52 Holidays for Atheists, Agnostics, Freethinkers, and Fun-Lovers

[Note: This was originally written to be a chapter in A Scientist’s Bible, but it didn’t quite fit in the end. I think it’s probably it’s better as a web essay anyway.]

I wanted to become an atheist, but I gave up.
They have no holidays.
HENNY YOUNGMAN

Celebrate the happiness that friends are always giving,
make every day a holiday and celebrate just living!
AMANDA BRADLEY

Holiday, from the Old English halig “holy” dæg “day,” literally means holy day. But while we tend to equate “holy” with creed, there’s really more to it than that. Halig is related to the Old English hal, which means a state of wholeness and wellness, and is the origin of “whole” and “health.” Holidays really can be holy days, days that heal and reconnect us, days of true recreation (literally, from the Latin re- “again” -creare “create”).

Of course, today’s holidays can stray quite far from this ideal. There is often little that is truly holy, recreational, or religious in the holidays as we celebrate them today. They can tear us apart, and they can break us down. They can drain our wallets, and they can drain our patience. The winter holidays have even been associated with a significant increase in cardiac deaths.1

Holidays don’t have to be this way. Holidays can be truly holy, days of peace, love, joy, and connection. Let us again match the practice to its name. Let us rethink our holidays, letting some go, reviving others, and perhaps even inventing our own, to challenge Youngman and make Bradley proud.

To many people holidays are not voyages
of discovery, but a ritual of reassurance.
PHILIP ANDREW ADAMS

As Adams implies, holidays can have many purposes. For me, the holidays in this essay serve five diverse purposes: to appreciate something, to raise awareness about something, to try something new, to recommit to something old, and perhaps most importantly, to have some fun!

Every Day Is A Holiday

Every single day of the year, someone somewhere is celebrating something. Almost everything that could possibly be celebrated has its own holiday. In the interest of time, I have limited this essay to fifty-two of my favorite holidays, for an average of one per week.

Of course, there is no reason to limit peace, love, or connection to several days spread across the year. There needn’t be just one day for Earth, one day for love, and one day for ice cream. Every day can be a holiday, which we can celebrate in our own special way. There is nothing special about the year listed here, to which you needn’t strictly adhere. Instead, my aim is to tickle your brain, and inspire creation of your own claims to fame, brand new celebrations for you to proclaim. (Rhyming day, anyone?) That said, here are some ideas to consider.

Any Day — Unbirthday

As explained in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, an unbirthday party is a birthday-esque celebration on any day other than your birthday. Anyone can have up to three hundred and sixty four unbirthdays each year (three hundred and sixty five in a leap year!) Your half birthday is a special unbirthday, six months before or after your birthday. Of course, there is no reason that the half-day and un-day phenomena need only apply to birthdays, meaning that anyone can celebrate any holiday at any time.

January 1 — New Year’s Day

The beginning of the new year in the Gregorian calendar, New Year’s Day marks the beginning of another trip around the sun. We might take is as a day to reflect on the lessons of the past year’s journey, and make plans for and predictions about the coming expedition. We might also begin some life experiments to better learn what we want in life. As a warm-blooded Norwegian, I’m also partial to the polar bear plunge, which I co-led for many years in a friend’s unheated pool.

January 8 — Zero Debt Day

On January 8, 1835, the United States debt was brought down to $0 under the guidance of Andrew Jackson. It was the only day in history that the United States did not have debt. We might take this day to reflect on our debts and how we might pay them off.

January 16 — National Religious Freedom Day

National Religious Freedom Day commemorates the adoption of Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom, which became the basis for the separation of church and state and freedom of religion in the United States. We might take it as a day to reflect on the state of religion and freedom around the world.

January (Third Monday) — Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Martin Luther King, Jr. was a promoter of peaceful activism in the civil rights movement who had a dream that all would be judged not “by the color of their skin, but by the content of their characters.A federal holiday on the third Monday in January, near his birthday on January 15, recognizes his contributions to racial equality. We might take this day off to reflect on racial equality, and our own grandiose dreams for the future. [Update: In honor of MLK’s peaceful activism, check out Gene Sharp’s list of 198 Methods of Nonviolent (read Peaceful!) Action.]

