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Protecting Thanksgiving From the Cannibals

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David Mills - published on 12/03/14

How Black Friday has debased our national holiday and now threatens to take it over.

You have to wade through a lot of postmodernist/Marxist jargon in the Australian journalist Guy Rundle’s “The Meaning of Black Friday,” but the end is to the point: Though for years few people thought of the plight of those who had to work on Thanksgiving, in the last two or three years the wider culture has noticed the threat to the holiday. “It was only when the encroachment of Black Friday on Thanksgiving became absurd, a stuffing, a farce, that mainstream media began to sit up and take notice. The fact that this could even occur — that a sales event could wholly encroach on a collective holiday that lies at the root of national identity — is a measure of how decayed and compromised that identity has become.”

It appears in the journal Jacobin, which declares itself socialist — “We’re an independent leftist magazine. / With pretty pictures” the appeal for donors on the homepage explains. The writer asks for “a clear and declarative protest against the cannibalization of tradition by capitalist process” and for the recognition that “capitalism is a deconstructive, nihilistic process that lives off its cultural outside, and thereby consumes it.”

Most readers will reject his description of capitalism, but about the cannibalization of tradition he has a point that I think can’t be denied. What he means by that he explains: “Black Friday relies for its occult meaning on the previous inviolability of Thanksgiving, which it then debases. This year, with the 8 AM Thanksgiving openings, it has completed the process, and eaten its way out the other side of what remained of the ‘holy’ day.”

We shake our heads about the way the demand for as much profit as a company can possibly make justifies its acting for the destruction of important cultural symbols and practices when they reduce, as they inevitably do, the company’s ability to make more money. We shake our heads again at how nothing is sacred to the people who run corporations like Target and Macy’s, Walmart and Radio Shack (the pioneers in Thanksgiving-encroachment mentioned by Rundle). No matter how important these symbols are to our national life, they don’t care. Or rather they care to the extent these symbols can be exploited, which is to say debased, as ways to make yet more money.

But the violation of Thanksgiving shocked even me. That was a line, I thought, no one would cross because . . . because Thanksgiving is Thanksgiving.

No, it’s not entirely the holiday of family and community and church and the mutual expressions of gratitude for all the blessings of this life we would like, where every family is a Norman Rockwell family. Yes, instead of long conversations round the table, or reading aloud by the fire, or earnest yet cheerful games of Monopoly or Scrabble, people tend to sit in front of the television watching football (though that can be a significant communal activity). And yes, some people still have to work, especially those who work in restaurants. And yes, corporations have colonized as many Thanksgiving traditions as they can, like the giant balloons, which are implicit ads, supplied for the Macy’s parade.

But Thanksgiving is still, or was still, by common and mutual consent, a day on which people rest and feast, with family even when they’re not fond of their family, and with friends and neighbors, and maybe go to church or pray the only prayer they offer all year, a day on which they do not buy and sell, when something other than money is celebrated. It is, or was, one of the few days of the year on which the simple act of observing its rituals made Americans more American.


It means something good when minutes go by without a car passing on the street by your house, when stores and restaurants close, when churches have a special midday service. It means something good when the day is different from all other days. It means something good when television has Thanksgiving specials and movies use Thanksgiving as a setting because the experience is so widely shared. The day is, as Rundle says, part of our national identity and that is a good thing.

This is the common experience so many large companies so insouciantly try to destroy. What will they do when, everyone starting the day with 8 a.m. Thanksgiving Day sales, the holiday ceases to be Thanksgiving and becomes the national shopping day, and government and business decide they’re not giving people a holiday just to shop? The executives who talk about these things will note that Thanksgiving Day sales figures are dropping since the day is no longer a special day, eliminate the day’s special deals, and find another way to increase sales, like Napoleon’s army on the march to Russia stripping the land of its food and then moving on careless of the wreckage they’ve left behind.

Ah, some will say, but people want to buy things on Thanksgiving! To which the simple answer is: Just because people want to buy things does not mean you have to sell them. You have other responsibilities, among them deference to important public rituals and symbols. The things they want to buy will be on the shelves the next day, and the day after that, and the weeks and months after that.

Thanksgiving comes but once a year. Holidays like Thanksgiving are shared experiences that began in a different age and grew organically, and once they die — once someone kills them — they’re dead. They can’t be reinvented.

The Catholic Church in America has for many decades now had to negotiate the experience of living in a pluralistic society. One of her most difficult decisions has been the extent to which the Church can affirm public rituals and symbols. To what extent is participation in this or that activity part of being an American in a way a Catholic can freely join or a compromising act of civil religion? It is a difficult question and the Church has sometimes chosen wisely, sometimes not, though the wisdom of the choice is often only clear later.

Here, I think, is a chance for the Church to make a decision for her members and to the benefit of the country. Thanksgiving, the old-fashioned holiday, compromised though it is, means something and something we should not lose. It is in danger, eventually a mortal danger.

Next year, say at the beginning of November, the American bishops should stress the importance of Thanksgiving as a national holiday and describe the forces by which it is being cannibalized. They can speak as prophetically and counter-culturally on economics as they now do on marriage. They should then urge Catholics not to shop on Thanksgiving and those Catholics in business not to sell on that day. It probably won’t do much good, but it would make a public statement in defense of our shared culture and thus offer a witness to public ends higher than profit the Church is about the last public institution able to offer.

David Mills,former executive editor of First Things, is a writer and author of Discovering Mary. His webblog can be found at www.patheos.com/blogs/davidmills.

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