What Are We Celebrating?

What Are We Celebrating?

When I started blogging four years ago, I felt like it was popular among atheist content creators to write posts or make videos about why they celebrate Christmas even though they don’t believe in Jesus. It felt almost obligatory to explain that one enjoyed all the fun of the holidays without acknowledging “the reason for the season”.

Of course, Christians believe that that reason is the birth of Jesus, but it is pretty common to find atheists diving deeper into why Christmas didn’t even begin with Christianity, but evolved out of holidays like the Roman Saturnalia and Germanic Yule. You can trace back the origins of any holiday, not only Christmas, as holidays are evolving cultural phenomena like anything else. If you go back before celebrations tied to specific cultures and deities, however, Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving seem to all originate with celebrations relevant to the season: Christmas for the winter solstice, Easter for the transition of the death of winter to the new life of spring, and Thanksgiving for the harvest. You can correct me if I’m wrong, but those seem to be major seasonal themes.

But wait—Thanksgiving isn’t like those others. I think it’s safe to say that we all know by now that Thanksgiving’s famous origin story of the Pilgrims and Wampanoag tribe enjoying turkey together in 1621 is a myth. This fantastic New York Times article from this week highlights the history of Thanksgiving and how Native Americans have tried to bring awareness to the holiday’s dark history. Appropriately, different Native Americans experience the Thanksgiving holiday in different ways, some choosing not to observe it, some marching at Plymouth for the National Day of Mourning, and some observing Thanksgiving in their own ways, taking the time to remember the plight of their ancestors.

As I’ve learned all this about Thanksgiving this year, I’ve wondered if it is right for the rest of us, especially white folks, to be celebrating it at all. The more reasonable of us have pretty unanimously decided that Columbus Day is an atrocious thing to be celebrating, and it is rightfully being replaced by Indigenous People’s Day as that becomes more mainstream. This has been pretty easy, as I can’t remember a time when I did anything at all to celebrate Columbus Day, so re-naming it and spending the day doing what I’ve always done—nothing—is a pretty seamless transition.

But Thanksgiving is a day that’s packed with tradition. Most of us who observe it have probably never spent a (normal) Thanksgiving without some combination of family, turkey, football, parades, and giving thanks. Every family has their own special dishes they’ve always made and their own quirky traditions. Is that really doing any harm? I honestly don’t have a solid answer to this. I think it is most urgent that we stop teaching our children to culturally appropriate the Wampanoag tribe or perpetuate the myth that they handed land and food over to the Pilgrims, for a start. Other than that, Thanksgiving might even act as a way for the non-oblivious white people to explain to our families that this is a good time to reflect on our own privilege, come to terms with the guilt of our ancestors, and support those whose Thanksgivings have been stolen from them for centuries.

Holiday origins like this, which many of us have tried to forget, are one reason that I often find celebrating holidays difficult. Take Christmas, for instance. It’s been pretty thoroughly secularized and commercialized, so not many people are celebrating only the Christian nativity story. What are they celebrating? For many of us, we don’t really need a reason to exchange gifts, get cute pajamas, listen to Mariah Carey, and take a week off of work. Admittedly, though, I do feel odd celebrating a holiday without really having an event to be commemorating.

For me, I can always find a reason to be celebrating a winter holiday. As a true atheist, I can observe Christmas all I want and just slap the label “winter solstice,” “Festivus,” or “the winter holidays” on it, but we all know Christmas is the reason for the bulk of the festivities. Personally I can go a little further and just say I’m celebrating my birthday, which is two days after Christmas. I’ve always really loved my birthday; I’ve always been off of school, I’m usually still around family, and I can keep celebrating even when Christmas is over.

Another reason I love my birthday is because I know exactly what I’m celebrating: my own life. Thankfulness of one’s own life seems like a pretty solid reason to observe a personal holiday. On a grander scale, four days later everyone once again celebrates New Year’s, which is another holiday that I understand the reason for. Obviously different cultures with different calendars put the New Year different times, but the idea of observing the transition between years on Earth just makes sense.

Since I seem to have this strange fixation on the exact reason for the origin of each and every holiday, I think I tend to give a greater weight to holidays and anniversaries that are personal to me. My birthday is one example, but I also like to really celebrate my dating and marriage anniversaries with my husband, my cat’s birthday, and things like the anniversaries of the days I met my favorite author and started my blog (yesterday, November 27th!). These excite me far more than something like Easter, which doesn’t hold much weight for someone who is neither Christian nor pagan. On the other hand, I know that there is something especially peaceful about Christmas, when (almost) everyone gets the day off collectively to spend with their families.

