Last year on this day, I did what seems to have become an annual “tradition” for me, rendering my generally not-so-hot opinion of what is otherwise known as “Black Friday,” but which I think is a kind of “national holiday to materialism.” Indeed, a couple of years ago I wrote on my personal blog that “Black Friday” has simply become another opportunity to worship at the altar of our country’s apparent present national god, the god of Materialism, or of Our Stuff. None of this is to say, of course, that shopping on Black Friday is bad in and of itself, it is not. What can make it such a bad thing is when the quest for the material thing consumes us, including the quest to buy things and the making of profit for its own sake.
In between family Thanksgiving stops yesterday (one stop at breakfast, the other for supper), Nicole wanted to check on her horses, which we have boarded at a place that is a small drive away from where we live. After refilling the horses’ water, we headed back toward town and happened to catch the traffic that was all headed in one direction-toward the mall. Because we happened to see everyone’s taillights, the line of cars looked like an army of fire ants moving toward a huge picnic. Fortunately, it has to be admitted that the car line didn’t really cause a traffic jam and everything moved relatively quickly, but it did cause us to reflect on what we were seeing. It wasn’t even “Black Friday” yet, it was Thanksgiving Day itself, and undoubtedly some of the people we encountered on the road hadn’t even had their “main” Thanksgiving meal yet (we hadn’t), but they were concerned with going to participate in some pre-Black Friday bargain hunting. Keeping someone working in a cash register line and away from their families and friends on Thanksgiving was apparently alright, so long as we get to the mall!
Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, and while it is not an official feast day of the Church, I’m not sure I agree with Catholic Answers’ Michelle Arnold when she calls it a “secular holiday,” although she does an outstanding job in the piece I just linked to explaining how we might deal with the moral complications of certain family Thanksgiving guests. Thanksgiving was long viewed as a day in which the people of our country give thanks to Almighty God for the blessings and the bounty with which we, as Americans, have uniquely been provided.
However, it became clear yesterday in our progress to and from our family pair of equi that to many people, Thanksgiving is becoming just another day, albeit with a larger meal. For merchants, it is already being seen as just another day of shopping and sales, an extension of Black Friday, a day to pursue profit. In one way, it rather reminds me of Ebenezer Scrooge’s initial reaction in A Christmas Carol to Bob Cratchit’s request to have Christmas off, that it is “a poor excuse to pick a man’s pocket every 25th of December.”
Do the titans of the corporations which own our department stores think their profits are so important that giving their employees the day off Thanksgiving is simply “a poor excuse to pick our pockets on the fourth Thursday of November?” Do we now find that our desire to get the latest bargain is more important than allowing all to set aside what is supposed to be a day of Thanksgiving for the leisure of their choice, as we might do in choosing to shop? Neither the business owners nor the shoppers can be said to be wholly to blame for the apparent disintegration of Thanksgiving into Pre-Black Friday, however. My wife, whose wisdom usually far outpaces my own, reflected that something else is at work which is a reflection of what is happening to our larger culture. She pointed out that in our lifetimes, it was not long ago when Thanksgiving was considered a “family day.” If any stores were open, it might be grocery stores and gas stations to serve those who needed something for the meal, or travelers who needed provision going to and from their families. You ate with your family on Thanksgiving when both of us were growing up, and in my family that meant that we often spent part of the day with each side of the family, and eating at each one. The nuclear family is breaking down, however, and as that continues, we could be seeing less of an importance tied to extended family as well, and Thanksgiving is often a day in which extended family has traditionally gathered. Pope Francis has said that the family is in crisis. Could we be seeing some evidence of that in the way many people in our country are celebrating-or not celebrating-Thanksgiving Day? If you have little family to go to, Thanksgiving quickly becomes just another day where work can be done.
Some people must work the holiday, of course. Medical and emergency personnel, police, and members of the Armed Forces, and of course the sports teams, stadium staff, and television and radio crews that have traditionally provided us with Thanksgiving entertainment, just to name a few. That reality used to be considered a regrettable necessity, indeed Thanksgiving sporting events were often dedicated to members of the military and first responders, and often still are.
The days when working Thanksgiving was regrettable for some and rare for most others seem destined for the list of stories we tell about “the way things used to be.” Have we become so self-absorbed in our culture that we can no longer rightly observe a day that was intended not only as a day of thanks to God, but for our own rest and culinary enjoyment? We forsake the gifts we are given for the things of this world that we would often rather have.
As we prepare to enter Advent, let us remember to thank God for the many ways in which he has blessed us, and let us remember those who had no good meal to sit down to, either yesterday or today, and those people, living and dead, who have no one to pray for them.