Individualism and Holidays

It’s pretty unlikely that anyone’s following my blog and not the much superior blog of Sarah Constantin. But if you are, take a read of her most recent post, In Defense of Individualist Culture.

I care very much about protecting individualism, and I think this clarified a couple things for me. One, this is at root of much of my objection to ritual and other holidays; they are not religious, but they are still usually anti-individualist in form if not in content, and I think that’s where most (70%?) of the danger of religion actually lies. Two, why I have a strong, visceral “Enemy!” response to David Chapman’s Meaningness and other pieces of postrationalist thought that descend from it.

While I’m on the holiday topic: I have let this project lapse quite a lot, and have moved to the South Bay where it’s harder to work on. I do have ideas for an August holiday and some next steps (look for tall buildings with rentable open-air access high up), though, so I’m going to give it a shot. (I’m also on the list of potential Winter Solstice organizers, but that’s not my call.)

Holidaying: An Update

As described in Points Deepen Valence, I’ve been contemplating and experimenting with holiday design. Here’s how it’s going:

I ran a Day of Warmth at a friend’s apartment (on the weekend after Valentine’s Day), and it went fairly well.
Good points: a ritualistic quasi-silence was very powerful, and could probably go longer. The simple notion of it being a holiday, rather than a party, does something to intensify the experience. Physical closeness and sharing the taste and smell of food were, as hoped, good emotional anchors. Instinctual reactions about what will be well-received, based on initial gut impression, seem to be pretty accurate.
Bad points: a loosely planned event is not immune, or even resistant, to the old adage that no plan survives contact with the enemy (or in this case audience and participants). I tried to have a small handful of anchors and improvise within them, since the event was small, but without planning problems came up faster and more wide-ranging than I expected. The anchors went off alright, but not as planned; everything between them required more constant thought than desired. Breaking bread, without clear parameters on the bread, did not work well physically. And the close-knit atmosphere of comfort desired was not actually compatible with the intended purpose of deepening shallow friendships.
(A longer-form postmortem is here.)

My initial idea for the Vernal Equinox was a mental spring cleaning, Tarski Day. I haven’t been able to find buy-in to help me get it together, and this month’s weekends are actually very crowded already, so I won’t be doing that. Instead, I’ve been researching other ritual and holiday designs to crib off, and looking for events to observe. One group I’ve been looking at is the Atheopagans, who use the “traditional” pagan framework of the wheel of the year without any spiritual beliefs underlying it. I don’t empathize much with the ‘respect for the earth’ thing, personally, but cribbing off their notes (and how that blogger, specifically, modified holidays for the California climate) is valuable data. He also wrote this document on designing rituals, including some points I agree with and can take advice to include, and some I dislike and consider to carry the downsides of religious practice, to avoid.

There are also the connected “Humanistic Pagans”, and a description of the physical significance of the eight point year (Solstices, Equinoxes, Thermstices and Equitherms) here. It also includes some consequences of the interlocking light/dark and hot/cold cycles for what activities and celebrations are seasonally appropriate, which is food for thought.

I’m not sure where I’m going from here. After the Spring Equinox comes the Spring Equitherm, aka Beltane, which in many traditions and by the plenty/optimism vs. scarcity/pessimism axis, to be naturally a hedonistic holiday. I am not a hedonist by nature, so while I’m sure I could find friends who would be happy to have a ritualistic orgy and/or general bacchanalia, I’m not sure I’d want to attend, which somewhat defeats the personal purpose of learning holiday design. But I don’t want to leave a four-month gap in my feedback loop between now and the Summer Solstice. I suppose I’ll keep you posted.

Points Deepen Valence: Ideas for Seasonal Celebrations in the Rationalist Community

I have been thinking again about the Eight-Point Year in the context of designing community celebrations for the rationalist community. Almost all knowledge of traditional pagan religion was totally lost before modern pagans even started constructing their ritual calendar, so they effectively built their celebratory calendar from scratch. And they’ve had a lot of success, so it seems to me that we should use their example to build our calendar out from the winter Secular Solstice.

The basic formula for a seasonal celebration in this template is to embody the attributes of the opposite season, in a celebratory way. Celebrate light in the darkness on the darkest night of the year; celebrate the fading of the light on the sunset of the longest day. Creative destruction, making room for the new, at the beginning of spring growth; show what you have made, built, and beautified at harvest time. These themes show up not just in pagan ritual, but also in many seasonal religious holidays and traditional practices; harvest festivals with art are traditional across Europe and beyond, and festivals of light in the early winter are common worldwide. So how can we build our own practices to fit? Let’s walk around the calendar.

Winter: Brighter Night

We’ve got this one covered already, with many variations. Personally, I think that the SF version, with a choir and speeches, is most appropriate to the time of year, but I prefer the aesthetics of the Catholic Midnight Mass to the singalong style envisioned by Ray Arnold for the original and many of the splinters. In any case, the lighting, snuffing, and relighting of candles, to symbolize the darkness of the world and how we can bring light to it, is genius and the core of this celebration’s resonance. If you have that, you can probably tailor a lot without losing much.

Note on naming: As we expand the calendar, ‘Secular Solstice’ may cease to be a distinguishing name for the winter celebration. I’d suggest ‘Secular Solstice: Brighter Night’; Secular Solstice to distinguish it from pagan Solstice and Brighter Night to distinguish it from other times of year.

