Five years ago, game designer and web developer Raymond Arnold decided that Christmas was great and all, but there was something missing: a sincere secular ceremony that celebrated human curiosity and achievement, rather than the supernatural and the unknown. With a game designer’s instinct, he set off to start his own event, the Secular Solstice.
By most accounts, it has actually gone surprisingly well. Over two hundred people will be attending this year’s Secular Solstice in NYC, co-sponsored by the New York Society for Ethical Culture, with as well as many events across the United States - some sponsored by secular movements like Sunday Assembly, others run simply by small communities.
This raises many interesting questions: What’s the purpose of a solstice for atheists, agnostics, and other secular people? Would you attend a ceremony, intentionally designed from the ground up, and stripped of any religious connotations? Is it even possible to create a tradition intentionally, or must it necessarily arise organically? And isn’t this all a bit passe? In a generation of jaded irony and post-truth politics, can sincerely felt ritual reassert itself as a part of our cultural lexicon?
In this extended interview, Raymond attempts to answer these questions, and more.
Linch: So what is the Secular Solstice, in your own words?
Raymond: The secular solstice is a holiday focusing on humanity, science and civilization. It’s got a lot of fun and beautiful singalong songs (some oldies like “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” and “Here Comes the Sun”, and some new ones like “Brighter Than Today” and “Uplift”).
It tells the story of the first humans who looked up at the winter sky and thought “why is it so dark these days?”, and instead of sitting around being confused, they invented astronomy to find out when the sun would return, and they invented agriculture to make sure they had enough food.
Solstice uses that story as a frame to talk about current problems humanity faces, and how to solve mysterious, scary problems.
The holiday has a strong “Light, into darkness, into light again” theme. We start with fun, upbeat songs. Then we start turning off the lights until there’s only a single candle remaining. In the near-darkness, someone tells a story about the hardships we face. The story is often intense. It doesn’t offer any false hope - it looks the darkness in the eye, figures out exactly how much hope we have evidence to believe in, and then it offers a way forward, making peace with an unfair universe.
Then we blow out that candle. We sit in the darkness for a minute, knowing that we are not alone - we have each other.
And finally, the lights come back on as we sing of a tomorrow that might be brighter than today.
Linch: Tell me a little bit about yourself. Who are you and what inspired you to do the solstice?
Raymond: My family has half catholic and half atheist. This had some interesting effects on how I think about things. My dad was an atheist, and when I was six years old he got me hooked on two things: game design, and asking questions about how the universe worked. He introduced me to Dungeons and Dragons, and I immediately wanted to start creating my own rules for my friends to play. He introduced me to astronomy, and I immediately started asking: “How did the solar system form? Where do black holes come from?”
Over time, my love of game design and science both deepened. Science taught that the universe was orderly: you could ask questions, and you could reasonably expect that either someone had already figured out the answer, or that you could figure out the answer. It taught that rational thinking was the way to understand the world. That sometimes emotional thinking clouds your judgement.
Game design taught me about art. I realized that games (video games, board games) were a combination of many artforms. Visual design. Music. Storytelling. Improv. Games combined all those media into a single form, giving players fascinating experiences. And above all, there was a final medium unique to games: the art of rulemaking, of human interaction.
If you make a rule, what kind of emotional impact will it have on your players? Will it make the game slow and thoughtful? Silly and playful? Fast paced? Anger inducing? And how do you introduce these rules to players, slowly, so they don’t get overwhelmed? How do you make a “tutorial” for a game that doesn’t even feel like a tutorial? That just feels fun?
These are are questions I still think about today. But what’s all this have to do with a secular holiday?
