Starstuff, Contemplating, by Jon Cleland Host: “Evolutionary Parenting and the Holidays”

Today we hear from our other of our new regular columnists, Jon Cleland Host.

Evolutionary Parenting means raising children with an understanding of the evolutionary history that made them that both connects them to their evolutionary past and gives them a sense of purpose toward future generations.  Evolutionary Parenting is not easy (heck, good parenting of any kind isn’t easy).  Like so much in life, however, that extra intentional effort is very rewarding.

Right now, at the beginning of December, many of us are indeed spending effort – preparing for the holidays.  But which holidays?  From the many available, nearly all of us are celebrating the holiday our parents taught us, perhaps including minor tweaks from our lives or our spouses.  That’s not a surprise, given that holidays are one of the most common ways that values are passed on to the next generation, answering our human need for both celebration and meaning.

Why “No Holidays” Is Not an Option

Our involvement in holidays, in terms of both time and money spent on the kids, is especially clear for many of us at this time of year – showing that we care about them.  After all, it is where we spend our time and money that shows what we really care about.  Children know this.  They see us with more unvarnished honesty than we may realize, constantly learning from what we actually do, nearly heedless of what we say.  Children see through hypocrisy like a picture window, especially as they get older.

So, what then are we teaching them with our chosen holidays, which speak to our children more loudly than anything we tell them?   What is all our holiday effort working to build?  Because honesty is one of the most important aspects of good parenting, my wife and I carefully chose which holidays to celebrate, and how to celebrate them.  Like a culture’s origin story, a culture’s holidays also must be both meaningful and real (or believable).  Real, for a holiday, includes being both fun and factual.  Holidays that aren’t fun backfire, leading to resentment that only teaches avoidance or antipathy towards the parents as well as whatever idea is otherwise intended.  Conversely, a holiday that is fun, but has no basis in reality or fails to teach good values, is little more than rank consumerism, teaching children greed and gluttony.  Does that sound like some holidays we have in America today?  Is it a surprise that so many Americans have grown up to be greedy, gluttonous, and empty of deep values, having learned exactly what they were taught?

What can be done?  Jettisoning all traditional holidays without replacing them is like having holidays that aren’t fun – especially when all your children’s friends are having a blast with those traditional holidays.  Do we have any choice other than empty holidays based on consumerism and superstition?

The answer is yes.  We do have another option, one which draws on the love, creativity, and effectiveness present in today’s parents – we can craft holidays that are meaningful, real and fun.  How that’s done will vary from family to family, and so what follows are just the solutions that Heather and I have found to work well for our family.  These may be a useful starting point, but ultimately it is up to each parent to find their family’s solution themselves.  For many, some adjustments to their old holidays may be all that is needed, and any holiday solution must be sustainable in today’s modern culture.  Too radical a departure will become an effort to maintain over the years, especially if they are celebrated on significantly different dates from traditional holidays, and are thus more likely to be abandoned over time.  The rest of this already long blog post describes our family celebration.

The Cleland-Host Family Approach to Holidays Around the Winter Solstice

Obviously, our whole year of family holidays is beyond the scope of a blog post, so this will cover only the Winter Solstice, which is December 21st this year.  In this darkest time of the year, the returning light and the hope that light brings has been enough to make this time sacred for literally millions of your Ancestors for thousands of years.   Our modern understanding of the Universe gives us many other ideas to celebrate as well, and we have chosen stars (our Sun and other stars) as a central theme of our family Winter Solstice celebration.  Included in that theme are also supernovae, the stardust that makes our world (and us), the winter season, and connection to all humans that comes from realizing that ancient people on all continents celebrated the Winter Solstice millennia ago.  The Winter Solstice is, after all, the reason for the season – both meteorologically as well as culturally!

Holidays (and family cultures) must also have practices.  Our traditions for the Winter Solstice are similar in many ways to practices our kids see their friends doing.  They include a decorated Solstice Tree (with a star on top). Solstice lights are strung indoors and out (we point out to the kids that the different colors of the lights are like the different colors of the stars, and talk about star colors and types). Stockings are hung, as well as decorations with stars, evergreens, and snow.  We open a door in an “Advent” calendar every day, counting down the days to Solstice with small surprises, and tell the stories of stardust and of Kabibonokka (the north wind) over eggnog and cookies made in the shapes of stars, snowflakes, and evergreens.  See here for related resources.