February 12 — Darwin Day

In 1859, Charles Darwin published his theory of natural selection, changing our understanding of the world forever. Darwin Day commemorates his birth, on February 12, 1809. We might take this day to reflect on our ancestors, and the fact of natural selection as the primary force that brought us into existence. [Update: In honor of Darwin’s revolutionary writing, check out the Complete Works of Charles Darwin online.]

February 14 — Love Day

Traditionally known as Valentine’s Day, Love Day is a time to reflect on, and act on, our love. Although it is easy for Valentine’s Day to turn into a completely commercial affair, I still like the idea of a day (how about every day?) for love. Whether we are in a good or bad relationship, or happy or unhappy being single, or simply in love with humanity and life on Earth, we might take this day to reflect on our love. [Update: In honor of Love Day, take a look at Frank Andrew’s Art and Practice of Loving: Living a Heartfelt Yes. Full disclosure: I helped publish it and wrote a foreword for it.]

February 15 — Galileo Gala

Galileo Galilei has been called the father of modern science for his many contributions to our understanding of the universe. Galileo Gala commemorates his birth, on February 15, 1564. We might take this day to reflect on the universe, and our sun-orbiting place in it. It might also serve as a reminder to stand up to authority, as Galileo stood up to the church. [Note: Not an established holiday (yet) – I totally made it up!]

February 19 — Copernicus Celebration

Just before his death in 1543, Copernicus published his book, On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres, proposing the crazy, but accurate, idea that the Earth orbits the Sun. Copernicus Celebration commemorates his birth on February 19, 1743. We might take this day as an inspiration to share our truly “crazy” ideas, ideas that are totally against common (non)sense. [Note: Also an established holiday (yet) – I made this one up too!]

February 29 — Leap Day

Occurring once every four years, Leap Day makes up for the fact that the Earth takes 365 and one quarter days to go around the Sun. To make up for the fact that it actually takes 365 days, 5 hours, and 49 minutes, years that are divisible by 100 are not leap years unless they are also divisible by 400. We could use it as a day to take a leap, whatever that may mean to us. Derrick Jensen tells his writing students that they must “walk on water,” meaning that they must do something “impossible,” whether that means asking out a super secret crush, breaking it off with an abusive partner, or telling your parents that you want to be an artist. On leap day, or any day, take the leap.

March (First Sunday) — Procrastination Week

This week of postponement technically begins on the first Sunday in March, but it is usually observed a week late. As Douglas Adams once put it, “I love deadlines. I like the whooshing sound they make as they go by.” Take it as a week to relax for once.

March 10 — Phone Day

On March 10, 1876, Alexander Graham Bell successfully tested the telephone with the message: “Mr Watson, come here, I want to see you.” We might take this day to reflect on this amazing invention and the connections it allows us to make and maintain. Call your friends and say you want to see them.

March 14 — Pi Day (and Einstein Event)

Pi, or π, with an approximate value of 3.141592653, is a mathematical constant that relates a circle’s circumference to its diameter (Circumference = π x Diameter). Math nerds celebrate Pi Day (3.14) by eating pies and pizza pies, and holding contests to see who can memorize the most digits of Pi. (It is also celebrated on July 22, as 22/7 is another common approximation of pi.) The world record is 100,000 digits. Pi Second occurs at 1:59:26 on Pi Day. A very special Pi Second will occur on March 14 in 2015 at 9:26:53. Pi Day is also Einstein’s birthday. In addition to eating pie, we might take this day to wrap our heads around something we thought we could never understand, like Einstein’s theory of relativity (special, and general).

March 20 or 21 — Equinox

This is one of two dates on which the length of day and night are approximately equal, and the sun is directly over the equator. A perfect time for a festival (read “feast”) to celebrate the spring in the Northern Hemisphere or the autumn in the Southern.

March 22 — Water Day

Water Day is a United Nations holiday for promoting awareness about the world’s water resources. We might take this day to reflect on the amazing properties of dihydrogen monoxide (H2O) that allow us to survive on planet Earth (or as some people have noted, planet Water, as 71% of its surface is covered by water).

March 31 — Music Day

Johann Sebastian Bach is widely regarded as one of the greatest composers of all time, if not the greatest, period. We might take this day, his birthday, as a time to appreciate the power of music. For those who prefer another composer, Music Day can also be celebrated on January 27 (Mozart), December 17 (Beethoven), or really any day you like.