Well, while this was going on, my mom introduced me to Christmas. In our family, Christmas Eve was a huge deal that relatives came from all over the country for, that friends from all over the neighborhood came for. It was one of those ridiculously over-the-top Christmases you see in Hollywood, where we all sit down to eat roast beast together and then gather round the tree in the living room and sing Christmas carols for two hours. And the finally, all the kids would climb on Grandma’s lap and have her read “The Night Before Christmas”. (We’d do this even when the ‘kids’ were all 20 years old)
As a kid, I thought Christmas was fun and magical. As an adult, I started to realize how important it was. I once invited a friend over - from a nominally Christian family - and she was blown away. “I had no idea Christmas could be so awesome. My family just rolls out of bed at noon, gives each other presents and calls it a day.”
There was something precious that my family had, that many others did not.
And yet - as an artist, and as someone who relied on science for his worldview, I also found myself asking: could there be something even better?
I started paying attention to how Christmas worked. “Magic” is just a word for things we don’t understand yet. I started thinking about Christmas from a game design perspective, to see how it worked.
Linch: Hmm. So how does Christmas work?
Raymond: Well, at my family, there’s a particular emotional arc. You arrive at Grandma’s house. You’re a bit frazzled from travel, and then you’re immediately bumping into all these people you haven’t seen in a year, catching up with them. So you start with a lot of nervous energy.
The dinner, and conversations, and maybe a little alcohol, transforms that nervous energy into excited energy. You start singing songs, and you’re singing them loudly and kind of badly but everyone’s doing it so it’s just fun instead of embarrassing.
And then, as the evening progresses, the songs get more mellow. We go from silly songs like Frosty the Snowman to quiet, sacred songs like Silent Night. The energy becomes warm, tranquil. Food coma sets in. You relax into the couch. You sing, cuddled up with your family, sipping hot chocolate. By the time we get to Grandma reading Night Before Christmas, we’ve hit a sacred space.
Linch: And how does that translate into Solstice?
Raymond: With Solstice, I had a different goal. I wanted something sacred and exciting, and the core metaphor I wanted to explore was the Light-Darkness-Light. So we start with a similar fun, high energy. We encourage people to be a bit silly and we start with really simple songs that are easy to learn.
Things gradually get more serious. The songs gradually get more complicated. Like a well designed game tutorial, it slowly introduces new concepts and teaching people some singing techniques without making it feel like you’re taking a singing lesson.
We hit a moment of peak sacredness at the blowing out of the candle. But instead of ending there, we start building energy again. Only this time, instead of wild and crazy fun, it’s inspirational. Epic. Beautiful. So people go away feeling energized.
Linch: What can a newcomer expect at their first Solstice?
Raymond: This varies from location to location. In Seattle, for example, they have several hours of games and dancing and art projects before you even get to the Solstice ceremony. And their ceremony itself is relatively short (an hour, as opposed to the two-ish hours at New York).
In New York, the ceremony is longer, but I’ve actually took some notes from the Seattle group and tried to have some activities for people to do so that by the time we get to the singing, you’ve made some friends and feel more connected to these people you’ve never met.
One new thing we’re trying this year is having a darkened corridor that leads into the before-party. You’ll be given a light to guide your way through the hallway, and emerge into a festive hall. The idea is to give people a moment to shake out of their “default world” mentality and start getting ready for kind of magical night.
Linch: How are solstice events different from year to year?
Raymond: Each year, I keep most of the same songs, but I try to find a particular theme that ties those songs together differently, and have storytellers highlight that theme throughout the event. For example, last year the theme was the nuclear war. So we had some songs about winter that ended up having a subtext that was not just about literal cold, but about the Cold War.
This year, in NYC our theme is smallpox eradication - one of the greatest scientific and political achievements humanity has accomplished. This lends itself to a focus on how winter is a time when disease strikes harder, and stories about ancient humans grappling with invisible illness they didn’t understand and couldn’t fight.
Linch: Why is it called “Secular Solstice?” Why not just “Winter Solstice”?
Raymond: That was mostly a practical decision. There are a lot of Solstice events from across history, from pagan festivals to Unitarian Universalist holidays. “Secular Solstice” helps make it clear what sort of worldview your event is fostering.
Linch: What worldview is your event fostering? How is Secular Solstice different from the other solstices?
