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Protecting Thanksgiving From the Cannibals


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.

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