Occupy Thanksgiving

It’s easy to sit back and snark at the many hoary Thanksgiving Day traditions venerated across America — presidential turkey-pardoning ceremonies, depraved Black Friday madness, gluttonous indulgences. The Christian Right regularly attempts to arrogate Thanksgiving unto themselves, imbuing it with a kind of vaguely divine significance. I can recall attending Thanksgiving “services” at my hometown “Our Lady of the Suburbs” Catholic parish in northern New Jersey.

But really, the essence of Thanksgiving as celebrated today by most Americans is secular — an opportunity to take stock of life’s blessings, forge communal/familial bonds, rest in the company of valued companions, etc. Much as Thanksgiving might be associated with ritualistic Christian Nationalism and commercialism — two mainstays of American civil life — the holiday need not take on those unsavory overtones.

Last year, I delivered a turkey to Military Park in Newark, New Jersey, where the newly-formed Occupy Newark collective was facilitating a Thanksgiving meal for those without any place to go. That core spirit of Occupy — service, community, mutual aid, non-coercion — is what spurred the decentralized relief efforts currently operating under the Occupy Sandy banner. Hearts and minds are more effectively won with blankets, assistance moving supplies up dark stairs, and mobile phone-charging devices than blusterous street-corner spiels alleging the inevitable demise of capitalism.

Organic, social media-led organizational structures are the way of future, as massive inefficiencies inherent to bureaucratic top-down management continue to hobble post-Sandy recovery throughout New York and New Jersey. Neighborhood groups started by one person on Facebook have come to supplant municipal agencies, taking on responsibility for supervising relief efforts in, to name one example, Jersey City.

Secularists should be heartened by the existence of these emergent mutual-aid networks for any number of reasons. One, they help answer a question that has long dogged those active in the 2000s-era “Secular Movement” — how do we replicate feelings of communal solidarity so often reported by adherents to organized religion?

So this Thanksgiving, consider Occupying — whatever that might mean to you.

About michaeltracey

Journalist based in Brooklyn, New York. Follow me on Twitter at @mtracey.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6OE7LEYELE4MZTVXGZUSVTBFUI julie

    I remember my pastor saying that Thanksgiving was the only holiday that couldn’t be celebrated without God because there has to be someone you’re giving thanks to.
    Me:…what?…that doesn’t…huh?
    That’s like a kid insisting that Christmas would not be possible without Santa Clause.
    I love that Thanksgiving is a secular holiday, even if everyone around me does everything they can to change that.

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

    I made a list of secular Thanksgiving picture books on Amazon, and apparently some Baptist pastor found it and wrote a whole sermon on the theme you mentioned, that apparently a god is needed for Thanksgiving.


    I’m famous! And rather amused at how riled up fundamentalist and evangelical Christians seem to get at the mere notion of a secular holiday.

  • brianmacker

    “That core spirit of Occupy — service, community, mutual aid, non-coercion — is what spurred the decentralized relief efforts currently operating under the Occupy Sandy banner”

    Absolute bullshit. Occupy was founded on group envy and theft of public resources for personal causes. How is forceful occupation of public property a form of “non-coercion”?

  • http://daisysdeadair.blogspot.com/ DaisyDeadhead

    Cause there ain’t no such thing as “public”–it belongs to everybody, therefore it belongs to Occupy too.  

    Interesting post… but my personal pet peeve is to separate the mandatory-meat eating from the Thanksgiving holiday.  If we can separate mandatory Christian prayers, we can disentangle the “turkey” from the proceedings also.  

  • Drew M.

    I’ve always enjoyed your comments, but this just put you over the top. I hereby declare thee to be an Official Internet Hero™!

  • http://www.last.fm/user/m6wg4bxw m6wg4bxw

    It’s merely another day to me. I try to express my gratitude to those who deserve it, when they deserve it, throughout the year. I don’t have a back-log of thanks to unload in November.

  • http://twitter.com/rlrose328 Kerri Russ

    I, for one, feel the same way.  There was nothing pleasant with the Occupy movement.  To me, it comes across the exact same way as Christianity.  They occupy public areas making them no longer public, occupying a space I’d like to visit but now can’t.  I’m not saying their cause isn’t worthy but the manner with which they carried it out is not.

