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Nashville secular group celebrates faith-free Christmas

Nicole Dittrich, center, talks about the origins of Santa Claus during the Sunday Assembly Nashville gathering at Vanderbilt University on Dec. 9, 2018, in Nashville. SAN is a secular congregation that meets regularly to celebrate life. RNS photo by Bailey Basham

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (RNS) — The sounds of the season filled the halls of the Scarritt Bennett Center at Vanderbilt University on a recent Sunday morning.

In the chapel, a congregation of about 80 people gathered, while the band launched into a holiday classic: “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch.”

They followed up with a cover of Tim Minchin’s “White Wine in the Sun.”

“I really like Christmas. It’s sentimental, I know, but I just really like it,” sang Adam Newton, host for the Sunday service. “I am hardly religious. I’d rather break bread with Dawkins than Desmond Tutu, to be honest.”

Welcome to the “Heathen Holidays,” a Christmas celebration for the nonreligious, hosted by the local chapter of the Sunday Assembly.

It’s a way to celebrate the joy of the Christmas season “without the discomfort of paying homage to any particular religion,” said Nicole Dittrich, one of the attendees.

Many of the people attending the service were in the holiday spirit, decked out in tacky Christmas sweaters. One person was even wearing a red blazer and a red and green Christmas hat to match, complete with pointed elf ears.

The service began with a singalong version of “A Hazy Shade of Winter” by Simon & Garfunkel.

Patrick Horst, who regularly attends the monthly Sunday Assembly Nashville gatherings and serves on the board, said SAN offers what he felt was missing once he left the Christian church.

Especially at the holidays.

“For a lot of people, religion or faith is for a sense of community, for being around people who are like-minded. SAN provides community and a space for us to think about what makes for better living,” he said.

Nashville’s Sunday Assembly is one of several in the Bible Belt, all inspired by the first assembly, which began meeting in London five years ago. The secular congregation celebrates life, according to the organization’s website.

Sunday Assembly Nashville congregants sing seasonal carols while meeting at Vanderbilt University on Dec. 9, 2018, in Nashville. RNS photo by Bailey Basham

Its sister congregations are also celebrating the secular side of Christmas. The Sunday Assembly in Knoxvillle is planning a Winter Solstice Party on Dec. 22, while an Atlanta group held a Yule-Rock, with live holiday music, singalongs and holiday stories.

A 2017 study by the Pew Research Center found that just over half of Americans (55 percent) celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, down from 59 percent in 2013.

Thirty-three percent celebrate Christmas as a cultural holiday. Nine percent celebrate it as both religious and cultural.

Eight percent skip Christmas altogether.

Laurel Schneider, professor of religious studies, religion and culture at Vanderbilt, isn’t surprised to see the Sunday Assembly holding a Christmas service — or regular services on Sundays.

“There’s a long tradition in America of this kind of thing. This is just a new form of it,” she said. “You bring the feeling of what you’re missing, and that may be similar to what you left.”

Schneider said groups like the Sunday Assembly fill a need, especially for people who used to be part of a church or other religious community but have since left.

“The goods of religion are real. The social cohesion, the inspiration to do better, a space to form connection with people, intergenerational exposure, a place to sing — where else do you get to sing?” she said. “Some of those really basic things really get lost when you leave church. But there is this desire to have those goods without what has become burdensome for whatever reason.”

Dittrich agreed.

Christmas is supposed to be a happy time, filled with friends and family.

“And yet,” she said, “sometimes people feel more lost and lonely than any other time of the year. And I think that can hold especially true for those of us who have left the religious aspects of the holiday behind and who might now feel a great loss this time of year, losing the family traditions and the sense of joy and nostalgia that is wrapped up with Christmases past.”

Linda Mercadante, professor of theology at The Methodist Theological School in Ohio, said people who are spiritual but not religious — abbreviated as SBNRs — are still searching for meaning.

“There is this stereotype that SBNRs are shallow and eclectic and that they don’t care about belief — that they just reject it,” said Mercadante, author of “Belief without Borders: Inside the Minds of the Spiritual but not Religious.”

“But I found that they actually cared so much about belief that if they objected to even one belief in a religious context, they would feel honor-bound to leave that religious group.”

Mercadante believes groups like the Sunday Assembly can be a force for good in their communities.

Horst agrees. The motto of Sunday Assembly is to “Live Better. Help Often. Wonder More,” and he believes those tenets can make the world a better place.

“We all just kind of strive to learn about the world we live in and figure out what a better life looks like. With us being social animals, living in an inclusive community is part of that,” he said. “Unlike some secular groups, we don’t try to tell people what’s wrong with a certain belief. We’d rather focus our energies on what makes life better and what it means to be a good person.”

