(I'm blogging on an iPad app, so forgive me for the font going weird at times.)
I've been watching with disgust the build-up to the new Black Thursday, which used to be known as Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving, although it has its own fraught history, was one American holiday that was observed by government and private businesses alike, without messy ties to any religion. We cherished that holiday as a kind of antithesis to Christmas: Thanksgiving represented a final day of enjoying family and appreciating what we already have, before shifting our attention to the I-need-I-want covetousness of the American holiday season.
But apparently The Great Recession has eroded our sense of this day like no other force in U.S. history. Or maybe American culture has simply reached the point at which we treasure material things more than time with family/friends. But maybe I'm being too harsh. I must say that I am sympathetic to those who scrape for every dollar, dread the financial pressure of Christmas and can't get through the season without those deals that disappear in the first hours of Black Friday (Thursday). But believing that we will lose love and respect if we don't get our kids/family/friends the ideal gift - or at least show we tried - perpetuates the worst of American traditions and has led to the erosion of our national day of thanks.
We pride ourselves on living in a land of plenty and we greatly value material success. Perhaps appropriately the American Christmas traditions we established in the 1800s centered on showering children with presents - marketable, appraisable, package-able presents. Over the past 150 years we've broadened this ritual to include holiday presents for almost everyone in our lives, although most of the gifts still go to children. People regularly complain that Christmas is supposed to be about Jesus, but the U.S. has consistently made buying and giving the focus of our holiday rituals. At this point most Americans believe others will look down on them if they don't participate, and regrettably, we do.
This is the belief system we have to dismantle in order to get our Thanksgiving back. It's not enough for the shrill and virtuous among us (including me) to rant against Thanksgiving Day store openings and beg people not to show up. If the driving force behind people who dive for those bargains is the need to reduce how much they spend on the holidays, then let's reduce that pressure in other ways. Let's aim at gutting the whole tradition of giving each other objects in order to show appreciation and love. And let's definitely, for god's sake, deflate the idea that the gifts you give demonstrate your success in life. That has to be one of the stupidest and most insidious American holiday traditions yet: the showing up of your relatives whose Christmas shopping didn't cost as much as yours.
Such a mind shift would require a fundamental change in how we see personal relationships and money, force our capitalist economy to bend and flex, and push our noses into our sense of self worth and the standards by which we live. It would require us to re-evaluate how we show love and how we measure the love we get from others. I admit that such a shift in consciousness could reasonably be called un-American.
I say that because the trampling of the holiday that values relationships over cash - especially as it stands as the last rest stop before the commercialism of the Yuletide - is quintessentially American. Anyone who tries to claim that Black Thursday is un-American is actually dead wrong. As American culture goes, stores opening at 6 p.m. (some at 6 a.m.) on Thanksgiving Day was inevitable, and was probably only sped up by the economic desperation of merchants in the new millennium. The modern American Christmas has always rested squarely on ideals of material indulgence. And here we are: forcing store employees to cut short, or skip altogether, the few hours out of the year when we're encouraged to appreciate what we already have.
Please don't shop on Thanksgiving, but really let's go further than that. Join me in taking the pressure off gift giving in general. Make a vow to spend time with the people who love you, instead of getting them things. Chances are that's what they really want anyway. Only a major shift from focusing on the material will get us our Thanksgiving back. It won't be quick or easy, but let's start now. Let's not allow shopping on Thanksgiving to take hold. Americans can't afford to neglect an opportunity to feel grateful for what we already have. Let's not erase a day of gratitude in favor of another day of gimme-gimme commercialism.