There was plenty of hand-wringing last week over the decision by several big retailers to start the “Black Friday” retail rush on Thursday — Thanksgiving Day itself. Even when stores wait until 8 p.m., thousands of retail workers couldn’t share Thanksgiving dinner with their families. Worse, many people complained, was that the “Black Friday creep” was sullying what they considered America’s last “pure,” uncommercialized holiday.
We can’t disagree with the critics, and we definitely sympathize with workers who have to spend the holiday dealing with surly, impatient shoppers. But while plenty of scorn has been heaped upon the big retailers for “ruining Thanksgiving,” the hard fact is that the changes we’ve seen are occurring because it’s what a significant proportion of Americans want, or at least what savvy marketers know they’ll respond to. Just as it is with Christmas and other holidays in our capitalist society, we’re only getting what we asked for.
Thanksgiving is indeed a special holiday. It’s a day to celebrate the most enduring and basic elements of life — food, family and friends. (Football is a close fourth for many.) The holiday carries a Christian aspect, but it’s not exclusionary — the idea of expressing gratitude is as easily celebrated by Jews, Muslims, agnostics and atheists. And it’s been largely free of commercialism — no cards, no gifts, no prescribed decor short of school kids in paper Pilgrim hats. Even the menu is negotiable, as long as there’s lots and lots of food.
However, the retail rush has been creeping in on Thanksgiving for years, with “door busters” sales moving earlier and earlier. Retailers desperate to maximize holiday season sales have found millions of discount-hungry Americans as willing participants. What’s insane to many of us is sport, even tradition, to others. For many people, the sales — and the unlikely camaraderie forged by camping out in the cold with total strangers — provide an adventure that’s far more interesting than an evening making conversation with Aunt Sally and Uncle Ralph. Tellingly, we’ve heard more than a few people refer to the four-day stretch as the “Black Friday weekend.”
Those of us who treasure Thanksgiving for its tradition and togetherness — a table laden with familiar favorites, from the oversize turkey to Great Aunt Mary’s green bean casserole — may mistakenly assume that everyone celebrates the holiday the same way. In this era of fractured families and shaky finances, an extended family meal may be too painful, too expensive or simply not a priority. For time-pressed families with conflicting work and school schedules, Thanksgiving may mean an escape to Florida. It’s no surprise so many people are at the movie theaters or the Chinese buffet on Thanksgiving.
But unless we live right by a mall — or work in retail — the fact that other people celebrate Thanksgiving by shopping should have zero impact on our own observances. Too many of us seem to believe that if other people don’t observe a holiday the same way we do, the holiday has been “ruined.” There’s no reason the popular culture’s interpretation of a holiday or retailers’ profit-seeking should spoil our own traditions. People have lamented the popular culture’s commercialization and secularization of Christmas for a century now, but media images don’t mandate that we follow their formula.
Maybe Thanksgiving, like Christmas, is a good occasion for a media blackout, to shut out the breathless news reports and incessant advertising. Anyway, Thanksgiving is too compelling and too strong to be killed by discounted smartphones and flat-screen TVs.