I’ve spent a lot of time contemplating holidays since leaving religion. It’s been more traumatic than you might think. Easter was the only easy one. I no longer celebrate Easter because it’s pretty much completely identified as a Christian holiday celebrating how Jesus dripped multicolored blood on eggs and turned his cross into chocolate bunnies to escape painful death at the hands of the Romans.
Christmas was more difficult. After all, the Christians grinched Christmas from the Pagans, and made it into Hallmark and Hasbro Day. I’m not really good at either giving or receiving gifts, and the anti-consumerist in me feels weird about having to buy something for everybody I know, especially when half of the gifts are going to sit in a closet collecting dust or get returned on Boxing Day. I have a weakness for A Christmas Story, though.
I have been through similar mental gymnastics about pretty much every holiday, deciding whether or not I’m going to celebrate, and if so, how. By far the most difficult holiday for me is Thanksgiving. There’s a part of me that agrees with Christina Ricci’s character in The Ice Storm:
In principle, I like the idea of Thanksgiving. We’ve made it through another year; there are enough crops for a feast; we are lucky enough to be surrounded by friends, family, and loved ones. It’s cause for celebration.
The fact is, I’m also a sucker for a feast. I love to cook, and I’ve stayed up all night many times to prepare an entire Thanksgiving feast by myself. (Check out Sweet Potato Creme Brulee. It’s amazing.) I had to stop eating at all you can eat buffets several years ago because I like to eat until I’m too stuffed to move. Thanksgiving is the one day I can give myself permission to do it with no guilt.
Still, there’s the nasty underbelly of Thanksgiving — European imperialism, the systematic extermination of Native Americans, the American sense of entitlement, and the slightly icky feeling we get when we throw away enough food in one afternoon to feed a family of four for a week — knowing that there are plenty of families of four who could really use it.
I am beginning to think that maybe all of that is extraneous. I didn’t kill Native Americans, and I make a point to donate food to a homeless shelter every Thanksgiving. I think I’m doing my part, even if it’s a small part. Still, I feel sort of like the kid who all the children snicker about because he opts out of the Pledge of Allegiance. Is Thanksgiving a religious holiday? Don’t most families still thank God for everything they’re about to gorge themselves on? Isn’t it still a kind of remembrance of America’s manifest destiny, granted by Jesus Christ himself to all the good Caucasians?
I still don’t know. I’m going to celebrate Thanksgiving this year with a family whose matriarch and patriarch both graduated from the infamous Bob Jones University, and I’ll do what I’ve always done at such gatherings. I’ll sit quietly while a prayer of thanks is offered to our lord and savior, Jesus Christ. I won’t rock the boat, and I’ll enjoy good food and good company. I might even have to sit through a repeat of one particularly memorable dinner, where the diners were regaled with tales of how brown people are cursed by God because of the Tower of Babel.
Maybe there’s a lesson in Thanksgiving for all of us freethinkers and atheists. We gripe (justifiably, I might add) all the time about laws that discriminate against us, and “News Reports” portraying us as un-American, and the unwritten religious tests that prohibit atheists from holding public office. Even so, there is only so much that can be taken from us. We can celebrate Thanksgiving for what it means to us, and if we don’t want to have a prayer, we don’t have to have a prayer. It can be a perfectly meaningful and enjoyable holiday with nothing more than food, family, and football. It doesn’t have to feel like something is missing, or that we’re leaving something out.
I’ve got a lot of mixed feelings about participating in a religious Thanksgiving feast, but I’m going to do it, mostly because I think I owe it to myself and to the Christians in attendance to practice what I preach. The biggest part of tolerance is realizing that there will be things that must be tolerated. There are precious few times when I can participate with Christians while celebrating for entirely different reasons. I suppose I’m thankful that there’s at least one time that I can.