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A Solstice Tree for Jenny, by Karen I. Shragg. Published by Prometheus Books. Book Review

One good way to help kids understand and cope with difficult situations is through books aimed at their reading level, and there is just such a book available now which addresses the problems of a secular family dealing with a Christmas-oriented culture. By telling the story of a girl who feels "left out" from the religious celebrations of her friends, Karen I. Shragg is able to explain why nonbelievers don't participate in religion generally, and the religious celebrations of Christmas specifically. Below is the transcript of an on-line interview she was kind enough to do for the site...

1. What originally gave you the idea to write a book on this subject - and why a children's book, specifically?

I have a Solstice Tree, just like the one in the story and wanted a way to share its story with children, especially my nieces and nephews. With guidance from Prometheus Books, I was able to gear it even a five year old, the age when they begin to ask questions that are difficult to answer, since many parents have not articulated even to themselves why they do or do not celebrate the holidays. I wanted to give parents of mixed religious backgrounds a tool for helping them with a conversation that I think should happen early in a child's life, so that they can understand and explain to those who will ask them what it is they do in December for the holidays.

2. What sorts of reactions has your book received so far? Have you read or received many objections from religious readers?

The reaction has been phenomenally supportive, from religious and non-religious folks alike. One person, saying he never found anything to read to his children about the solstice they now celebrate, bought 6 of them. My favorite was from my cousin who's grandchildren are multi-racial and she commented on how the book was so supportive of different views.

3. What has your own personal experience been with Christmas, both as a child and as an adult?

I grew up with Hanukah as our December holiday. My parents and relatives went all out to make the 8 days of Hanukah something very special. I remember it fondly, getting special gifts each night, playing games of dreidel ( a spinning top game). My mother even made felt dreidels and hung them on the mantle and filled them with gold foil chocolates. Still I remember that I didn't look forward to December, since it was a time when the world felt all divided up into 'Christmas and Hanukah' people. It was a time to feel different not bonded to each other. It had the overall effect long into my adulthood of emphasizing the different histories we have, and until we started celebrating the solstice, I still dreaded the whole month of December.

My significant other, grew up Catholic and has great memories of singing Christmas carols and going to his Grandparents on the lake, sleeping under the Christmas tree with only the lights of the tree illuminating the room He shares my eco-humanist feelings and the desire to look forward to the season and rituals that are more in line with our sensibilities. We searched for a meaningful way to celebrate the season together. We now have our own traditional Solstice celebration with like-minded friends. It just feels right to celebrate a celestial event of the present which we all share.To honor our families whom we are very close to, we celebrate Hanukah and Christmas in their respective homes.

4. What sorts of things do you do to celebrate Winter Solstice at this time of year?

Our celebration involves cooking organic vegan food ( the only kind I cook) for a select group of friends. We all share meaningful readings as we light a candle. With all candles burning in the four directions of the traditional Native American Medicine Wheel, and one burning in the center, we eat and talk sharing small gifts of food, lotions, and books. People from all backgrounds and beliefs have participated in testimony to its universal quality.

5. What do you think the future of Christmas in America will be? Do you foresee it becoming more religious as Christians "reclaim," or do you think that the trend of secularization will simply continue?

I have long recognized that the attraction to the holiday season is much more about ritual and celebration, the gathering of friends, the sharing of food and the time off from work. For African Americans, Christmas represents one of two days in the year when the slaves didn't have to work, so of course its a time for celebration that has extreme historical significance.

The comedian Henny Youngman is quoted as saying that he tried Atheism, but gave it up because there were no holidays. Those who profess the secular life must be aware of the very human desire to be joyous, to sing in community, to open gifts representing love, to eat special foods, to stop the treadmill of a life gone crazy and relax with friends and family seldom seen. It is not a copying of Christmas that this solstice book was written. It was to demonstrate that non-religious people have the same desires for a just and peaceful world and work for them without the mandate from a supernatural being. It was to show that non-religious people have very human desires to decorate, to make special a time of year that is otherwise cold and dark for those living in the northern hemisphere. I believe that the future of Christmas will be that it will become a multiple celebration of solstice, Christmas, Hanukah, Kwansaa, with more sensitivity toward the common ground of celebration and less domination of Christmas as the only holiday celebrated this time of year, especially as our society becomes more diverse. I can already feel that happening as more people say Happy Holidays, than they do Merry Christmas, knowing that not everyone celebrates Christmas, but we all want to create joy and wish each other a happy and healthy new year.

6. Do you have plans for any other books on similar topics?

I want to write a book about joyous year-round eco-humanist celebrations which honor the Earth and its cycles. I think a certain segment of our society is eager for leadership in the area of ritual which is meaningful in today's world. So often we find ourselves celebrating age-old rituals which made more sense in another climate. I know that I remember trying to celebrate a festival of trees when the snow covered the ground in February and a harvest festival when it was already bitter cold. These are important things to celebrate, but to have real meaning need to be ties to a child's real experience. Without this type of book secular people are left with only birthdays and Thanksgiving to celebrate and this book will server to increase the joy, something my Jewish upbringing taught me was very important to do.

Learn more about Karen's book!

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