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Humanists Hold Winter Solstice Celebration in New Haven

Katie Toth


The Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year, begins on the night of Monday December 21. It’s often surrounded by Christmas and other religious holidays. On the New Haven Green, a group of humanists — people who believe in using life experience and science, instead of religion, to guide their ethics — had a non-religious celebration of their own.

The Yale Humanists, the non-profit who organized the event, say they came out to the Green on Sunday to help people who don’t believe in God form their own communities where they can be themselves.  

“There’s something to be said for being in a group of people who are gathering because they identify religiously as you do,” said Stephen Goeman, a 2nd-year Yale Divinity School student who interns with the Yale Humanists. “They want to be around people who are like you.”

Goeman is also part of a student society for atheists and other nonbelievers on Yale’s campus called the “None/Others” — a reference to a recent Pew Research Center poll that showed the number of people who believed in no religion was growing. In 2014, 23 percent of people in the United States responded that they were “agnostics,” “atheists” or believed in “nothing in particular” when they were asked about their faith. That’s up from 17 percent in 2007.

Alex Norman, who came to Sunday’s event with her daughter Raegan at the behest of a friend, says while she’s never been religious, she’s more appreciative of the “safety” a religious structure can provide now that she has a kid. “My family has never been very religious,” she said. “I just try to be a good person.”

Goeman said as the number of non-religious people rises, it’s important for them to build their own institutions that can support them the way church and other spiritual institutions support the more religiously-inclined.

“There are some things that some religious groups do really well,” he said. “Among them are their end-of-the-year ceremonies...we wanted to capture some of that in a positive way.”

At Sunday’s ceremony, a musician played uplifting guitar chords and sang to a crowd of 40 people, who waved glowsticks in the air as they sang along.

Before everyone broke their glowsticks, former nun Mary Johnson — now a Humanist herself — stood at a podium to deliver a few words about how the glowsticks work. The glowsticks held chemicals that were about to mix, she explained: one in a thin glass vial, the other nestling the vial in a plastic tube.

“When you snap the glowstick, the chemicals in the glass vial mix with the chemicals in the plastic tube, and what happens is there’s a chemical reaction that produces energy — and the energy produces light,” Johnson said.

Johnson added that for her, the mixture of the light for her, is symbolic for the energy created with human relationships.  “We take two separate things, maybe two separate people, we kind of mix them together... and there’s a reaction that was formed where we all know each other better. We make things a little warmer. Even if not physically, metaphorically.”

The Yale Humanists are already planning for next year’s solstice, when they want those ideas of light and warmth to have their own holiday art installation on the New Haven Green. The Humanists say some people fear atheists or agnostics may fear that non-religious celebrants are waging ‘war on Christmas,’ and to change that idea, they’re asking for artists’ proposals on how to build a $40,000 secular art installation celebrating light and warmth in the winter darkness. It’ll also include a time capsule for people to share their hopes for the future.


The Humanists have met with the Arts Council for Greater New Haven over the project — they say the non-profit has already “expressed significant enthusiasm for the project.”  They’re asking for artists to submit project proposalsby January 17, 2016. And they’re hoping to see the art piece join the Menorah, Nativity Scene and Christmas Tree that already sit on the New Haven Green each year.

Kathie is a former editor at WSHU.