Ethical Culture is a bit of an odd duck. It’s a non-theistic religion, or as I like to say, “the religion for people who don’t like religion.” The movement’s founder, Felix Adler, said that it is “religious to those who are religiously-minded and to those who interpret its work religiously, and it is simply ethical to those who are not so minded.” At my congregation, the Ethical Society of St. Louis, we express this as being a “Welcoming Home for Humanists”, where we focus on “Deed Before Creed”.
But what does this mean in practice? I was asked this in an interview for the Ask an Atheist podcast in the summer of 2013, when they visited the Ethical Society of St. Louis. I answered by describing what happens at the Society on a typical Sunday morning. But there’s another aspect of our community that I didn’t mention then, but that I experienced again last week: Good Cheer.
Good Cheer is the Ethical Society of St. Louis’s annual winter festival (other Ethical Societies around the country have different names and different specifics). We have several seasonal festivals throughout the year, and we also have a Thanksgiving Festival, but Good Cheer is our biggest seasonal event. That’s probably because it is closely analogous to Christmas, the biggest holiday of the year for the majority of American culture. So, what does Good Cheer mean for us? Food, Fellowship, Fun, and Festivities
We gathered together in the Assembly Hall for a great potluck dinner. Families were assigned various types of dishes based on last name, and dedicated volunteers made sure that the proper food was kept warm and that the variety was interesting as different tables were released to go through the line.
After our shared feast, we ascended to the auditorium for our program. Everyone received an ornament to place on the tree at the front of the room while a member of the Society played Christmas and other holiday songs on the piano. By the time the program started with the choir singing some non-religious Christmas songs like “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree”, probably about 200 of us had gathered together.
The children of the Society were invited to the stage to lead us in a round of the song “Oh, How Lovely is the Evening.” The children had been learning the song for the previous month, and they sang happily (well, at least some of them did – there’s always a mix of enthusiasm in a group of singing children).
After that, our Leader Kate Lovelady and Leader-in-Training James Croft led a group of members in a shortened retelling of the Story of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, complete with song, costumes, and Global Warming-inspired updates. As James Croft said later on Facebook, “there’s something fantastically healthy about a congregation in which the leaders poke fun at themselves continually.”
We then were visited by Santa Lucia, a tradition brought to the Society by long-term members who had previously lived in Sweden. Though the tradition has some Christian roots, it is also a nice pagan or secular tradition, a way of sharing gifts and welcoming the return of the Sun. We continued this by sharing the returning light candle-by-candle through the gathering.
Finally, Santa arrived! We had gathered the names and ages of all the children in attendance when everyone signed in, and volunteers from the Society bought age-appropriate gifts for all of them. Santa welcomed all the children to the front and gave a gift to each.
Meanwhile, most of the adults moved to the building’s foyer, where we shared cookies and other desserts while singing along with more Christmas and winter carols around a piano.
All-in-all, my family thinks this is a great evening. We have lovely food with friends, we get to laugh and sing, and we share in many of the traditions and rituals of the season without tying it to the dominant religious interpretation of the winter festivals. It’s not a Christmas party, exactly, though it shares enough of the secular associations that our society has with the December holidays to be familiar. J is comfortable there, and, of course, we also usually go to a Christmas Eve service to fill her specific Christian expectations.
While we love the event, there are some who don’t like parts of it. Some find the inclusion of Santa Lucia to be odd, but it came from a specific family’s experience in another culture’s tradition, and it has been part of ours now for years. Some may find anything that smacks of Christmas to be too Christian, but the aspects we include – Rudolph, Santa, Christmas trees, presents, etc. – have historical antecedents independent of Christianity.
And that’s what I find to be the strength of being part of this Humanist community. We recognize the benefits of being together and supporting each other. We build our community through fun and ritual. We embrace the secular parts of American traditions without needing to incorporate the theistic aspects as well. We can have Santa and Rudolph and song and food without the theological complications.
It’s a lovely evening. Thanks to all the volunteers at the Society who make it such a fun family event every year.