Winter is coming, and so is Solstice season. There'll be large rationality-centric-or-adjaecent events in NYC, the Bay Area, and Seattle (and possibly other places - if you're interested in running a Solstice event or learning what that involves, send me a PM). In NYC, there'll be a general megameetup throughout the weekend, for people who want to stay through Sunday afternoon, and if you're interested in shared housing you can fill out this form.

The NYC Solstice isn't running a kickstarter this year, but I'll need to pay for the venue by November 19th ($6125). So if you are planning on coming it's helpful to purchase tickets sooner rather than later. (Or preorder the next album or 2016 Book of Traditions, if you can't attend but want to support the event).


I've been thinking for the past couple years about the Solstice as a memetic payload.

The Secular Solstice is a (largely Less Wrong inspired) winter holiday, celebrating how humanity faced the darkest season and transformed it into a festival of light. It celebrates science and civilization. It honors the past, revels in the present and promises to carry our torch forward into the future.

For the first 2-3 years, I had a fair amount of influences over the Solstices held in Boston and San Francisco, as well as the one I run in NYC. Even then, the holiday has evolved in ways I didn't quite predict. This has happened both because different communities took them in somewhat different directions, and because (even in the events I run myself), factors come into play that shaped it. Which musicians are available to perform, and how does their stage presence affect the event? Which people from which communities will want to attend, and how will their energy affect things? Which jokes will they laugh at? What will they find poignant?

On top of that, I'm deliberately trying to spread the Solstice to a larger audience. Within a couple years, if I succeed, more of the Solstice will be outside of my control than within it. 

Is it possible to steer a cultural artifact into the future, even after you let go of the reins? How? Would you want to?

In this post, I lay out my current thoughts on this matter. I am interested in feedback, collaboration and criticism.

Lessons from History?

(Epistemic status: I have not really fact checked this. I wouldn't be surprised if the example turned out to be false, but I think it illustrates an interesting point regardless of whether it's true)

Last year after Solstice, I was speaking with a rationalist friend with a Jewish background. He made an observation. I lack the historical background to know if this is exactly accurate (feel free to weigh in on the comments), but his notion was as follows:

Judaism has influenced the world in various direct ways. But a huge portion of its influence (perhaps the majority) has been indirectly through Christianity. Christianity began with a few ideas it took from Judaism that were relatively rare. Monotheism is one example. The notion that you can turn to the Bible for historical and theological truth is another.

But buried in that second point is something perhaps more important: religious truth is not found in the words of your tribal leaders and priests. It's found in a book. The book contains the facts-of-the-matter. And while you can argue cleverly about the book's contents, you can't disregard it entirely.

Empiricists may get extremely frustrated with creationists, for refusing to look outside their book for answers (instead of the natural world). But there was a point where the fact of the matter lay entirely in "what the priests/ruler said" as opposed to "what the book said". 

In this view, Judaism's primary memetic success is in helping to seed the idea of scholarship, and a culture of argument and discussion.

I suspect this story is simplified, but these two points seem meaningful: a memeplex's greatest impact may be indirect, and may not have much to do with the attributes that are most salient on first glance to a layman.



So far, I've deliberately encouraged people to experiment with the Solstice. Real rituals evolve in the wild, and adapt to the needs of their community. And a major risk of ritual is that it becomes ossified, turning either hollow or dangerous. But if a ritual is designed to be mutable, what gives it it's identity? What separates a Secular Solstice from a generic humanist winter holiday?

The simplest, most salient and most fun aspects of a ritual will probably spread the fastest and farthest. If I had to sum up the Solstice in nine words, they would be:

Light. Darkness. Light.
Past. Present. Future.
Humanity. Science. Civilization.

I suspect that without any special effort on my part (assuming I keep promoting the event but don't put special effort into steering its direction), those 9 pieces would remain a focus of the event, even if groups I never talk to adopt it for themselves.

The most iconic image of the Solstice is the Candelit story. At the apex of the event, when all lights but a single candle have been extinguished, somebody tells a story that feels personal, visceral. It reminds us that this world can be unfair, but that we are not alone, and we have each other. And then the candle is blown out, and we stand in the absolute darkness together.

If any piece of the Solstice survives, it'll be that moment.

If that were all that survived, I think that'd be valuable. But it'd also be leaving 90%+ of the potential value of the Solstice on the table.

Complex Value

There are several pieces of the Solstice that are subtle and important. There are also pieces of it that currently exist that should probably be tapered down, or adjusted to become more useful. Each of them warrants a fairly comprehensive post of its own. A rough overview of topics to explore:

Existential Risk.
The Here and Now.
The Distant Future.

My thoughts about each of these are fairly complex. In the coming weeks I'll dive into each of them. The next post, discussing Atheism, Rationality and Death, is here.

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Is this the kind of event you can bring a Small Child to?

We had a little girl at the Leipzig Solstice last year, 4 years old IIRC. She loved it. Of course she didn't speak any English, so I don't know if the talk of death would have bothered her if she did, but people and candles and singing isn't a hard sell to a small kid.

After some consideration, I decided the NYC event is rated PG-13. Children are welcome and encouraged so long as parents think it's a good idea.

Content notes include:

  • discussion of death and extinction, which may be either scary or long-winded-and-boring depending on your child

  • There will be a moment of darkness/silence, but I'll be publicly stating that it's okay if we have babies crying during that section - we're hear to experience sacredness together but we're also here to be people/community together and that means accepting that sometimes kids are cranky)

  • If you feel like your kid needs a break, you can take them to the downstairs Social Hall, where people who are into winter celebrations but not into singing will be hanging out.

If there is demand for it, we might set up some manner of day-care thing for parents who want to bring their kids, who want experience the Darkness™ but don't necessarily want their kid to.

I think the topics list is too long for a single holiday. For comparison:

Thanksgiving Giving Thanks Family National Heritage -Pilgrims and Indians

Christmas Generosity/ Giving
Community of All People/ Brotherhood

Also the more major themes you throw at Solstice, the less you have available to differentiate future possible holidays. Instead of eventually having 3-4 different holidays with different themes and feels, you'd get 3-4 holidays that all cover all the themes.

X-Risk is covered pretty well by Petrov Day, so you could probably cross that off the list since it's taken care of elsewhere. And making atheism a major theme doesn't feel right, because then it feels more like a nyah nyah pooh pooh of Christmas rather than something solemn and important in it's own right.

I actually agree with a lot of this: if you look at the next post, you'll see my thoughts about atheism are "it's not actually a priority at all." (All the topics listed there are not necessarily ones that should be included, just ones that have played some role historically)

That said, I'm also defining subthemes a bit differently than you. For example, if I were making a similar list for Christmas, it'd be:

Peace on Earth, Goodwill
Theological Birth of Christ
The Nativity Scene (i.e. Mythological Birth of Christ)
King Herod et all
Winter Festivities / Winter Wonderland
Santa Clause (and Christmas Magic) 
Christmas Candy/Food (candy canes, gingerbread, etc)

It's not just about the core-themes, it's about the surrounding mythology that springs up around those core themes. Several of the things I just listed also have a lot of sub-components.

The mythology is going to evolve over time, but I do think it's important to give it a strong definition early on, because that can shape how it further evolves over time.