That theme was echoed in the closing song at the Heathen Holidays service.

“Light a candle, a candle for hope, and wherever you go, let it glow,” sang band members. “Light a candle, a candle for compassion, and let kindness and love be enough to warm every heart. Light a candle for reason, let it show you the way. One more for humanity, and let them shine on all the world today.”

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Bailey Basham

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  • Reminds me of the gatherings we would have in the barracks overseas. Lots of games, zany gifts, ugly sweaters, and plenty of movies on the lounge VCR. Of course there was alcohol, thank goodness.

  • So, what has the word Christmas got to do with these folks, and why celebrate in a “chapel”? Why not worship the sun on the longest day of the year? After all, these people “don’t try to tell people what’s wrong with a certain belief”. Smells a little like hypocrisy, does it not.

  • “Sunday Assembly”, eh? Might as well be honest and just say “Atheist Church”, like they do in Kansas City.

    Either way you go, something — more accurately, Somebody — is clearly missing from the Atheist Religion these days. Ain’t panning out for the holidays no more.
    So dump Atheism, folks!!

  • Another reminder that human beings crave ritual in their lives, religious or otherwise. I would suggest, however, that these people in Nashville dig into the great treasure trove of pagan rituals to the sun during this time of year near the winter solstice, which Christianity co-opted for itself in the feast of Christmas. My avatar, the Roman emperor, would approve of that. His religion worshipped the sun deity as well, and his Latinized name reflects that.

  • According to Wiktionary, in terms of “etymology”, your use there of “thank goodness” is a “form of ‘thank God’ without mentioning the holy name. Kinda like these hypocrites calling themselves the “Sunday Assembly Nashville congregants … who have left the religious aspects of the holiday behind and who might now feel a great loss this time of year, losing the family traditions and the sense of joy and nostalgia that is wrapped up with Christmases past.”

  • The Winter Solstice celebration was co-opted by self service early Christians to take advantage of existing pagan rituals. We were celebrating Yule. It was in “inclusive” gathering, not a preening and proselytizing crowd of hypocrites trying to out Christian their neighbor in the next pew.

    Wiktionary: Yule

    In pre-Christian times, the term designated the two-month midwinter season (December and January). After Christianization, it became a narrower reference to the twelve days of Christmas.

  • There”s plenty of social clubs, volunteerism groups, and hobby clubs around the town, for the gregarious.

    But **these** folks are hungry for more — way way more — than that. Their own carefully-chosen atheism has ultimately BETRAYED them.

  • As a Christian, I don’t get bent out of shape over those who appropriate bits and pieces of our Christmas traditions. After all, we appropriated bits and pieces from others ourselves over the centuries ourselves. Why else would we have associated the birth of Christ with the winter solstice?

    Either we mean it when we say “peace to people of goodwill” or we don’t. These folks seem to be people of goodwill.

  • I didn’t say anything about whether or not religion is a big deal to them. The question is where in this article do you see hatred?

  • Seems pretty honest to me. They like some of the cultural aspects of Christmas but not the spiritual aspects and they make no bones about it. If you ask me, they’re way less hypocrital than those for whom Christmas is about nothing but consumerism.

  • Because i see it for what it is and don’t pretend? Pretending-that’s what religion is all about, yet it’s promoted as real. It’s a lie. It’s not nice to lie.

  • I have. That’s how I came to the conclusion that there’s no evidence of hatred in the article. Now I’m asking you for your evidence that it’s there.

    How long do you intend to dodge the question? All I’m asking is a citation from the article that shows that these people “hate hate hate Christianity.”

    After all, hatred is a very strong emotion and should be easy to spot.

  • But not to co-opt the influence and machinery of Gov’t to legislate it into the lives of others. Religion does not come with a blank check. Neither does freedom of speech. Try yelling fire in a crowded theater. Faith implies a strength of character. Stop using the word faith in conjunction with religion. Use the words like phony, make believe, pretend and plain stupid. Oh…….and you will shut the hell up……….at least around me anyway.

  • If you don’t join in, wave your hands, jabber at the sky at imaginary beings, bow at the alter of christian privilege and treat religion as something special, then you are automatically hating and persecuting christians.

  • For the record, I don’t find those beings imaginary. I’m a Christian and I love my faith. I just don’t go around looking for reasons to be offended by those who see things differently.

  • Santa Claus, the tooth fairy, Easter Bunny, leprechauns, unicorns, peter pan, jack in the beanstalk, vampires and bigfoot………. They’re not imaginary either. Are they? At least they never caused anyone to fly airplanes into buildings or drink poisoned kook-aid.