So far, I have stayed home for both Easter and Thanksgiving this year with only my husband and our cats, with minimal celebrations. When you’re the only ones celebrating, you can choose which parts of the holiday you actually enjoy and those you want to leave behind. In both cases, church services were the first things to go, but we also didn’t do any egg-hunting, football-watching, or excessive cooking or decorating. I spent Thanksgiving doing what I like best, which is what I’d be doing anyways: sitting around reading with a cat on my lap, playing video games, and watching YouTube. I’ve found that if you’re going to observe a national holiday, less stress is, not surprisingly, more fun.

12 thoughts on “What Are We Celebrating?

  • November 29, 2020 at 8:28 am

    As to celebrating the birth of Jesus, I began to wonder where this birthing information (the nativity texts in just two of the four gospels) came from. They certainly create some oddities and they muddy the water for later scenes. For example in Mark, Jesus’s parents and family wonder out loud what is wrong with Jesus, that he is going around and working wonders and preaching. After having gone through the events described for his nativity, and they still can’t figure out that he is somebody special, at least? (Yes, Mark contains no such nativity scene, but all contain “prophet in his own land” bits.)

    Then the stories tell us shepherds are out in the fields with their flocks … in December, late December? Nope, doesn’t happen, even in Palestine. And the magi … magi are astrologers. Do Christians want to accept the praise of astrologers as signs of divinity? Maybe that is why it got translated as “Three Wise Men” … but how many people walk around with the title “Wise Man”?

    Once you get the idea that the nativity stories were made up (to serve popular demand) out of scraps of other legendary tales, it is hard to stop just there. If you go further and remove all of the other things that have roots in other stories, you realize that there is very, very little that is left, certainly not enough to base a religion on.

    Maybe we ought to celebrate freedom from religion around the winter solstice. (Actually, the date was chosen to be three days after the solstice as the point where the turn toward Spring begins. So, the holiday isn’t on the solstice by three days after.)

    • March 19, 2021 at 8:56 pm

      Yes, and I think these origin stories are so fascinating! It’s why I enjoy Bart Ehrman and Christian history. Just plain historical facts pretty much disprove the basis of the religion in my mind.

  • November 29, 2020 at 9:07 am

    Thank you, Rebekah, you hit on so many of the awkward issues around the holidays. Like you, I would like for society-at-large to stop teaching the ridiculous Thanksgiving myth and give our children a true (true-er?) understanding of what really transpired during the conquest of America by the Anglo & European settlers. It is a horrifying and painful story to tell, in the reality of it, once the white-wash is removed. (I’m not suggesting we teach this to first graders, however we can stop at least teaching them the false version.) However, this will never be easy with the resistance from the evangelicals and even just white conservatives that are perfectly content wallowing in their ignorance and insisting that others to do the same. How will Christians accept their story of the Puritan pilgrimage to the “New World” in the name of their God culminating in the underhanded deceitfulness, double-dealing, and eventual slaughter of the indigenous peoples? Count on them to lie, fight, argue, insist, anything and everything including the banning of books and then some. It will simply be incumbent upon us – the true “us,” that is, each one of us individually – to continue to educate our own, maybe a scant few others, follow our “new” ways if, indeed, we come up with any; holidays, commemorative dates, etc., and be content that we’ve led truer lives and have benefitted from our ability to deal with a truer rendition of history and a greater understanding of the world.

    • November 29, 2020 at 9:40 pm

      Some notes I had from the same discussion a year ago:
      David J.Silverman
      This Land Is Their Land: The Wampanoag Indians, Plymouth Colony, and the Troubled History of Thanksgiving


      The Myths:
      One is that history doesn’t begin for Native people until Europeans arrive. People had been in the Americas for least 12,000 years and according to some Native traditions, since the beginning of time. And having history start with the English is a way of dismissing all that. The second is that the arrival of the Mayflower is some kind of first-contact episode. It’s not.

      It (the dinner) gained purchase in the late 19th century, when there was an enormous amount of anxiety and agitation over immigration. The white Protestant stock of the United States was widely unhappy about the influx of European Catholics and Jews, and wanted to assert its cultural authority over these newcomers.

      In that short period of time the white people have developed their xenophobia: no Catholics. No Jews.

      Ahead of the 400th anniversary of the first Thanksgiving, a new look at the Plymouth colony’s founding events, told for the first time with Wampanoag people at the heart of the story.

      …Wampanoag adults have memories of being a kid during Thanksgiving season, sitting in school, feeling invisible and having to wade through the nonsense that teachers were shoveling their way. They felt like their people’s history as they understood it was being misrepresented. They felt that not only their classes, but society in general was making light of historical trauma which weighs around their neck like a millstone. Those stories really resonated with me.

