For some, the holidays are a way to celebrate religion, but for humanists and other nonbelievers, it’s a time to reflect and appreciate life and loved ones. Whether religious or secular, many families practice meaningful traditions every year around the holiday season. This Thanksgiving, the AHA staff share their memorable holiday traditions with TheHumanist.com readers!
Jason Heap, United Coalition of Reason Coordinator
As I have called the United Kingdom “home” for more than ten years, I haven’t celebrated Thanksgiving. Rather, on the 5th of November, there is an old tradition in England called “bonfire night,” “fireworks night” or “Guy Fawkes Day,” commemorating the evening when Guy Fawkes and his fellow-conspirators failed at their attempt to blow-up Parliament on November 5, 1605. There is a poem that goes with the day: “Remember, remember, the fifth of November with gunpowder, treason and plot. I see no reason why gunpowder treason should ever be forgot.”
In the past, town and village children would create effigies of “the Guy” and there would be a bonfire somewhere in the town where the effigy of ‘the Guy’ would be led and burned. Some members of my family live near Holywell in north Wales, and we’d go there for a bonfire and burning of a Guy that we made together. In the north of England, a cake called parkin, or “bonfire cake,” is made and eaten on Guy Fawkes Day, as well as toffee-covered apples, and we’d eat this at the bonfire, where we also had a huge barbecue cook-out, complete with a fireworks celebration that would put some July 4th displays to shame. Of course, with good British humor, there is the joke: Is Guy Fawkes Day celebrated because the conspiracy plot was foiled and King James and the Parliament were protected, or is it a celebration that someone actually tried to blow-up Parliament in the first place? Either way, it is good fun for the family, and a huge lesson learned in British history regarding religious liberty.
Maggie Ardiente, Senior Editor
I spend Thanksgiving with my family at my father’s house in Virginia Beach nearly every year, but now that my six siblings and I are scattered across the country, it’s increasingly difficult to get us all together in one room. But no matter how many attend, my father insists on someone in my family reciting a religious grace. Last year, it was just me, my dad, my sister Gina, and my husband Roy; and even though half of our little group identified as humanists (and I suspect Gina is at least agnostic), my father insisted on conducting a proper religious prayer. Obviously, neither I nor Roy would do it, so he asked Gina, and she, being a typical 17-year-old, closed her eyes, placed her hands together and said, “Thank you, Jesus, for this meal. You made all the food. No one helped.” It was at least a grace I could laugh about.
Jennifer Bardi, Senior Editor
Growing up we always played “last tag” on Thanksgiving. After the festivities, whoever was tagged last before visiting guests drove away was “it” until the following year. I can remember my brother and dad running down our street and cutting through the park just to surprise my uncle at the stop sign exiting our neighborhood, and poking the cousins before they could roll up the window.
My in-laws’ tradition is called the “Thanksgiving Lie.” Each person who comes for dinner attempts to pull a lie over on the others. One year my brother-in-law Ty sent his mother a hideous paper mache turkey purchased from the dusty bin of a thrift store in San Francisco and told her she had to display it on the Thanksgiving table because it was really important to his wife, Gina, who’d made it with her dearly departed father when she was a kid. My mother-in-law obliged even though the thing was by all accounts pretty gross. Then at dinner, Ty and Gina orchestrated a fight that culminated in him tearing the centerpiece to shreds. His mother was freaking out but Gina started laughing and the lie was exposed. I learned about this tradition on the airplane to go meet them all for the first time. My now-husband and I had been dating for four or five months and the pressure was on to impress this theatrical and decidedly offbeat lot. I came up with the idea that I would give my boyfriend a hickey on his neck, and, once there, I’d pull his mom and sister-in-law aside to point it out and tell them I suspected he was cheating on me. The problem was I didn’t know how to do it and only left a very, very faint red mark on his neck. The entire Thanksgiving I kept saying, “Do you see that?! Is he cheating on me?” and they would crane their necks, shake their heads, and say they just couldn’t see anything. I whiffed that tradition but I’m happy to say they accepted me anyway.
And in all iterations of my Thanksgivings, we give thanks before the meal—to the cook and hosts, to each other, and to the ether for our health and good fortune, and voice positive wishes to those who are struggling.
Peter Bjork, Managing Editor
Growing up in Massachusetts, my family’s Thanksgivings were fairly unremarkable. Delicious, for sure, but unremarkable. We’d switch every year between my father’s extended relatives and my mother’s, slogging through horrendous traffic to eat perfectly wonderful—but very by-the-book—Thanksgiving food. I continued the stereotypical Turkey-day trek home after I moved in 2007 to Washington, DC, but when I moved abroad to London in 2010, that no longer was an option. But rather than feel sad and alone, I was delighted to discover that for the first time in my life I was able to celebrate Thanksgiving on my own terms, on my own schedule, with whomever I chose, and—most importantly—wherever I wanted.
Though I am now back in DC, my experiences of celebrating Thanksgiving abroad have led to the creation of my one and only yearly tradition: I celebrate Thanksgiving by not traveling anywhere.
Yes, seeing family is undoubtedly important, but for me that’s reserved for the winter holidays. I view Thanksgiving (with my family’s approval) as a time to celebrate the people and places you interact with most throughout the year. And so on Thursday, while countless people will be spending hours in their cars, fighting over music and honking their horns at incompetent drivers, I will be walking three blocks north from my apartment, having a glorious feast, and rolling myself home. And I am not the least bit sorry ’bout it.
Cindy Le, Membership Services Assistant
When I was growing up my mother was a preschool teacher and so for every holiday we did crafts. The Thanksgiving craft we used to do that has grown into a yearly tradition is building turkeys out of apples, toothpicks, marshmallows, raisins and whatever leftover odds and ends we can find when dinner is done.
Once we’re done we see who has the craziest turkey and they win bragging rights as the winner until next year. It is fun to get to construct something and play like children now that we are all older and to do something that can make us all laugh together.