Title: A Solstice Tree for Jenny
Author: Karen I. Shragg.
Publisher: Prometheus Books
• Does not denigrate religion or holidays
• Explains perspective of humanism
• Shows how children can take responsibility for their lives
• Why not secularize Christmas instead?
• Depicts a secular child during religious holidays
• Geared to be read to 5-year-olds & read by kids up to 4th grade
• Explains perspective of humanism & nonbelief
All of these pressures are especially hard for families with children because so much of the Christmas holiday season is aimed at kids. It is, after all, the children who are expected to ask Santa for a mountain of gifts. Not only is the consumerism aimed at them, but so many of the "family" traditions like belief in Santa Claus also have them specifically in mind. There was once a time when America was almost entirely Christian, and non-Christians were such a tiny minority that no one really bothered to take their perspective or feelings into consideration. In today's increasingly multicultural nation, however, that attitude is no longer valid.
There exist books about the various minority religious perspectives on the celebration of Christmas in America, but what about the perspectives of secular and non-believing families? How do they explain their obvious differences to their kids? For children, conformity to social expectations is often very important, and extreme differences from their peers can be difficult to bear.
For families who dissent from Christmas for religious reasons, that dissent can be justified by religious dogmas - a tool unavailable to atheists. One good way to help kids understand and cope with difficult situations is through books aimed at their reading level, and Karen I. Shragg's A Solstice Tree for Jenny 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, the author is able to explain why nonbelievers don't participate in religion generally, and the religious celebrations of Christmas specifically. Jenny, the main character, has parents come from two different religions; neither of them are believers any more and neither has decided that cultural reasons are enough to warrant continuing with any religious traditions.
Jenny never before minded that her family didn't participate in the same religious celebrations as everyone else, but this year is different and her solution is to create her own "Winter Solstice" holiday celebrations to honor her family's humanist beliefs and also create family traditions of togetherness and unity. Through this process, the author is able to explain in an easy-to-understand manner various humanist beliefs and attitudes towards society, family and morality.
The one problem, however, is that "Winter Solstice" is also a religious holiday, dating back to ancient pagan times. Jenny is not interested in including any of the actual pagan beliefs into her holiday, and instead re-works them to incorporate her family's beliefs. What is not clear is why it is necessary to use Winter Solstice to do this - if a religious holiday can become secular, why not do that with Christmas itself?
Re-working the solstice is a path followed by many atheists today, and some of the arguments used in support of it are that it is a "natural" event (being the shortest day of the year) or that it is such an old holiday that it has lost most of its cultural baggage. Those aren't very strong arguments, though, and too often it simply seems that the choice of Solstice has as much about a reaction against Christianity as it is a search for something new.
Another question the book doesn't address is why any particular celebration is needed at all. Jenny, like any child her age, doesn't want to feel left out of the fun her friends are having with their holidays. Although her desire is understandable, it is clear that her parents gotten by fine without such celebrations for a number of years, so it should have been natural for the topic to be discussed.
But these aren't major objections because it is not, after all, a philosophy book - it's a children's book. A bit of discussion on the above questions might have been nice, but the book does convey the humanist perspective in a clear manner. One of the book's most significant strengths is that nowhere does it attack or denigrate religious holidays or beliefs. Not only should this book be helpful for children in humanist families, but it should also provide food for thought for kids in religious families.