  • http://twitter.com/rlrose328 Kerri Russ

    Nope, sorry… turkey is mandatory for Thanksgiving.  I look forward to my ritual turkey dinner every year.  I don’t eat it any other time so it’s a big treat.  I’m an omnivore and proud of it, though I readily admit that if I were responsible for killing and cleaning my own meat for consumption, I would probably be a vegetarian.

  • brianmacker

    Actually no, public does not mean that it belongs to everybody. Property rights are defined by the ablility to control and dispose of property. The government actually controls and disposes of public property. Parks are de jury and de facto owned by the government. It is the government that decides how they are to be used and when and if they will be disposed of.

    Just because I might own Walmart stock does not mean I own the watermelons at my local Walmart and can just go take them without paying. Those watermelons are owned by the corporate entity called Walmart, not me or any particular stock holder. I only have voting rights with regard to the stock I own. I do own the stock, but not the watermelons except by proxy, a rather weak proxy if I own few shares.

    The general citizen’s single vote as compare to millions of other citizens doesn’t give them mush of any say in how public property is to be used.

  • brianmacker

    Not sure why you think turkey is mandatory. Many people have ham. We don’t have prayers at my house either, although that’s not a mandatory rule either.

  • amycas

     Public property is government property–for which everybody paid.

  • amycas

    Many people said the same thing about the civil rights protests in the ’60s

  • Ibis3


    Thanksgiving is a time to recognize the blessings of God on this nation.

    How does he explain Canadian Thanksgiving, I wonder. Sure, its origins are a bit goddish, but there’s nothing about your nation about it.

  • Rwlawoffice

    Those claiming that Thanksgiving is a secular holiday are either ignorant or intentionally history. It started with the pilgrims giving thanks to God for their survival. George Washington than made a proclamation that a day be set aside nationally to give thanks to Gid for his blessings on our country. The third Thursday in November was established by Lincoln. From the very beginning until today it is a day set aside to thank God.

    Washington specifically said in his proclamation that it is the “duty of all nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits and to humbly implore his protection and favor and whereas Congress through a joint resolution requested me to recommend that a day if thanksgiving and prayer be set aside…… 1789

  • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/friendlyatheist/ Kevin_Of_Bangor

    I agree 100% they made a part of Bangor, Maine look like a homeless camp.

  • 3lemenope

    People aren’t generally claiming it *was* a secular holiday. They are claiming it *is* a secular holiday. 

    Tense matters. Lots of things have origins that end up being irrelevant to current common practice.

  • MG

    Instead of giving their thanks to the ones actually responsible for their survival; the indigenous peoples of the land they co-opted?

  • John

    Don’t forget to thank Jesus for your food!

  • Rwlawoffice

    So what evidence is there to support this assertion? The vast majority of people in this country are religious. So what makes you think they would not recognize this day as one set aside to give thanks to God?

  • http://twitter.com/mtracey Michael Tracey

    I’m sorry to see you are so hostile toward Occupy.

  • Alexandertimothy08

     Is your pastor ignoring christmas then?  cause that’s the one I’ve always heard couldnt be celebrated with out god.  Mind you I prove them wrong every year.

  • http://twitter.com/rlrose328 Kerri Russ

    I’m behind both the civil rights movement and the plight of the lower to middle class, to which I belong.  I just don’t support, in this time in our country’s history, the gathering of disgruntled people.  There was much more wrong with the Occupy events than there was right.  There are other ways to handle this type of thing than destroying a public place and causing physical altercations with those who don’t agree, not to mention the forced involvement of police who have much better things to do.  I believe with all my heart that these types of protests and events do more harm that good.

  • Michael Both

    A religious person demanding evidence for something? Oh, the irony.

  • Aaron Scoggin

    Yes.. They were also incredibly religious back then. It’s no longer that way, and for good reason. They had a good excuse to be the devout (lack of information), while people today do not.

    Anyway, like any other holiday, it’s whatever you want it to be. To me, it’s secular, so therefore, it is. So is Christmas. Etc. 

  • Aaron Scoggin

    You’re welcome to your opinion, no matter how wrong it may be. People are allowed to mislead themselves if they want to, I suppose.

  • brianmacker

    What’s your point? Do you mean anyone can use public parks to dump sewage in because they paid for it? What about ATVs? Can ATV owners drive wherever they please on public property including inside library buildings because they paid for it? What about those who haven’t paid a dime of taxes? Should they be excluded from any use of public property?

    Do you understand the fact that public property is designated for certain uses? Occupying parks with filth shanty towns aren’t one of the approved uses, just like driving ATVs in libraries.

