Giving thanks

I’ve always celebrated Thanksgiving more than once a year. Once with my dad’s family, and once with my mother’s. My dad’s family, who is White, would have these relatively traditional gatherings around a big table, where we pass the turkey and gravy and mashed potatoes in a sort of ritualized cooperation. My mother’s family, who is Chinese Filipino, would treat it like yet another pot luck, with with the traditional Thanksgiving foods present but not playing a central role in the mix of Chinese, Filipino, and American dishes. People would line up to put food on their plates, and unceremoniously scatter across three or four tables of various shapes and sizes.

Once I started visiting my husband’s family, we started alternating Thanksgivings. One year, we would visit his parents, and the next year we would visit mine. My mother was always disappointed by this, so we formed a new tradition: early Thanksgiving. Now we celebrate two Thanksgivings on different weeks, with different sides of the family.  I’ve already celebrated my first Thanksgiving this year.

When I started reading atheist blogs in the late 2000s, I observed another kind of Thanksgiving tradition. I’m not sure readers today would be familiar with it, because it might have died with the atheist blogosphere. But basically, atheists would write in defense of their celebration of Thanksgiving.

Why is secular Thanksgiving in need of any kind of defense? I have to guess that a lot of other atheists live in contexts where they’re interacting with evangelicals, who express confusion at why atheists would ever celebrate Thanksgiving. “Who are you thanking if you don’t believe in God?” is what I imagine them saying. I’ve never actually heard anyone say that, but defensiveness is contagious because now I know that some unspecified group of people holds such misconceptions.

Atheists would say, “I don’t give thanks to God. I give thanks to other people.” The common “defense” of Thanksgiving never sat right with me, and felt like a form of respectability politics.  For my family, Thanksgiving was never really about thanks, neither to gods or otherwise. Neither my mother’s family nor my father’s family had any sort of ritual of giving thanks. Now my husband’s family—a White family with a UU background—has a tradition of saying what you’re thankful for before eating. My husband characterizes this as an extremely minor tradition, but it’s enough for me that I find it strange and slightly uncomfortable.

In my mind this is racialized. These defensive takes must be coming from White Americans with painfully traditional interpretations of Thanksgiving, defending themselves from White Christians with even more painfully traditional interpretations. I mean, I don’t actually know whether it’s racialized, I only know that my mother’s family is less traditional about it than my father’s or husband’s families. But it is worth noting that Thanksgiving in the US is mostly specific to the US, and that any immigrants who celebrate it—including Christian immigrants like my mother!—are adopting a tradition not originally their own.

From a broader perspective, Thanksgiving is just another harvest festival—or historically derived from one anyway. I doubt that every other harvest festival tradition around the world places as much emphasis on “thanks”. My extremely thin understanding of the Chinese autumnal harvest festival, is that instead the emphasis is on eating mooncake. Wikipedia claims that thanks is also an element of the mooncake festival, but I can’t say any of it carried over to my mixed race second generation immigrant self. I had never even heard of the moon goddess Chang’e until I was an adult, and it would be absurd to ask why we eat mooncake if we don’t believe in her. We eat mooncake because it’s good—except for the dried egg yolk that nobody seems to like, not sure why that’s there.

If I put on my philosopher hat on, I don’t even understand what “thanks” is. Giving thanks is a performative speech act (see J. L. Austin), whose purpose is to show people that you are thankful. Being thankful means expressing thanks. Try to explain what “thanks” is without getting into a self-referential loop. It’s a ritual we perform when someone else does something good, and we want them to know that we think so. Or sometimes it’s a ritual we perform when there are good things in our life, and we want other people to know that we think so. The latter ritual, some Christians may think of as thanking God, but this is hardly a necessary interpretation. Honestly the ritual doesn’t make much sense either way.

I’m not going anywhere in particular with this train of thought. Just, there are a lot of ways to interpret and celebrate these holidays. This is totally obvious to me, but sometimes I wonder if it’s as obvious to everyone else.


  1. robert79 says

    I think you might just be overthinking it…

    When I moved to the US as a kid, thanksgiving was one of those typically American celebrations that we (esp. my mom (atheist)) especially liked. We never got the impression it was a religious thing… just a moment to get together and be thankful (to no one in particular) of the good stuff that has happened in our lives. It also wasn’t a very “family” thing, we usually celebrated with another family (colleague of my dad who introduced us to the whole thing…) and were quite free with invitations to anyone we knew who didn’t have a strong social network in the area (usually visiting students/faculty of my dad’s dept.)

  2. says


    I think you might just be overthinking it…

    You think the philosopher hat is too much? My stance is, why aren’t we talking about performative speech acts even more? It would surely help reduce misconceptions about gender performativity theory.

  3. anat says

    When I started reading internet discussions, back in the days of Usenet, there were similar discussions among Jewish people on the internet about whether it was appropriate for Jews to celebrate Thanksgiving, and if so in what form. The objections came from among some specific segments of Orthodox Jews, especially certain Hasidic sects. One was ‘I don’t need a special holiday to give thanks, I give thanks everyday’ (referring to various blessings in daily prayers).

    Very few of us still live in a way that is connected to direct experience of harvest – and of being dependent on its success. Even those who raise their vegetables in their own yards – if one year their tomatoes don’t do that well, they just buy more at the supermarket. And at the supermarket many kinds of produce are available year round, thanks to imports (this morning I just realized the organic blueberries I got yesterday were from Chile, oops, bad environmental move on my part!) So there isn’t much of a sense of a true harvest season. But if you look at how people lived even as late as a century or two ago – there was that time of year when food made with preserved crops from the previous year was running low, and all hope was that the new harvest would bring a supply of fresh produce – and then all the activity to bring the harvest in and to make as much out of it as possible to stock up for another year – that would make people aware how much they depended on a successful harvest and bring up a sense of thankfulness that they got it done.

  4. Bruce says

    I give thanks that my Pilgrim ancestors in 1621 were able to persuade the Native Americans to provide my white ancestors with enough welfare that we were able to seize their continent and live happily ever after. We Pilgrim-English really pwned those liberal first Americans.
    And thanks for the local food-getting wisdom. Have some smallpox blankets in return.
    Oops! That’s what actually happened, not the innocent happy story that “rewrite” put together for us a century or two later.
    I’ll just say I want to thank the inheritors of the tradition of generosity that saved my economic/theocratic migrant immigrant ancestors even though they didn’t deserve it. To that, I add my hope that I don’t add too much hypocrisy of my own to the ongoing story of the USA.

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