      What is the Thanksgiving myth?

      The myth is that friendly Indians, unidentified by tribe, welcome the Pilgrims to America, teach them how to live in this new place, sit down to dinner with them and then disappear. They hand off America to white people so they can create a great nation dedicated to liberty, opportunity and Christianity for the rest of the world to profit. That’s the story—it’s about Native people conceding to colonialism. It’s bloodless and in many ways an extension of the ideology of Manifest Destiny.

      Read more: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/thanksgiving-myth-and-what-we-should-be-teaching-kids-180973655/#pFRfWVKoymLVkbsD.99

      • November 30, 2020 at 8:50 am

        I don’t know about “since the beginning of time” but certainly for many millennia. In fact when the Europeans “discovered” America, there were upwards of 100,000,000 indigenous people here. I never fully understood how one “discovers” something already known to hundred million people! Either way, it’s a story of horror and genocide.

        Pass the sweet potatoes……

        • November 30, 2020 at 10:49 am

          It’s a white thing. History begins when white men start writing it. Whether it’s the Americas, Australia, or Figi, there was no history before we came along.

          Their culture and their religions were inconsequential. All things must conform to the white narrative.

  • November 29, 2020 at 1:24 pm

    Hi, Rebekah. I concur with all the above.
    First off, you wondered about Thanksgiving Day. You are right that it concurs with a season, Autumn (or Fall) which happens to be close to the harvest time in Israel of the Old Testament. The Feast of Booths. Sukkot. It looks like they camped out in the fields until the harvest was complete.

    All the Christian Holy Days have been appropriated from earlier religions. The Spring feast of Easter? It comes from the worship of Ishtar, goddess of Fertility, I think it was Sumerian. The New Testament translators. commissioned by Bonnie Prince James, made an error in giving that name. The Greek transcripts which they were all translated from have the word for the Passover, Pascha, at that place. Considering all the fertility symbols there is not much question of the origin of “Easter.”

    “Truth, in matters of religion, is simply the opinion that has survived.”
    ~Oscar Wilde
    -Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde

    That succinct quote sort of sums up religion for all ages. The myths have built upon myths, carefully nurtured and revised to fit society at any particular time. We see now these Christian Nationalists leading the development of that religion while not holding on to much of their founding scripture. The spirit of Jesus of the NT does not have a place on their agenda. And all religions have an agenda.

    They are today’s ‘truth.’

  • November 29, 2020 at 2:33 pm

    I know it’s becoming common for modern day progressives to scorn Thanksgiving and for many to cease celebrating it. It’s far from my favorite holiday so I have no real strong personal agenda in my opinion but I think some of that is a bit of an over-reaction. Telling the truth about the history of the pilgrims and the treatment of indigenous people by European settlers in North America is wholly a good and I think it’s by and large becoming the common way for history classes (post grade school anyway) to address matters. But the holiday itself? How many people celebrate it in remembrance of anything to do with the settlement of this continent anyway? For most it’s long been at best a day to express gratitude and at worst to gorge on fatty foods and watch parades and/or football. If you and your family truly love the latter then cancelling it out of awareness of our national history is silly and doesn’t do anything. There are many ways we can help the living indigenous people today that all involve donating time, money, advocacy, and votes to the right direction and none of which are helped by cancelling family traditions or feeling personally guilty for the acts of one’s ancestors. I doubt many Native Americans would feel better if we stayed at home and mourned on that day but they would feel better if we supported them when things like the pipeline at Standing Rock came up…

    • November 29, 2020 at 3:31 pm

      It is not that the day is celebrated in honor of that ‘original’ Thanksgiving. It is the fact that the thanks giving is to the God of Christianity.

      My family had a Thanksgiving dinner. My wife and I cooked. The children came by, masks on, and picked up prepared meals. None of us ‘gave thanks’. I am the only avowed Atheist but the rest are not practicing any religion. The other Christian feast days will be the same. Sooner or later they will recognize that they are in fact, Atheists.

      On July 4, we will celebrate Independence Day. No prayers. But there will be some thoughts of our American Indians, although we no longer have those few friends nearby. The Wheelers and the Adkins on the East coast.

      The best I can do now is vote Blue.

  • December 2, 2020 at 10:34 am

    I have a sudden urge to watch “Adam Ruins Christmas” and the part about Saturnalia and Yule. Think I’ll enjoy a freaking huge log in the fireplace (or hell, get a nice fire pit outside), some wine, and the pups out with me. Probably go back and forth with my more pagan neighbors and trade bottles (hee hee).


What do you think?