This all of course culminates on the Winter Solstice itself.  After weeks of anticipation, we eat a decorated ice cream Yule Log on the night before Solstice, pointing out that our bodies’ metabolism will be burning that Yule log all night.  The next morning, the kids usually wake up before sunrise, and are allowed to go through their (now filled) Solstice stockings.  Soon, we gather up the kids in the dark blue of morning, trekking out to see the Sun return, victorious after its long decline.  The rising Sun is greeted with songs and poems, and then we take some time as a family to enjoy wherever we are — which is often the Lake Huron shoreline, as our home is in Midland, Michigan.

The kids are jumping with excitement by the time we return home, reminded that love from the Universe can make wonderful things happen.  They rush out to our family’s sacred space, a stone circle in our wooded backyard, to find gifts for all.  The gifts are brought into the house and opened one at a time, to start a sacred day with no work, instead having a party, visits with extended family, or other family time.  If asked, we truthfully answer questions about how the gifts got out there, if those questions are supported by evidence and good reason.  We never lie to the children, and they know that.  When a child uses their own reason to discover that we put the gifts there, we point out that what we told them first was true, because we parents are part of the Universe, and that they are not allowed to tell their siblings, who must also figure it out themselves.  So far, only our oldest child has figured it out, though his brother came very close last year, and I expect him to figure it out easily any day now.

How ever you choose to celebrate the season, our family extends the warmest wishes to you.  Happy Holidays!

This article was first published at Evolutionary Christianity.

The Author

Jon Cleland Host

In addition to writing the Starstuff, Contemplating column here at HumanisticPaganism, Dr. Jon Cleland Host is a scientist who earned his PhD in materials science at Northwestern University & has conducted research at Hemlock Semiconductor and Dow Corning since 1997. He holds eight patents and has authored over three dozen internal scientific papers and eleven papers for peer-reviewed scientific journals, including the journal Nature. He has taught classes on biology, math, chemistry, physics and general science at Delta College and Saginaw Valley State University. Jon grew up near Pontiac, and has been building a reality-based spirituality for over 30 years, first as a Catholic and now as a Unitarian Universalist, including collaborating with Michael Dowd and Connie Barlow to spread the awe and wonder of the Great Story of our Universe (, and the blog at Jon and his wife have four sons, whom they embrace within a Universe-centered, Pagan, family spirituality. He currently moderates the yahoo group Naturalistic Paganism.

See Dr. Jon Cleland Host’s other posts

Next Sunday

Next Sunday, we hear from a new contributor, Meg Pauken:”What if?”

6 Comments on “Starstuff, Contemplating, by Jon Cleland Host: “Evolutionary Parenting and the Holidays”

  1. I really love your focus on the stars. We are also UU’s (formerly Catholic, here) and have been moving toward Paganism more and more each year. I agree that ritual and celebration are so important to family life. We have been moving our family toward a less material winter holiday each year and we all seem to be embracing it.

  2. Love It! We greet the morning sun and have a star theme for our home too. I really like how the lights represent the different colors of the stars, the ‘burning’ of the yule log, and the universe giving presents. They are all really great and creative touches 😀

    We’re figuring out some things for our family for Nox (winter solstice) and one of my favorites so far is decorating the Nox tree for Nox eve. This being a tree that is a low branched nearby tree that is a family favorite and we decorate with foodstuffs for our other animal neighbours, instead of cutting down a tree that is better kept where it is and decorating with things that just end up needing to be stored for the rest of the year. We would like to do the presents under that tree but we’re in an apartment in town and wouldn’t want to have them disappear on us. Perhaps when we get our own place. There is a community option we have for gift giving – Fire Gift Giving on Nox Eve where participants place an unwrapped gift around the fire and everyone looks at what’s there. From the youngest to the eldest, or vice versa, or just in order of where everyone is sitting, each person chooses what they want – it can go around a few times depending on how many gifts were brought for the gift giving. After a couple of round the host can call “all in” and people can choose at will. Its very fun and people get what they like. Not to mention that the fire can keep people warm enabling the celebration to be outside. For telling a seasonal story, we go for the Cosmic Story of how everything came to be. I’m currently trying to figure out a kid friendly summarization of the events that is fun and easy to retell.

  3. This is really beautiful, and I agree with all your thoughts on the importance of seasonal celebrations. I also love they idea of focusing on the stars at this time of year – I may incorporate that into my celebration this year!

  4. Pingback: keeping the “fun” in “dysFUNctional” this holiday season | kindism

  5. Thanks everyone! Sounds great! I saw a childrens book one time about decorating a tree outside with edible decorations for the other animals – what a cool thing to do for Nox/Winter Solstice!

    For the future – Jon

  6. Pingback: Putting Mabon Back in Christmas

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