Raymond: A pagan Solstice typically has a focus on the natural world, on rebirth, with some mythology woven in. And many other humanist solstices tend to be a bit more open-ended: they have a fun party and food and festivities, but often don’t have much in the way of traditions.
The Secular Solstice respects the natural world, but the primary focus is on human agency - how we have shaped this world for the better. (And perhaps acknowledging the ways we have sometimes shaped the world for the worse, and how we can learn and do better).
And perhaps most importantly, with regards to what distinguishes a “Secular Solstice” from a “solstice that is secular”: I’ve put hundreds (maybe thousands?) of hours into creating and finding and collaborating to create beautiful music, poetry and stories. And then testing that music and stories, getting feedback on which ones resonate and which didn’t. There’s a problem where most humanists aren’t artists - they occasionally dabble in it but don’t invest their lives into learning music as a craft. Until we have more people who specialize in that, humanist art will always lag behind religious art.
It’s *very* difficult to write music that is both respectful of science and beautiful and (most difficult), easy to sing along with at an event where you’ve never heard the music before.
I made a lot of mistakes early on, and it’s taken 5 years to really get to a place where I think this holiday can stand toe-to-toe with Christmas and feel just as magical.
Linch: Is this explicitly atheist or also appealing to people who maybe don't live near members of their religious community?
Raymond: Individual Solstices vary in how they approach this, but the fundamental goal is not to be an atheist holiday, but to focus on something broader: human achievement, rationality and science, and how to use those tools to help each other.
I think anyone who cares about those things will find a lot meaning here. I personally aim the Solstices I run to be something you could bring religious family members to. While they might disagree with some aspects, they wouldn’t feel offended or alienated. I definitely want everyone to feel welcome.
That said, this isn’t like a Unitarian event, which often draws elements from different religions. We don’t talk much about God, but the event does have a strong commitment to evidence based thinking, and to a willingness to change your mind. If I ever encountered strong evidence for God I’d want to change my mind about it - but the current evidence seems fairly strongly in favor of an atheistic worldview.
Linch: Have you gotten any hate mail from people worried about the War on Christmas?
Raymond: My most hostile comments have actually been from atheists who don’t really understand what this is about, who see ritual as something inherently dangerous. I’ve actually had some really fascinating conversations with them about it - I agree that ritual can be dangerous, so I put a lot of thought into designing the holiday with safeguards in place.
Once I talk to them they usually come to understand what I’m doing. I’ve actually had one person who complained vocally online, but then later came to a Solstice and said “Oh, that was pretty innocuous. It’s not quite my thing and I probably won’t come to next year’s, but I see where you’re going with this.”
Linch: What do you mean “designing safeguards on ritual?”
Raymond: In the Solstice Book of Traditions, one of the very first pages is a warning: that ritual can be powerful and beautiful, but it can lead us to preserve ideas even after the evidence no longer supports them. I implore Solstice organizers, every single year, to think about whether the ideas and songs and stories still ring true, or whether they’ve started to acquire nagging doubts about them. We need to proactively learn how to change stories to keep up with our latest knowledge while retaining their beauty. And sometimes, simply letting a sacred tradition die.
Each year, when I’ve written stories for the Solstice, I’ve done research. And often, I run into a fact that is inconvenient. (For example, I thought smallpox was eradicated in 1979 apart from a few small research facilities. But there’s some evidence there remained some danger up through the 1990s). When I first came upon that fact, I felt a sense of “ugh, now I need to revise the story I was planning to tell.” But I’ve trained myself to embrace the inconvenient facts. And they often turn around and become one of the more powerful aspects of the stories I tell.
Linch: The Chess&Games group at my college has a Festivus tradition. It was actually really fun. What sets the Solstice apart from other secular holidays like Festivus?
Raymond: Oh yeah, I think there’s a pretty big difference between Festivus and Solstice. Festivus is great fun and hilarious - but I think it’s greatest strength is in being silly, and a bit ironic.