  • brianmacker

    I’m sorry Occupy is so hostile to public gardens, private property, and people trying to work for a living.

  • brianmacker

    You sound like a crackpot trying to defend a perpetual motion machine by citing opposition to the airplane.

  • brianmacker

    I wasn’t expressing “feelings”. Those are facts based on their behavior and rhetoric. Their cause is in fact criminal in nature.

    Like many criminal enterprises they put lipstick on the pig by doing charity work. Mobsters do it, Hamas does it, the Muslim Brotherhood does it, Pol Pot did it, Mao did it, Stalin did it, and the KKK did and does it. “Occupying” is a criminal activity, and not in the sense of violating an unjust law to protest it. They didn’t restrict their criminal activities to occupying either. They also committed vandalism and extortion of goods and services from local businesses.

    This is not the T-Party who clean up after themselves and pay for their own porta-potties for licensed time limited events so they don’t shit all over the place.. These are people who expect to be taken care of, or else, and looking for handouts.

  • Carmelita Spats

     I agree with you. I lived in Mexico for 10 years and witnessed how mobs of disgruntled, hungry, impoverished folks from outside the city would swoop down and set up shanty towns demanding “social justice”…They squatted on public property and sold junk while depriving tax-paying businesses in downtown Mexico City of clientele…They brought pictures of relatives who had been mutilated by drug lords or by the military…One guy even brought a picture of his 17 year old kid who was stripped naked, tortured, disemboweled and hung over a bridge by drug lords in the state of Morelos…The 17 year old had been an anti-drug activist…In reality, the squatters were looking for handouts and excuses not to work. I became very involved in the abortion movement in Mexico City. I would use the shanty towns to distribute birth control information from MexFam as well as referrals to public hospitals that performed “legrados”, abortions. This was the first step in teaching them to take care of themselves through absolute control of their wanton reproductive practices. I had run ins with the filthy Catholic Church. The Catholic Church promoted the squatting, hysterical breeding and “social justice”. The RCC is WORSE than the drug lords….and as long as the Tea Pee Party rages against abortion, they are also a problem.

  • http://twitter.com/mtracey Michael Tracey

    Your impression is mistaken, I’m afraid.

  • brianmacker
  • brianmacker

    Never heard of the “Tee Pee Party”. Is that a Mexican thing?

    The US Tea party has no position on abortion or religion, and will support anyone who is aligned with their actual platform of fiscal conservatism regardless of positions on other issues.


  • http://profile.yahoo.com/A37GL7VKR3W6ACSIZPH7EID3LI rlrose63

    I just meant that I agree with you.  The word “feel” wasn’t intended to mean my feelings so much as my agreement with your post, facts and all.  We’re on the same page.

  • brianmacker

    You’d do well to avoid the word “feel” if you have well tested evidence for your positions. It reads as if you had an emotional reaction and then backfilled with rationalizations. I feel like it would be nice to have the government provide everything for me. I feel like it would be nice to have a rich sugar momma so I wouldn’t have to work work, but could play work. I know that would be a mistake.

    PS, by ” play work” I mean all the crazy projects I take on. When I’m not at work I’m digging a well by hand, or planting hundreds of trees and Bush’s, working in my garden, etc.

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_6OE7LEYELE4MZTVXGZUSVTBFUI julie

    Of course it was Christian because they were Christian. They gave thanks to God because they all believed in God. However, the reasons behind their thankfulness (safety, food, and shelter in a new land) were reasons why anyone who came here should be thankful. People add their religious beliefs to it, which is fine for them, but people of all religions and no religions celebrate Thanksgiving as a reminder to count our blessings– no matter where we think those blessings came from.
    If it can be celebrated by anyone, no matter what their religion is, it is a secular holiday.

  • David Starner

    Actually, it didn’t start with the Pilgrims. The Pilgrims’s Thanksgiving was merely one in a history of such actions, none of which were regular holidays until Lincoln. And if you go further into history, you’ll find that FDR changed the date of Thanksgiving to encourage the start of Christmas sales; so very religious.

  • Rwlawoffice

    So we should just ignore why ignore why George Washington and Lincoln set this day aide as a national holiday which was to thank God and call it a secular holiday because you want it to be

  • Rwlawoffice

    To both Michael and Aaron – I’m still waiting or your evidence that the vast majority of people in this country celebrate Thanksgiving as a secular holiday and don’t thank God for their blessings

  • phantomreader42

    Since you have repeatedly rejected the very concept of evidence, why should your idiotic demands be worthy of any response other than ridicule?

