It was recently revealed that Richard Dawkins, arguably the world’s most prominent atheist, loves to sing carols at Christmas time. But the songs he loves the most are not the modern secular ones. Dawkins writes: “I recoil from such secular carols as ‘White Christmas,’ ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,’ and the loathsome ‘Jingle Bells,’ but I’m happy to sing real carols.” He prefers the older songs, which tend to have explicitly Christian religious themes.
This makes perfect sense to me. As a child, those old songs were one of my few direct connections to an older time and an older culture. Many of the carols I grew up singing were authored in the 1800s. The lyrics of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” go back to at least 1739. The tune to “Adeste Fideles” may well go back to the 13th century.
It’s not only the music. I was enchanted by the old customs. Bringing a tree inside the house seemed unaccountably weird and magical and very much out of character for my sedate middle-class parents in our standard-issue suburban home. I didn’t understand it — but I liked it.
Something about all this archaic stuff resonated deeply with me as a child. It filled an inner yearning which I could not identify, but which I now recognize as a need to connect to a larger whole: to previous generations of humanity, and to Mother Earth.
That yearning need remains with me as an adult. You can read more about how I’ve come to understand the meaning of this holiday season in an essay, “Solstice Connections,” which is the first installment of a regular column called A Pedagogy of Gaia which I’m writing for Humanistic Paganism.
I offer these intimate and highly personal thoughts with love and respect to people of all faiths and no faith, and hope that they will be received in the same spirit.
Wishing you a Blessed Solstice, a Joyful Yule, and a Happy New Year.