April 1 — April Fools’ Day (and Fossil Fools’ Day)

Who doesn’t like a day of silliness? We might take this day to see the lighter side of life. In addition, we might take some time to reflect on a future free of unsustainable fossil fuels. April Fools’ Day is also my birthday (no, that’s not a April fool).

April 3 — World Party Day

Party Day is a synchronized global effort to make the world a better place through celebration. The premise is that the opposite of war isn’t peace, it’s party. That sounds good to me. We might take it as a day to recognize the basic human desire for fun.

April 7 — World Health Day

Marking the foundation of the the World Health Organization in 1948, this annual celebration of global health efforts is as good a time as any to appreciate our health, and promote changes that can benefit us all.

April 22 — Earth Day

Since 1970, Earthlings have gathered around the globe on this day to celebrate this beautiful planet on which we live. We might take it as a day to reflect on the fact that everything which supports our lives is rooted in the Earth, and that we all depend on a healthy planet.

April 23 — Play Day

William Shakespeare, almost universally acknowledged as the greatest dramatist in human history, was born and died on April 23. We might take this day as a time to reflect on the importance of the theatre and narrative to human existence, and go see a local production. Schools usually put on Spring shows around this time, so there will likely be many exciting options nearby.

April (Last Friday) — Arbor Day

Although its date varies widely around the world to coincide with the best time for planting, Arbor Day is a day to plant trees, and to reflect on the essential role of plants in our lives. Almost all of the energy we use to live once passed through a plant converting light from the sun into more readily usable forms.

April 29 — World Dance Day

Commemorating the birth of Jean-Georges Noverre, who revolutionized ballet by promoting emotional expression through the body and face, rather than mechanistic perfection of technical schools of dance, World Dance Day gives us a reason to dance.

April 30 — Honesty Day

Honestly, I never knew this day existed, but I’m all for any opportunity to promote the truth. We might take this day as an opportunity to be especially honest and open to honesty.

May (First Thursday) — National Day of Prayer (and Reason)

Although meant as a day to pray to God for our country, we might take this day to practice secular prayer, asking for help and giving help where it’s needed. Etymologically speaking, prayer (from the old French preiere, based on the Latin precarius, “obtained by entreaty,”) is simply an earnest and humble request for help.) At the same time, we can join in the Day of Reason, promoting science and rationality.

May 12  — Limerick Day

There once was an Englishman Lear, who noticed while drinking his beer, that English was not, poetically hot, and invented his own kind of cheer. This day commemorates the birth of Edward Lear, popularizer of the limerick, the only verse form indigenous to the English language.

May (Second Sunday) — Mother’s Day

She gave each of us half of our genes, so the least we can give her is a day of thanks. We might use this day to show our special love and appreciation for the woman that we call Mom.

May 25 — Geek Pride Day

Get your geek on on Geek Pride Day, which commemorates the release of the original Star Wars on May 25, 1977. May 25 is also Towel Day, a tribute to the late Douglas Adams, author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and a radical and brilliant atheist. [Update: As an example of Adams’ brilliance, take a look at his thought-provoking speech at Digital Biota 2.]

June 10 — Addiction Day

On this day in 1935, Alcoholic’s Anonymous was formed, marking the beginning of twelve-step programs. We might take this day to reflect on our own addictions, the habitual maladaptive behaviors that we haven’t kicked (yet), and take steps toward making it happen. We might also take it as a day to reflect on the importance of Reinhold Neibuhr’s serenity prayer:

God grant me [alternatively, “I aim to develop”] the serenity
To accept the things I cannot change;
The courage to change the things I can;
And the wisdom to know the difference.

June 20 or 21 — Solstice

The longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and the shortest in the Southern. A perfect time for a festival to celebrate the summer or winter.

June (Third Sunday) — Father’s Day

He gave each of us half of our genes, so the least we can give him is a day of thanks. We might use this day to show our special love and appreciation for the man that we call Dad.

July 4 — Fourth of July

Commemorating the adoption of the Declaration of Independence in the United States, the Fourth of July is an opportunity to reflect on the the democratic ideals promoted by the country’s founders, including their ideas about religious freedom.

July 11 — World Population Day

On this day in 1987, the world population reached five billion. (It reached six billion on October 12, 1999, a shockingly short twelve years later.) We might take this day to reflect on the state of the world population, and the carrying capacity of our fragile Earth.

