Should you participate in acknowledging, much less celebrating, any aspect of a religious holiday? If a holiday has no other aspects to it but religion and religious ritual, there are few opportunities for atheists to participate. In such cases, if you do participate, it will likely be because some other factor like family unity weighs more heavily on you than does the principle of avoiding religion.
Christmas presents a complex issue for atheists because there is currently so much more to Christmas than religion. People will justifiably decry the American consumer culture which appears to overemphasize spending and superficiality, but but which has also managed to diversify Christmas far beyond a Christians-only celebration.
This may be one case where the ability of our consumer culture to tear down traditional meanings has actually done us a service. Christians quite literally stole a great deal of the outward aspects of traditional Christmas celebration from older pagan celebrations, and now secular consumer culture is stealing them, too.
So, is Christmas religious or secular? Christians will naturally argue that it is religious - I can't tell you how often I see signs telling me "Jesus is the Reason for the Season." Well, they're wrong - and on a number of levels. The "season" itself is originally due to ancient Roman Saturnalia and pagan solstice celebrations, not Jesus.
Today, Christmas may be wholly religious to many Christians, but it need not be religious in any way to anyone else. There's nothing inherently religious, much less Christian, about a whole host of Christmas activities: decorations, lights, Christmas trees, giving gifts, family gatherings, holiday meals and foods, etc. Even incredibly sappy holiday movies offer Christmas messages of human love and kindness which carry no inherent religious basis.
Ideally, the question of celebrating Thanksgiving shouldn't be an issue at all because it really isn't a religious holiday (at least in theory). The drive to create a national holiday called Thanksgiving gained momentum in the early half of the 19th century due to the efforts of Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of Godey's Lady's Book, one of the first women's magazines. In 1827 she wrote in it:
- We have too few holidays. Thanksgiving like the Fourth of July should be considered a national festival and observed by all our people...as an exponent of our Republican institutions.
In an editorial published in 1859 she wrote:
- If every state would join in Union Thanksgiving on the 24th of this month, would it not be a renewed pledge of love and loyalty of the Constitution of the United States which guarantees peace, prosperity, progress and perpetuity to our great Republic?
It wasn't until 1863 that her efforts really paid off when President Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving a national holiday - mostly to commemorate the Union victory in Gettysburg. Clearly, there was supposed to be an important secular aspect to Thanksgiving, just as there is in the Fourth of July holiday - but it would be wrong to think that, therefore, there was no religious significance.
Another of Hale's editorials, one which appeared in 1863 just before Lincoln's proclamation, called on Americans "to offer God our tribute of joy and gratitude for the blessings of the year." The "original" Thanksgiving was a meal of Pilgrims who were "giving thanks" to God for having survived that long on the American continent (although more thanks were probably due to the Native Americans who had thus far been helpful).
This has resulted in a quintessentially American combination of patriotism and religion, where America is regarded as chosen by God to lead the world, where Americans are chosen by God to fulfill his commandments, and the former is only ensured so longer as the latter continues to occur. Thus, for many, Thanksgiving is both an American civil and a Christian religious holiday, necessary to help continue the sanctification of America and glory of God.
As such, there can be conflicts for atheists participating in Thanksgiving celebrations. Many aren't a problem and most of the day for most people is devoid of religious questions. In the end, however, much of the Thanksgiving celebration becomes focused on the Thanksgiving meal and that, in turn, is often preceded by someone saying grace - even if no one in the household ever says grace at any other time of the year.