Solstice’s goal is to be more deeply felt. You have some silliness and fun parties afterwards, but the key emotional event in the evening is a moment where a candle is blown out, and you sit in the darkness with people for a minute with the knowledge that it’s up to humans to fix the problems of this world.
By contrast, Festivus’s key traditions involve a plain aluminum pole and wrestling people to the ground. They’re fairly different, emotionally. I’ve wanted both Festivus and Solstice-like experiences at different times in my life.
Linch: But Festivus also has the “Airing of Grievances”, which for certain tight-knit communities is a great way to release a lot of pent-up stress. I guess Secular Solstice is more doable with strangers?
Raymond: Hah! True. I think the Airing of Grievances could be great if done right, but it depends on having the right friends - there are some relatives I definitely wouldn’t want to do it with. :)
Linch: What kind of venue do you use for the Solstice?
Raymond: Depends on the size - small groups still do it in their living room. Large groups usually rent a hall. In NYC the event is co-sponsored by the New York Society for Ethical Culture, a humanist group that's been around since 1877. They've got a huge, beautiful building that manages to feel majestic as well as warm and welcoming, and I am very grateful for all of their input into this event.
Linch: Where can people find Secular Solstice events for 2016?
Raymond: SecularSolstice.com has a list of all major Solstice events.
Linch: If I don’t live in a city that already has a Secular Solstice, how do I get involved?
Raymond: On the contact page on the website, I encourage people to email me and set up a time for a phonecall or skype. I am always happy to talk newcomers through their first Solstice experience. I’ve also put together a resources page, which goes in depth into how to plan, what sort of songs work best, what sort of stories will resonate. I update that as I my own knowledge grows over time.
You can also find music from the Solstice at www.humanistculture.bandcamp.com, which can help jump-start some ideas.
Linch: Are you familiar with trolley problems? If you could press a button, and it will 1) delete any popular American holiday, and 2) make the Solstice as popular as said American holiday, would you do it? If so, what holiday would you choose to replace with Solstice?
Raymond: Interesting question. I don’t think I’d do it - each holiday plays a particular role in helping a culture feel connected to their past. I do think some cultures can and should evolve. I don’t believe in God and I expect fewer people to believe in God over time. But I don’t think I’d want to make Solstice popular specifically by destroying another cultural artifact.
Linch: Here’s a deeper question I have that is hard to articulate and might not end up making that much sense. In 2016, it seems that our culture narrative is dominated by what can perhaps best be described by “post-post-irony” or some other weird neologism for surreality that only partially captures the real situation. In entertainment, we see this in shows like Black Mirror and Westworld, where you only get to meaningness after ironic detachment and several layers of artifice. In current events, we see our politicians engage in a narrative dominated by truthiness and post-truth politics. But Solstice seems to be a event dominated by genuine dedication and sincerity, where the rituals are unironically and unself-awarely performed. What makes you think, in this day and age, that there will be a large interest in something as apparently anachronistic and just blasé as sincerely felt ritual?
Raymond: Super interesting question. I have a few answers: One is that pendulums are always swinging back and forth. Right now we are in a very irony-heavy, self-conscious time period. But it’s been that way for a while and I think it’s time for some pushback.
Another answer is that, even if the dominant narrative is irony and cynicism these days, there’s always room for niche markets. There are 7 billion people in the world, and even if 90% of them wanted something ironic or silly or dark-and-edgy, there’s room for millions of people who are hungry for something different.
And finally, a deeper answer: Intellectuals (who Solstice is more apt to attract) tend to be very cynical. There’s a *reason* we got so cynical - reality often turns out to be disappointing. Our heroes keep turning out to have flaws. Our ideologies keep turning out to be oversimplified. The problems the world faces keep turning out to be even more complicated than we thought.
Here is my promise for Solstice: this is a holiday for cynical people, who are disillusioned with everything, but who want a way to find hope, anyway. And it works because, in that moment of darkness, just before the candle is snuffed out, we are frank. We are brutal. We stare unflinching into the abyss, knowing that this world is full of broken political systems and death and disease.