  • 3lemenope

    One should never ignore history. However, it is just as profound an error to live your life in history, as though the world has not changed.

    It has always been my impression, and stop me when this sounds wrong, but Christianity already has established a day of thanksgiving to God. That day is called “Sunday”. I find it odd in the extreme that you believe and readily accept that a civil government can establish a religious holiday, much less that you think that’s a swell idea. Caesar calls the turkey Christ and you readily devour, it seems. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are the prophets of your religion? Empowered by God to add new feast days to the calendar of worship? Interesting.

    I’ll leave it in the hands of people who care way more than either of us to get it right whether Thanksgiving is a secular holiday. 

  • 3lemenope

    …the vast majority of people in this country celebrate Thanksgiving as a secular holiday and don’t thank God for their blessings.

    This is almost too cute for words. You’re eliding a critical distinction between people behaving in a religious manner during a holiday and a holiday being, itself, religious. 

    If many people thank God that their home-town football team won the big game, does this make football a religious sport? Does it make the match a religious event? Or is it merely religious people acting in a religious way in the context of a secular event?

  • Rwlawoffice

    Failed analogy. Thanksgiving was first established as a holiday to give thanks to God. It is still celebrated as such by the vast majority if people. It is the atheist community that now claims what was established as a time to give thanks to God is now a secular holiday. Nothing like a football game not originally set up as a religious holiday.

    But I understand you really have no evidence to support this ridiculous claim so attack the question.

  • Rwlawoffice

    You would really have more credibility if you simply admitted you have no evidence to support this claim, than to dodge the question.

  • 3lemenope

    The Jews already put to bed the question of whether Thanksgiving is a secular holiday or not further down the thread, since as I said, they have a profound religious commitment to getting that sort of determination correct. They don’t agree with you.

    What I’m attacking here is your ridiculous definition of “religious holiday”. It seems to me that a religious holiday is one that is established by a religion. You, on the other hand, seem to think that if people say or do religiousy things on a holiday, that makes the holiday religious. To which I pointed out a really obvious counterexample that exposes the flaw in your argument.

    Unless George Washington or Abraham Lincoln were religious leaders, endowed by a religious institution (or directly by God) with the ability to anoint new religious holidays, then your blathering about how they saw the holiday celebration really doesn’t pertain to the question of whether Thanksgiving is properly understood as a religious holiday. 

    Does any religion on Earth establish the celebration of American Thanksgiving? Does any religion on Earth exhort and direct its adherents to celebrate Thanksgiving? No? Then it isn’t a religious holiday. Full stop. It’s a secular holiday that, to the religious, also has religious implications. Much like the football game.

  • phantomreader42

    Well, you’ve never offered a single scrap of evidence for any claim you’ve ever made on this site, and no matter how many times you get called out on that fact you never admit you’re full of shit.  Since you have spent months making it obvious that nothing honest will ever come out of your vile mouth, there’s no reason to assume you’re acting in good faith, and thus no reason to take your whiny, moronic, hypocritical demands seriously. 

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

    LOL, thanks! Upsetting Baptists, all in a day’s work for me. ;o) 

  • http://twitter.com/mtracey Michael Tracey

    “I’m still waiting or your evidence that the vast majority of people in this country celebrate Thanksgiving as a secular holiday and don’t thank God for their blessings”

    I never made this claim. I’m well aware that the vast majority of Americans profess to be Christians, and therefore likely imbue their Thanksgiving celebrations with some kind of religious significance.

  • http://www.facebook.com/matt.bowyer.75 Matt Bowyer

    The existence of a bunch of harmless little picture books is grounds for an entire sermon? Really? 

  • Rwlawoffice

    It is as simple as the indisputable fact that Thanksgiving was set aside as a national holiday to thank God for His blessings and protection. The fact that this was done by our government is irrelevant to the meaning of the holiday. It is still practiced as such by the vast majority of people.

    So do you have any evidence that like a football game Thanksgiving was initially a purely secular day that than added religious significance? The proclamation from Washington was really not that uncommon. Fairly regularly governors of the colonies would call for a day to be set aside for thanksgiving and prayer. With this proclamation followed by Lincoln’s it was turned into a national holiday

    Your position on what constitutes a religious holiday is typical of those that want to limit religion in this country to what goes on inside of the walls of the church. Christianity is more than that .