  • Okay, I get the feeling there’s not much to be gained from you and I having a conversation. So let’s part company here. I wish you well.

  • There”s plenty of social clubs, volunteerism groups, and hobby clubs around the town, for the gregarious.

    And Sunday Assembly is one of those. You’re just butthurt because their club is more fun than your club.

  • Reality is reality. If we all strive to be thinking, rational, reasoning, logical, mature adults, our world would be a better place without the divisiveness, hatred and conflict caused by those who insist that make believe is real. A lot of good people are enablers.

  • “But not to co-opt the influence and machinery of Gov’t to legislate it into the lives of other”

    If they follow the law they have every right. And I doubt your sincere belief in the First Amendment.

  • I mock the intellectually challenged when they accuse anyone of hate w/o cause.

    And by your own words you indeed fit that indictment.

  • Yet you “love” the Ashiesm ejecting from Neil deGrasse Tyson, David Silverman, Lawrence Krauss & Al Franken. GO FIGURE.

  • Sure, the Sunday Assembly is a social club. But let’s not play games here: the article (and the photographs as well, if you look closely) show that there’s something vitally important missing from them. Sure, there’s “fun”, there’s “singing”, there’s talking. But something’s seriously missing, and it casts a long shadow on them.

    If I want to hear a band play “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”, or hear somebody explain the origins of Santa Claus, who needs the SA for that? You can get all that online. So the SA seeks to offer something higher.

    See the song lyrics in the photo? “Live the moment, Celebrate the Light.” “Tis the Season, Celebrate the Light.” But what do they mean by “the Light” (with the “L” capitalized?) They’re borrowing an inspiring and astonishing biblical reference to Jesus Christ (John 1:4-8), when in fact they reject Jesus Christ, they reject God. That’s why there is an unmistakable element of loss, of sadness, of “something missing”, half-buried in there.

  • No they don’t. We have a secular constitution and Gov.’t. to keep church and state separate. Read history. Any time the church infects, pollutes and contaminates Gov.’t it’s always been disastrous. The First Amendment says you can believe any crazy nonsense you want, embarrass and make a fool of yourself, but you don’t have the right to use crazy beliefs to affect the lives of others.

  • I love honesty, reality and acting like a rational, reasoning, logical, thinking, mature adult and reality too. Not pretending to have imaginary friends like kids and the mentally ill do. Most kids grow out of it and the mentally ill have an excuse.

  • let’s not play games here

    Why not? I like games.

    there’s something vitally important missing from them.

    And what would that be, Floyd?

    something’s seriously missing, and it casts a long shadow on them.

    That’s not a very good clue, Floyd. No wonder you don’t like games, you’re not very good at them.

    If I want to hear a band play “You’re a Mean One, Mr. Grinch”, or hear somebody explain the origins of Santa Claus, who needs the SA for that? You can get all that online. So the SA seeks to offer something higher.

    I don’t need to go to a restaurant to eat dinner, but I often do. It’s nice to get out of the house once in a while, Floyd. Changes things up, you see. Try leaving your mother’s basement for something other than church sometime, you might like it.

    See the song lyrics in the photo?

    Yes, Floyd, I do.

    “Live the moment, Celebrate the Light.” “Tis the Season, Celebrate the Light.” But what do they mean by “the Light” (with the “L” capitalized?)

    The Light. The return of the Light. Hmm… I wonder… could they… perhaps… maybe… they’re referring to the return of light, y’know… longer days. There’s a word for it… the Solstice! Specifically, the winter solstice, when the sun reaches its lowest point in the sky at noon, marked by the shortest days. You see, Floyd, after the winter solstice, the Light returns, in that the days (or daylight hours specifically) get longer. But I suppose you’re getting hung up on the stylistic choice of Capitalizing certain Words as if that Somehow gives them Special Meaning. I think You’re just Projecting a Little too Much here, Floyd.

    They’re borrowing an inspiring and astonishing biblical reference to Jesus Christ (John 1:4-8)

    Wrong. YOU Christians are borrowing a much older Pagan tradition. When, in Fact, if your Jesus even existed at all and was born according to what is Documented in scripture, he would have been born in the Springtime, not at the Beginning of Winter, Floyd.

    when in fact they reject Jesus Christ, they reject God.

    Not just Jesus or your god, but all gods. Just one more god than you’re willing to reject. See that? You’re almost an Atheist! Just one more step, Floyd!

  • By “modern” do you mean secular? If so, then very little. But there are elements of Christmas that are distinctively Christian and are still observed as part of the liturgical year. Those come mostly from the infancy narratives in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels.

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