And yet: we stare into it knowing, because history and evidence has shown us: that we make the world brighter. That in the middle of the cold war when we stood on the brink of nuclear annihilation, there were Russians and Americans and people across the world working to stop smallpox forever. And it took tremendous political effort, but they succeeded.
Solstice is a place where a cynical person can come, and feel safe that they are not about to be tricked into something false or sanguine, and yet feel genuinely reassured that there is good in the world and that it is worth fighting for.
Linch: Where do you see the solstice going in five years?
Raymond: Within five years? I want there be more “major flagship” Solstice events that are heavily promoted, that hundreds of people come to, that are high production value and showcase how beautiful the holiday can be. It’d be neat if they each had slightly different aesthetics. Right now the New York Solstice has a slightly jazzy feel to it, but it’d be great if there were also a big Solstice with more of a classical music feel, or tried other experiments.
Much more importantly - I want there to be many more *smaller* Solstices. This whole thing was inspired by a 20-person Christmas Eve party in a living room. When winter rolls around, I want secular people to think about throwing Solstice parties with fun singalong music that feels *distinctly* humanist, that makes it feel like there is a culture you can be part of.
I want it to be something you can take pieces of, make your own, and invite your closest friends and family to share. Right now, lots of people know that they can throw a solstice party (it’s literally the oldest holiday in the world). But they have to build their tradition from scratch.
The whole point of science is to stand on the shoulders of the people who come before you, and build off their work. This applies to art and culture too. I hope people are able to use existing Solstice traditions to build their own experience.
Linch: And on a longer timescale? Ten to twenty years?
Raymond: In 10-20 years, the question gets more interesting.
Subcultures have one of two things happen to them, in my experience. Either they stay obscure, with only their most devoted fans - who care deeply about the substance - participating. Or, they go mainstream. This sometimes means somewhat “dumbing down”, or warping due to capitalist forces. Look at Christmas - it’s super commercialized. It encourages you to by the biggest, most amazing Christmas displays and expensive gifts that you can manage. It has little to do with Jesus.
And look at Hannukah, which was blown out of proportion to its original cultural significance, so that it can compete with Christmas.
So I think in twenty years, Secular Solstice will *either* still be fairly obscure, *or* it will have gone mainstream enough that people are making t-shirts and expensive displays. And it’s a open question which is better.
My hope, I think, is for it to go mainstream - as long as it can carry forward a kernel of its core ideas, and the people who care most deeply about it are still celebrating something meaningful. Christmas is over-commercialized, but if you know where to look you can still find quiet midnight masses that respect the core of the holiday.
Solstice actually has an even harder job than Christmas or Hannukah though: it needs to not just preserve a core story - it needs that story to evolve, as our understanding of the science or philosophy or morality evolves. And people will be arguing about how they think those things are (or should be) evolving. That’s all healthy, but it makes for a tougher tradition to keep in place.
Solstice doesn’t just need people to preserve one set of traditions. It needs cultural stewards to actively pursue truth, who work to develop songs and stories that reflect our deepening understanding of the nature of reality.
Concretely: in twenty years, my hope is that people all over the world are sharing a moment where they extinguish that candle in the darkness, facing uncomfortable truths about the world, and finding ways to keep hope alive and build a better future.
Linch: Do you have any closing thoughts for our readers?
Raymond: Well, on a practical note: most Solstices, from the big, high production one in NYC to the smallest, most informal ones, are run by organizers who could use your help. They’re often putting a lot of their own money on the line to rent out a space big enough for people to gather together.
They may need volunteers to help with decorations, or to welcome newcomers and make them feel at home. If the event you’re interested in attending is doing tickets or donations to pay for the venue, it can be incredibly valuable to get that ticket sooner rather than later, so they know how many people to plan for, to get enough food, etc.
Regardless, I hope that everyone reading can find some piece of solstice that inspires them to start building their own traditions.
Thanks for Thomas Kirk in helping me come up with interesting questions!