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.