July 16 — Nuclear Disarmament Day

“Now we are all sons of bitches,” commented Trinity test director Kenneth Bainbridge to Los Alamos Laboratory director J. Robert Oppenheimer on July 16, 1945 after the first nuclear explosion in history. Oppenheimer was reminded of the line from Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, destroyer of worlds.” Thus began the Atomic Age, and the world has never been the same. We might take this as a day to reflect on the enormous power we hold in our hands, power we can use for good or evil.

July (Third Sunday) — Ice Cream Day

It’s a little known fact that the United States has an officially sanctioned Ice Cream Day. In fact, July has been the official Ice Cream Month since 1984. I scream, you scream . . .

August (First Sunday) — Friendship Day

“Friend” comes from the Old English freogan, “to love, to favor.” We might take this day to appreciate all the people we call friends.

August 12 — Perseids Meteor Shower

Every August, the Earth travels through a cloud of dust left by the Swift-Tuttle comet. As the dust enters the atmosphere, it burns up spectacularly, making for a beautiful show. This meteor shower usually peaks around August 12, when meteors can be seen at a rate of one per minute.

September 8 — International Literacy Day

Reading and writing makes us who we are, allowing us to learn over many generations. Take it as a day to read and write something, and to reflect on literacy around the world. On a related note, the last Sunday of September marks the beginning of banned books week.

September 19 — International Talk Like A Pirate Day

As its founders, John “Ol’ Chumbucket” Baur, and Mark “Cap’n Slappy” Summers note, “Talking like a pirate is fun. It’s really that simple.” Come September, take this opportunity to show off your pirattitude (”pirate attitude”).

September 22 or 23 — Equinox

This is one of two dates on which the length of day and night are approximately equal, and the sun is directly over the equator. A perfect time for a festival (read “feast”) to celebrate the autumn in the Northern Hemisphere or the spring in the Southern.

October 1 — International Day of Elders

We’re all here thanks to elders. As Richard Dawkins has written,

All organisms that have ever lived—every animal and plant, all bacteria and all fungi, every creeping thing, and all readers of this book—can look back at their ancestors and make the following proud claim: Not a single one of our ancestors died in infancy. They all reached adulthood, and every single one was capable [of reproducing]. Not a single one of our ancestors was felled by an enemy, or by a virus, or by a misjudged footstep on a cliff edge, before bringing at least one child into the world. Thousands of our ancestors’ contemporaries failed in all these respects, but not a single solitary one of our ancestors failed in any of them.

On this day, we might reflect on the great challenges which our ancestors have face, and still face, and appreciate the contributions they have made, and still make, to our world.

October 2 — International Day of Peace

As A.J. Muste once said, “There is no way to peace. Peace is the way.” What if, just for one day, we could live in peace, working together for common good? What if we did it every day of the year? We might take this day to reflect on war and peace, strife and love, and commit ourselves to finding ways to heal the wounds which keep us fighting.

October 11 — International Coming Out Day

On this day, people of all genders and sexual orientations are encouraged to take the next step toward living openly and powerfully in their great diversity.

October 16 — World Food Day

This day of awareness, sponsored by the U.N., addresses hunger and malnutrition. We might take it as a day to appreciate our food, and spread food awareness and action around the world.

October 23 — Mole Day

Celebrated by chemistry classes around the world, Mole Day commemorates the mole, the standard unit for amount of substance. A mole of doohickies (or carbon atoms, or anything you want to measure) contains 6.02 x 1023 doohickies, hence October 23. Celebrations are especially apropos at 6:02 AM or PM. You might celebrate by eating some guacamole or Mexican mole, studying the furry creatures, or meditating on your skin.

October 31 — Halloween

As an actor, I know just how malleable human experience can be if we choose to make it so. We might take this day as an opportunity to put on a different character, trying on another perspective, and of course, to eat our favorite sweets with abandon.

November 2 — El Día de los Muertos

The Day of the Dead is a Latin American holiday in which family and friends gather to remember family members and friends who have died. Aside from all the bit about of the dead returning to Earth, I think this day is a great idea. We might take it as a day to renew our memories of loved ones, and reflect on our own inevitable mortality.

