, and specifically the kind of meaningful and serious church experience you have when people take their religion seriously and honestly believe. Mainstream versions of this aren't open to or attractive to atheists because they're built around religion. They also don't emphasize the most important (but challenging!) parts of the religion, let alone the ideas I think are most important in general. Big Community Solstice can fill a large need here, and that's why I host one.

The latter, however, fills the role of family Christmas celebrations. These are much less dependent on religion than you might think. Yes, there's Christian imagery and the best songs are pretty seriously religious, but since it's primarily about family and tradition that's ok. Christmas has been secular in parts of my family for a long time: on the Jewish immigrant side it was taken up as an American holiday. On the Quaker side was religious, but it has translated well from the lightly-religious generation of my parents to my, largely-atheist, generation.

Go back far enough and you see many of the traditions of Christmas, but practiced by non-Christians: decorated trees, gifts, songs, dancing, feasting. As people converted to Christianity they recast their existing traditions as Christian ones. This sort of change, where you keep the special holiday traditions even as what they're nominally about drifts, seems more promising than trying to start a competing Little Family Solstice tradition.

I think we should let 'Solstice' continue to refer to the Big Community Event, and if there are ways that little family gatherings feel too strongly religious for you, figure out ways to incrementally grow yours in the direction you'd prefer.

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Relevant quote from the original NYC Ritual Report:

My family’s Christmas Eve celebration is one of my favorite parts of the year. The extended family gathers. We have a big feast. Then 20+ people huddle up and sing songs and tell stories for hours. I don’t believe in the literal messages of these rituals, but they have a power to them that I rarely see outside of religious-inspired works of art. They feel timeless and magical even though most Christmas carols have only existed for 50 years or so. The repetition of them each year grants them ritual strength. And the closeness I feel with my family grants them warmth.

Together, all these things are precious.

I didn’t realize how precious, though, until the year I invited a friend of mine to the Christmas Eve party. Her first reaction amused me: “Wait, you guys literally sit around a fire and sing Christmas carols? Like, in movies?” Her second reaction, as the night ended, was even more amusing: “Oh my god, I had no idea Christmas could be so awesome!” But I knew what she meant, and it was accompanied with the realization that NOT everybody got to have experiences like this.

And that made Christmas Eve all the more special. It also made me realize how ridiculous it is that I only get to have that experience once a year.

That desire nagged at me a few years, and it was accompanied by another nagging dissatisfaction: That I didn’t really believe in the words of the songs. They had power, generated by the magnitude of the songwriter’s belief, and given lyric form by carefully honed skill. But they weren’t true, and the falsehood itched at the back of my mind. Not because of the songs themselves, but because there weren't other songs, equally beautiful and with the same cultural weight, that were about things that I truly believed in.

Christmas has a lot of nice things (presents, decorations, etc), many of which pre-date Christian influence. But one of the things that was specifically nice to me about "small Christmas" was that it did have a ritual arc, which included bits that had memetic depth. I just... wanted to have that, but with memetic depth that I actually endorsed.

(I already posted it to the facebook thread of Ray)

I live in Berlin where we had our 7th Solstice this year (technically the first three years where in another city, but there's continuity).

I think this year we were around 17ish people.

It's neither big nor small in your categories but it does what it's does what we want. On person who was their the first time noted afterwards something along the lines of it having been the day in their lives that felt the most meaningful to them.

A majority of the people in our local community spend Christmas with their families and the 24th is not a day where there would be enough interest to have an event with rationalists in Berlin.

I don't think you can hold a Christmas like event every year at the 21.12 either. There are public holidays that enable the 24 (or 25/26) to be a practical date that you don't have for newly created events.

The problem of what those people who don't have a family with whom they can be at the official Christmas date can't be solved by having a solstice event at the 21. If those people want to not be alone they need an event with friends at that actual date.

The 3-chapter ark and it's narrative feels integral to our event and has the value of being refined tradition to me. I wouldn't want to break the tradition we build up by changing the name around.

I had been planning to write an abstracted reply to this (along with a couple other comments in a similar vein) that addressed the issue more comprehensively. But, ended up deciding to note here for now:

"17 people" is within what I meant by "small". (I think "small" caps out at around 25, depending on how well you know each other). I think I accidentally conveyed a different message than I meant to. 

I'm not quite sure what the ideal relationship between Big and Small solstice is (although obviously it varies from group to group). The last couple years, Big Bay Solstice didn't quite do the thing I wanted, and I held a small private solstice (around 15 people) that was basically my own usual take on the 3 chapter arc.

In years where Big Solstice hit exactly the notes I wanted it to hit, I wouldn't feel the need for "Small Solstice that is just a smaller-scale replica of Big Solstice", and I'm not sure if I'd prefer "just kinda chill with my friends having dinner and cookies and a fireplace" or "come up with a different ritual that somehow directly reflects our relationship."

I think there's basically N things that are good to have, and whether these work best as two separate events depends on your situation:

  • A time to gather with your "extended community" (whatever that means – could mean 250 people, could mean 20)
  • A time to gather with your close friends, or with people highly aligned with you (could mean, like, 3 people, or like 25. I think the 50-person 2012 NYC Solstice sort of straddles the upper boundary here)
  • A time to have a serious ritual arc 
  • A time to have warm fuzzy togetherness

The important thing to me is that people have an opportunity for each of these.

(upvoted, although this is a rare case where I expect to do my commenting on FB instead of LessWrong, partly because that's where most of the discussion already is, and a lot of it has high social context)

I wonder if it'd be a good idea to have something like "Rationalist Christmas" or Rationalist Christmas traditions: things that build on the existing holiday, e.g. Rationalist decorate their trees with depictions of 12 virtues of rationality, Rationalists listen to and sing the X-Days of X-Risk.