ELLSWORTH, Maine — This year’s Christmas parade in Ellsworth will include one float that is decidedly not about Christmas. The float created by an atheist discussion group, the Downeast Humanists and Freethinkers, will feature an evergreen tree, in keeping with the parade’s theme “Rock Around the Christmas Tree,” but will emphasize the tree’s pagan roots.
“We thought it would be a good way to acknowledge that the tradition pre-dates organized religion,” said Doug Bunker, who hosted the float-decorating party at his home in Franklin on Thursday.
The group has been meeting for almost nine years in Ellsworth on the first Saturday of every month and, until recently, has kept a low profile. Typically 20 to 25 members discuss issues such as physician-assisted suicide, evolution and crime and punishment at a cafe in Ellsworth. In the last few years, they’ve made small steps to increase their exposure by setting up informational booths at the Common Ground fair in Unity and the HOPE Festival in Orono.
At the Christmas parade this Saturday, members of the group will walk alongside their float and pass out scrolls explaining the history of the Christmas tree.
“For more than 5,000 years people have brought greenery into their homes to remind them of all the green plants that would grow again when longer days would return,” the paper says.
“Long before the advent of Christianity, ancient Egyptians, Romans, Druids and many others had celebrations at the winter solstice.”
The group says their float is not intended to be confrontational, but educational.
“We’re very sensitive about the nature of the parade,” said Bunker. “We obviously didn’t want to impose on a parade that was religious focused.”
There are no restrictions on who can march in Ellsworth’s parade, according to Thelma Beal, the parade’s organizer.
Bunker said the intent is to get the group’s name into the community so that locals who might be atheist-curious know of its existence and consider attending a meeting.
“We want to make sure that anyone that’s interested in humanism, free thought, separation of church and state issues knows that we’re there,” Bunker said.
The group also will soon take on more of an activist role than it has in the past. Next year it will become a chapter of the national lobbyist group Secular Coalition for America. As part of the lobbying group, the Ellsworth Humanists hope to take on LD 1428, a bill that is meant to prevent the state from interfering with exercises carried out by religious groups.
The religiousness of Hancock County, or lack thereof, has appeared in the media recently. John Linnehan, lead pastor at the Good News Center based in Trenton, recently announced a campaign to get more locals to proclaim their faith in Jesus. Linnehan said he was motivated by a Bangor Daily News story that cited two studies listing Maine as the least religious state in the country. After looking into the matter further, he learned that Waldo and Hancock counties are the least religious regions in the state.
Now he is knocking on doors and sending out mailings throughout Hancock County in an effort to conduct his own survey asking residents about their religious affiliation. He hopes to reach all 31,000 residents by Christmas Eve.
In response, the Downeast Humanists and Freethinkers released a statement urging those being canvassed to exercise caution when filling out questions about their faith.
“A so-called census, creating a list identifying people by their religious beliefs, or lack of them, is concerning,” the statement said. “Certainly Mr. Linnehan must be aware that such personal information has sometimes been used to target individuals who hold minority views.”
Members of the Humanists hope their display during the parade in Ellsworth will shed light on some of those minority views.
“We’re part of the community and we celebrate too,” said Nancy Glista, the group’s founder.
The Downeast Humanists and Freethinkers’ tree will be adorned with almost entirely natural ornaments, including mussel shells, pine cones, popcorn and cranberries, as it might have been in a traditional winter solstice celebration. The tree will boast a bright papier-mache sun on top in recognition of the solstice.
Correction: An earlier version of this story reported the HOPE Festival is in Bangor. It is in Orono.