November 17 — Leonids Meteor Shower

Every November, the Earth travels through a cloud of dust left by the Tempel-Tuttle comet. This meteor shower usually peaks around November 17, when meteors can be seen at a rate of one per minute. Every thirty-three years or so, the Leonid shower produces a meteor storm, with peak rates of thousands of meteors per hour. The last Leonid storm was in 2002.

November 20 — Children’s Day

There’s Mother’s Day, and there’s Father’s Day, so why no children’s day. The only half-joking response comes back: “Every other day is Children’s Day!” This holiday is explicitly for the kids, so we can be aware of and appreciate the role of children in our lives.

November (Fourth Thursday) — Thanksgiving

A favorite holiday of American atheists, Thanksgiving represents something truly important: the giving of thanks and appreciation. While we might ideally make everyday our own Thanksgiving, we can take this day to especially reflect on everything we are thankful for.

December 20 or 21 — Solstice

The shortest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere, and the longest in the Southern. A perfect time for a festival to celebrate the summer or winter.

December 25 — Newtonmas

Although Christmas has been almost entirely secularized (and even more commercialized), and many atheists celebrate it as such, there is also another great thinker we might choose to celebrate. Isaac Newton was born on December 25 in 1642. As such, we might take it as a day to celebrate creativity, following the creativity of Newton’s discovery of gravity while watching an apple fall from a tree. If we like to have a tree, we might decorate it with apples, and give our friends and family gifts of knowledge. [Note: I actually don’t have a problem with Christmas, and quite enjoy it. For me, it’s like a second Thanksgiving, with gifts. I agree with The Great Agnostic Robert Green Ingersoll when he wrote:

I believe in the festival called Christmas—not in the celebration of the birth of any man, but to celebrate the triumph of light over darkness—the victory of the sun.

I believe in giving gifts on that day, and a real gift should be given to those who cannot return it; gifts from the rich to the poor, from the prosperous to the unfortunate, from parents to children.

There is no need of giving water to the sea or light to the sun. Let us give to those who need, neither asking nor expecting return, not even asking gratitude, only asking that the gift shall make the receiver happy—and he who gives in that way increases his own joy.]

December 31 — New Year’s Eve

The end of the year in the Gregorian calendar, New Year’s Eve marks the end of another trip around the sun. We might take is as a day to reflect on the lessons of of the past year’s journey, and make plans and predictions about the coming expedition.

Every Week — Day of Rest

Another legitimately good idea shared by most of the major faiths is a weekly day of rest and recreation. Whether you choose Friday, Saturday, or Sunday, or any other day of the the week, we all deserve a day of rest, free from any of the normal demands.

Every Month — Moon Day

A perfect monthly holiday is the night of the full moon. Given the amazing ability our evolved eyes to see in both bright sunlight and dim starlight (a dynamic range of nine orders of magnitude!), I highly recommend exploring the world by moonlight (full moon) or starlight (new moon) or anything in between, especially if you can take a long walk in nature.

Periodic — Syzygy

Periodically, three or more planetary bodies align in a straight line. While there is no demonstrable effect of such syzygies on human life, as astrologers like to postulate, they can make for quite beautiful shows. A lunar eclipse occurs when the moon passes through the Earth’s shadow. A solar eclipse occurs when the moon passes between the Earth and the sun. Take a look when the next eclipse comes around.

Celebrate!

Life is meant to be a celebration! It shouldn’t be necessary to
set aside special times to remind us of this fact. Wise is the
person who finds a reason to make every day a special one.
LEO BUSCAGLIA

Just as we can declare an un-day to celebrate any of these holidays any day, we can celebrate anything any day! Whether your purpose is to appreciate, or to raise awareness, to discover new things, or recommit to an old, simply declare a holiday.

A good holiday is one spent among people
whose notions of time are vaguer than yours.
J.B. PRIESTLEY

Further Reading on Holidays:

For three comprehensive lists of holidays, detailing thousands of festivals and celebrations around the world, see:

For more on the history of celebration, see:
Footnotes

1 See Kloner, Robert A. (2004). “The “Merry Christmas Coronary” and “Happy New Year Heart Attack” Phenomenon.” Circulation 2004; 110; 3744-3745. and Phillips, David P. et. al. (2004). “Cardiac Mortality Is Higher Around Christmas and New Year’s Than at Any Other Time: The Holidays as a Risk Factor for Death.” Circulation 2004; 110; 3781-3788.