Our national, annual tradition has begun. The leaves have turned, in some parts of the country snow is falling, autumn and cooler temperatures have settled in and taken hold. Something we call the “holiday season” has arrived – a series of festivals with interesting harvest-based and pagan roots but which we have collectively imbued with other spiritual meaning. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s – the end-of-year hat trick.
And the tradition? It’s the handwringing and backlash against those who seek to “distort” the “true meaning” of these holidays. Many will decry the massive partying of New Year’s, the removal of Christ from Christmas, and the removal of thanks from Thanksgiving.
The current example, since it’s November, is the handwringing over the encroachment of commercialism into Thanksgiving. Every year the “Black Friday” sales begin earlier and earlier. More recently, Black Friday sales have given over to Thanksgiving Day sales in stores – retailers used to take a break on turkey day but earnings pressures and consumer desires have conspired with the result that some now shop on Thanksgiving Day.
This has created an anticonsumerist backlash, with people promoting (ironically, mainly through social media which is supported through ad revenues) “buy nothing” days.
I sympathize with the sense that our consumer culture has gone off the rails, and cutting back is a good idea. But to claim that Thanksgiving is somehow a sacrosanct holiday is incorrect and actually disregards the history of the celebration.
Thanks For Bounty
Since the founding of the colonies, various (in fact, many) “thanksgiving feasts” have been held. Our archetypal such feast occurred at Plymouth Plantation and the story goes that after some lean times the colonists, with the help of the friendly natives, finally caught a break and had enough to eat. So they “gave thanks.” (At least that’s how they taught it to me at Will Rogers Elementary School.)
In fact, this “original Thanksgiving” was a three-day feast that was meant to celebrate a bumper crop. It was a party specifically built around consumption. And throughout the early days of our nation, various officials declared “thanksgivings” with frequency – almost always in celebration of something awesome happening. George Washington, for instance, declared a “day of thanksgiving” in 1789 to commemorate the “opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government.” Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, declared the final Thursday of November that year to be a national day of Thanksgiving in recognition of all that had gone well even in the midst of a catastrophic civil war which had “not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship.”
The message was not “thank the Lord for what you have,” but it was “thank Providence for this awesome bounty.” A subtle but meaningful difference.
The “holiday” finally began to be codified in 1939. For some time it had traditionally been held on the last Thursday in November. (Prior to that it had been ad hoc.) Still in the midst of the Great Depression, president Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that Thanksgiving in 1939 would be held on the fourth Thursday of November. His intention was to extend the Christmas retail season so merchants would have one more week to achieve profitability. In fact, this idea was suggested to him by the owner of the firm that would become Macy’s.
There was, of course, controversy over this move, as a tradition had grown that Thanksgiving ought to be the last Thursday of November. This backlash was driven not so much by anticonsumerist sentiment but by sports: By this time, there were many traditional sports rivalries that played out on that last Thursday, and it was inconvenient for teams to change their schedules around. There was also a partisan angle: Republicans opposed Roosevelt’s move and called the holiday “Franksgiving.” But Roosevelt stuck to his guns, and declared the next-to-last Thursday Thanksgiving.
In 1941, Congress declared the fourth Thursday to be Thanksgiving Day (this split the difference between the last-Thursday folks and the next-to-last Thursday folks, as the fourth Thursday is sometimes the last Thursday in November and sometimes the next-to-last). On December 26, 1941, Roosevelt signed the bill and for the first time the date of Thanksgiving became a matter of national law.
I don’t plan on going to the mall on Thanksgiving Day. Nor do I plan to go out on Black Friday. But not because I hold these days as sacrosanct commerce-free zones – it’s because I don’t much like crowds, to be honest.
I will give thanks this week: Thanks for the health of my family, thanks for all that has been given me, thanks that we will be together. And I will think with compassion about how it all could have gone another way for me. That’s a sentiment we might do well to hold every day.
I don’t, however, plan on covering myself in sackcloth and ashes. Our Thanksgiving tradition is specifically rooted in consumption. I’m not going to overdo it, but at the same time I’m not going to pretend that Thanksgiving is meant to be a day of abstention. It’s a feast.
(Photo: martha_chapa95 / Flickr)