Winter/Spring: Day of Warmth

Around February 4th, this is the midpoint between the Winter Solstice and Spring Equinox. It is the coldest part of the year, and should be a celebration of literal and metaphorical warmth. The most natural expression, in my opinion, is a explicitly community-focused event. Baking together, huddling in a cuddlepile, enjoying each other’s company and celebrating that we have found people to share the time with. This may be a more intimate gathering by nature than the larger Winter Solstices, but that doesn’t seem necessary; possibly a larger gathering on a Saturday or a Friday night, and a tradition of smaller intimate gatherings across the rest of the weekend, would be most fitting. Excellent venues for this would be a cabin or hall in the mountains, or a gathering outside in chill air near a warm building to return to. Broader ideas for variations might replace baking with cooking in general, and given the tendencies of our community some intimate gatherings could celebrate physical intimacy in the form of orgies.

Assuming there is a large gathering, this might be some resolution to some recent debates about children at Solstice; Solstice/Brighter Night could be more solemn and ‘keep your children from interrupting’, like a Mass or Jewish High Holidays, and the Day of Warmth could be very explicitly inclusive and accepting of children and their energy and noise. (Note: I strongly discourage inviting children to an orgy.)

Spring: Tarski Day

Spring is marked by spring cleaning, by Christians the celebration of the perfection of the world through a symbolic death, and by Jews the growth of the Jewish people to cover Israel from the destruction and pain in Egypt. For the rationalist community, a great celebration is growth through being wrong and correcting our mistakes. Thus, Tarski Day, from the Litany of Tarski:

If the sky is blue,
I desire to believe that the sky is blue;
If the sky is not blue,
I desire to believe that the sky is not blue;
Let me not become attached to beliefs I may not want.

This is a time to gather and celebrate the errors you have corrected and ones you can correct now. Recalculate cached thoughts, search for crony beliefs to evict, and socially reward people who do. A good celebration might involve a hat full of slips of paper with topics to think about, and the group picking out random topics to find beliefs they haven’t checked recently. If you think you should undergo Jeffreysai’s Ritual of the Empty Room, well, you should probably do it immediately, but if you want to schedule a Schelling time to do it, this would be appropriate.

Spring/Summer: Hedonism?

May 4th, the midpoint between the spring equinox and summer solstice, is Star Wars Day, and also the wettest time of the year… in some climates. It’s the driest in others, though, so I depart from Sonata Green’s axes to describe this one. I would describe this distinction as, for lack of a better word, optimism vs. pessimism; at the spring-summer cross-point, things are growing and looking up; at the fall-winter point, they are headed toward the lean times. So the spring/summer celebration should perhaps be described “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we may die.” Have a raucous party (or as raucous as you get; frankly I might pass on this particular party). Recognize that sometimes, life is short, and we should fill it with life while we can. (If you enjoy exotic altered states, this would be a good time for it.)

Summer: Sunset of Civilization

Almost all midsummer celebrations take place the night before the day in question, whether that is the actual solstice, St. John’s Day, or another day around that time. (The closest Jewish analogue, Lag Ba’Omer, usually falls 30-60 days early.) Traditional celebrations tend to be joyous but also to commemorate the delicacy of the world, thankfulness that it has been preserved through another year, and hope that it will be protected from dragons, demons, witches, etc. A good theme might be the celebration of society humanity has built, but with awareness of all the times it could have been easily destroyed, and the ways it still could be. Bonfires and evoking ghost stories seem like excellent ways for this to manifest. The natural progression would seem to be starting the celebration before sunset with a focus on celebration of civilization, and letting the Sunset of Civilization proceed to the scary stories portion of the evening as the sun falls and the air gets colder.

Summer/Fall: ???

This day, around August 4th, ought to be a memorial for cold during a hot time. I’m not sure what this ought to do. My personal inclination might be to scale mountains or visit the roofs of tall buildings and stand in the wind, marveling at the magnificence and scale of the world and what we’ve built in it. I don’t think that makes a great community celebration, but maybe there is a place for a shared but solitary celebration. (Also I found that climbing high places is a somewhat traditional celebration of Lughnasadh, the August 1st holiday in the Celtic Pagan tradition.)

Fall: Day of Achievement

Fall celebrations are harvest festivals and parties of crafts. From Halloween to Sukkot to Vendimia, creating and decorating are common. This would be an excellent time to teach, create, share skills and demonstrate them, and generally celebrate excellence and foster it in our friends. If you want to test how well you can explain a useful new mental move or share the understanding you have gained over a new mathematical field, if you have greatly improved as a dancer or want to take up watercolors, if you want to practice improv or show off a well-carved jack-o-lantern, this is the day to do it. Specific traditions for this day: Over the course of the year, make notes of times people express that they don’t have a skill yet (growth mindset); when the Day of Achievement comes around, remind them that ‘yet’ may mean today, and encourage them to learn. This is an excellent celebration to open to anyone from any community; skills are for sharing, and if we believe truth and skill support us, then sharing them is “[offering them] a part of [our] own power, gambling that [they] couldn’t use it without becoming more like [us]” (in the words of Methods).

Fall/Winter: Prepper’s Day

This cross-point falls around November 4th, and in balance to the optimism I suggested is characteristic of the spring/summer point, this is a pessimistic season. To properly honor it, Prepper’s Day should be using the bounty of our lives to prepare for lean times and tail risks. If the infrastructure gives out, a storm or earthquake blocks the roads that bring the bounty of trade to our doors, or a new Depression hits our wallets and communities, it would be good to have prepared. To remember the things we have built and could lose, I suggest listening to Landsailor. Other preparation might include sharing security tools and building a web of trust to guard against losing the bounty of trustworthy open internet.


And that brings us back around to Winter again. This doesn’t include other specific days; Petrov Day just after the Fall Equinox, July 4th, Thanksgiving, New Year’s Day. I might also include holidays for regular intervals in the count of seconds since the beginning of the Unix Epoch, in the spirit that we will not remain Earthbound forever and so neither should our marking of time.