To Whom Do You Give Thanks?

By Chaya Rappaport

“Why not?”

When I asked some atheists if they celebrated Thanksgiving, that was the most frequent reply: why not? I had thought that beyond the holiday’s turkey and football and shopping and the parade, Thanksgiving is about giving thanks to God. So if you don’t believe in God, whom do you thank?

Some atheists feel as though Thanksgiving was hijacked by Christians, who took a secular, family holiday and stuck religion into it. Of course, many people do think of Thanksgiving as just an extended weekend off from work, a time to get together with family. One self-proclaimed atheist, James Niceberg, says of Thanksgiving: “the roots of the holiday are founded in a peace treaty between Indians and Pilgrims. It had nothing to do with religion.”

Not quite. The original Thanksgiving feast was celebrated by the Pilgrims, who were, after all, fanatically religious Puritans, in 1621, offering thanks to God for the bountiful harvest of autumn. When George Washington, on Oct. 3, 1789, issued a Thanksgiving proclamation, he called for “a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God.” Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, made Thanksgiving a national holiday; his proclamation enjoined fellow citizens “to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens.”

In fact, President Obama was the first American president not to refer to some divine being in his Thanksgiving proclamation, according to, which describes itself as a news service dedicated to issues of culture, life, and family.

Some atheists do choose not to celebrate Thanksgiving. Many others celebrate on their own terms, giving thanks to the Food Emporium for their turkey rather than to God. Some opt out of saying grace; others, like David Smalley, editor of American Atheist magazine, are “thankful ‘in general’ without naming a recipient of said thanks.” Michael W. Jones, editor of The Eloquent Atheist, suggests that thanks be given “to the genuine, living, breathing friends and family members…for all the things that they do to make your life more livable.”

Other than national holidays, do atheists have excuses to party? New York City Atheists Inc. celebrates the solstice with a festival twice a year, in the springtime and in winter, drawing on pre-Christian era pagan traditions.

Yet some atheists see nothing wrong with celebrating religious holidays. Niceberg says he celebrates “most other holidays, as oftentimes I have off from work, and there is usually someplace to go and be with people,” adding, “One might ask why an atheist would celebrate, for example, Hanukkah, as it is clearly a religious holiday. My answer would be that atheists are not ogres with no understanding of friends and family.”

Lack of faith in God doesn’t seem a reason not to enjoy a good celebration.

One comment

Comments are closed.