  • Rwlawoffice

    Goodness you really don’t like to be questioned to you. Why so sensitive and insecure? Keep attacking the questioner and dodging the question . But it really would be better if you just admitted it.

  • http://www.flickr.com/groups/invisiblepinkunicorn Anna

    It’s amazing how threatened they seem to get. These types of Christians view everything secular as dangerous, and as an affront to their religious privilege. They can’t stand that other people might look at the world differently and might celebrate holidays in a secular way. That’s why they have to invent a War on Christmas or complain about some harmless picture books. It’s not enough for them to worship their god on Thanksgiving. They need to put down people who don’t. I suppose they think it helps keep their members from questioning or leaving the fold.

  • http://stephenmarsh.blogspot.com/ Stephen

    This is a sort of amusing philosophical question that might be worth a couple of words, though not more than that (and definitely not worth emotional investment.)

    It seems that for something properly defined to be a “religious holiday” in the Christian lens, it has to be transnational. Christianity was and has always been conceived of as a transnational moral commitment that could be undertaken by anyone (this is how it was distinguished from Judaism in the heyday of modern German philosophy; see Kant “Religion within the Boundaries of Mere Reason” and Hegel “The Spirit of Christianity.”) This holds in common practice, even when the day intersects with national holiday: the Feast Day of the Assumption of Mary, for instance, is a national holiday in France, but the day is observed by Catholics everywhere and is the same day everywhere. Thanksgiving is qualitatively different. It’s only practiced on the third Thursday of November in the United States; Canada, as mentioned before, has it on a different day. Many Christian countries have days of thanksgiving all the time, but those are different from capital-T Thanksgiving, which as a specific annual holiday is an American holiday. The history helps here: the day is set because of the mythology of the pilgrim/indian story, not because of the original religious connotations of the event if it even happened at all, which is dubious. As such, the day as holiday commemorates a kind of exemplar American spirit, rather than a Christian one.Given that, the holiday still coheres as an event even if, as a thought experiment, you separated out the Christianity. There are many things that are the object of “thanks” in the Thanksgiving mindset — family, friends, election results, fortunate lotto tickets, etc. — and the whole shebang still makes sense even if one of those things isn’t God. It’s a different, but still coherent, meaning of the word “thanks,” which can idiomatically become the prepositional phrase “I’m thankful to X,” which implies a recipient of thanks, or “I’m thankful for X,” which only requires a direct object and means roughly the same thing as “It’s awesome that X.” Both of these work. If Thanksgiving were truly a religious holiday of the Christian variety, it would in some sense metaphysically “break” if some non-Christian tried to observe it, which it doesn’t, whereas something like Catholic Mass does.That make sense?

  • 3lemenope

    Your position on what constitutes a religious holiday is typical of those… 

    …who know what “religious holiday” means. 

    I’ll waste no more time on this.

  • http://stephenmarsh.blogspot.com/ Stephen

    Also, to be fair, Washington was a little bit of a wingnut on the religious score, even by the standards of early post-Revolution America, in particular among the “founders.” Jon Meacham’s “American Gospel” is quite interesting on this score, if you’d like to learn more about it.

  • 3lemenope

    That make sense?

    Yes. It’s an excellent point; the essence of what the holiday is remains clearly coherent when religiosity is removed, hence religiosity cannot be the essence of what the holiday is. 

    The history of a holiday is like the etymology of a word. It is useful primarily in indicating its origins and history; it can be fascinating to see how lexical and cultural shifts give rise to a language. But, woe betide the person that mistakes the etymology for the word, an error akin to mistaking the map for the territory. 

    A person might instead resort to the formalism that the churches themselves use to establish what and when a holiday is, the liturgical calendar. Thanksgiving isn’t found there. Or a person could resort to the determinations of people who are committed for some purpose disinterested from the argument at hand to figuring out how the holiday should be understood. Rabbinical authorities, for example, all seem to agree that Thanksgiving should be understood as a secular holiday; they merely differ on whether it should be understood as idolatrous in nature.

    One has to strain pretty hard to avoid the conclusion. But straining that hard, as you say, isn’t worth it. 

  • matt

     “Your position on what constitutes a religious holiday is typical of
    those that want to limit religion in this country to what goes on inside
    of the walls of the church.”

    Which Church?

    And why would it need to be anything more than that?