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Protecting Thanksgiving From the Cannibals


David Mills - published on 12/03/14 - updated on 06/07/17

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

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