I Don't Mind If You Shop On Thanksgiving Day

Our national, annual tradition has begun. The leaves have turned, in some parts of the country snow is falling, autumn and cooler temperatures have settled in and taken hold. Something we call the “holiday season” has arrived – a series of festivals with interesting harvest-based and pagan roots but which we have collectively imbued with other spiritual meaning. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s – the end-of-year hat trick.

And the tradition? It’s the handwringing and backlash against those who seek to “distort” the “true meaning” of these holidays. Many will decry the massive partying of New Year’s, the removal of Christ from Christmas, and the removal of thanks from Thanksgiving.

The current example, since it’s November, is the handwringing over the encroachment of commercialism into Thanksgiving. Every year the “Black Friday” sales begin earlier and earlier. More recently, Black Friday sales have given over to Thanksgiving Day sales in stores – retailers used to take a break on turkey day but earnings pressures and consumer desires have conspired with the result that some now shop on Thanksgiving Day.

"Thanksgiving At The Trolls" by martha_chapa95 (flickr)
“Thanksgiving At The Trolls” by martha_chapa95 (flickr)

This has created an anticonsumerist backlash, with people promoting (ironically, mainly through social media which is supported through ad revenues) “buy nothing” days.

I sympathize with the sense that our consumer culture has gone off the rails, and cutting back is a good idea. But to claim that Thanksgiving is somehow a sacrosanct holiday is incorrect and actually disregards the history of the celebration.

Thanks For Bounty

Since the founding of the colonies, various (in fact, many) “thanksgiving feasts” have been held. Our archetypal such feast occurred at Plymouth Plantation and the story goes that after some lean times the colonists, with the help of the friendly natives, finally caught a break and had enough to eat. So they “gave thanks.” (At least that’s how they taught it to me at Will Rogers Elementary School.)

In fact, this “original Thanksgiving” was a three-day feast that was meant to celebrate a bumper crop. It was a party specifically built around consumption. And throughout the early days of our nation, various officials declared “thanksgivings” with frequency – almost always in celebration of something awesome happening. George Washington, for instance, declared a “day of thanksgiving” in 1789 to commemorate the “opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government.” Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, declared the final Thursday of November that year to be a national day of Thanksgiving in recognition of all that had gone well even in the midst of a catastrophic civil war which had “not arrested the plough, the shuttle, or the ship.”

The message was not “thank the Lord for what you have,” but it was “thank Providence for this awesome bounty.” A subtle but meaningful difference.

Enter Commerce

The “holiday” finally began to be codified in 1939. For some time it had traditionally been held on the last Thursday in November. (Prior to that it had been ad hoc.) Still in the midst of the Great Depression, president Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that Thanksgiving in 1939 would be held on the fourth Thursday of November. His intention was to extend the Christmas retail season so merchants would have one more week to achieve profitability. In fact, this idea was suggested to him by the owner of the firm that would become Macy’s.

There was, of course, controversy over this move, as a tradition had grown that Thanksgiving ought to be the last Thursday of November. This backlash was driven not so much by anticonsumerist sentiment but by sports: By this time, there were many traditional sports rivalries that played out on that last Thursday, and it was inconvenient for teams to change their schedules around. There was also a partisan angle: Republicans opposed Roosevelt’s move and called the holiday “Franksgiving.” But Roosevelt stuck to his guns, and declared the next-to-last Thursday Thanksgiving.

In 1941, Congress declared the fourth Thursday to be Thanksgiving Day (this split the difference between the last-Thursday folks and the next-to-last Thursday folks, as the fourth Thursday is sometimes the last Thursday in November and sometimes the next-to-last). On December 26, 1941, Roosevelt signed the bill and for the first time the date of Thanksgiving became a matter of national law.

I don’t plan on going to the mall on Thanksgiving Day. Nor do I plan to go out on Black Friday. But not because I hold these days as sacrosanct commerce-free zones – it’s because I don’t much like crowds, to be honest.

I will give thanks this week: Thanks for the health of my family, thanks for all that has been given me, thanks that we will be together. And I will think with compassion about how it all could have gone another way for me. That’s a sentiment we might do well to hold every day.

I don’t, however, plan on covering myself in sackcloth and ashes. Our Thanksgiving tradition is specifically rooted in consumption. I’m not going to overdo it, but at the same time I’m not going to pretend that Thanksgiving is meant to be a day of abstention. It’s a feast.

(Photo: martha_chapa95 / Flickr)

Chasing After Banners

Not because it is election season, I have been thinking about Dante’s Inferno these days.

In case you have not read it, the book is a depiction of Hell. It goes into great detail about the various punishments awaiting those who have sinned while they were alive.

I would not say that I am a believer or deeply religious person, but I have always been fascinated by this work. I am especially fascinated by the fate that befalls those who never make a choice in the world of the living — those who do not commit. They are condemned to chase after banners for eternity, just outside the gates of Hell.

The reason that this has been on my mind is that I have been “rebooting” various practices in my life. Yoga, meditation, working out, prayer, and more. In all these activities, it is very tempting to say, for instance, “I meditate,” and yet, not really actually do any meditation. If I never really do the meditation, if I never commit to the practice, I am condemned always to be chasing after a banner — wanting the benefits, but not receiving them.

My Best Handstand

Over the summer, I decided that I wanted to learn how to do a handstand. I worked at it every day, little by little. Eventually, I was able to do a handstand and stick it for about five seconds. However, I stopped practicing. I can’t really say, anymore, that I can do a handstand. I can get there for a moment, but since I have not been practicing, I cannot stay standing on my hands for any appreciable length of time. It is tempting to say that I am “working on my handstand.” But that is not really the case, I have not been putting in the effort.

I am not steeped in any organized religion, though I do count myself as spiritual. Still, the image sticks with me and I feel in many ways as if I am that person chasing after a banner. In so many areas of my life, my practice has slipped, and I find myself saying that I do more than I really do. I say I meditate when, to be honest, of late I have mostly been intending to meditate. I intend to go practice more yoga than I do. I intend to work out more often. At some point, cognitive dissonance must overcome me, and I must either commit — or not.

Thankfully, there is a way to correct such things. All I have to do is to begin to actually do these practices. So that’s what I’ve done. A reboot, if you will.

[Note: Some friends know that I have become fascinated by dictation of late. The first draft of this post was written entirely using Siri on my iPhone 5 — dictated into the DayOne journaling app and then ported over to WordPress. I then edited in the standard way.]

Time For A Conversation

A good friend writes on Facebook:

Now is not the time, but sometime soon, while the searing memories are still fresh, we must have a candid conversation about how we all will live in the new world climate change is bringing to us. After a disaster, there is a defiant urge to remake what was lost, brick for brick and beam for beam. But the real challenge before us will be not to remake what was, but to make something different. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew.

Stilt Houses
By Flickr user dpu-ucl

I think he’s right . . . and I believe there is a growing consensus that it is time to have a national (or global) conversation about climate change and how to live with it. This conversation would not simply be an argument over what causes it or whether it is occurring. Neither would it be simply about how to stop, or slow it.

It would be about what we should do — how should we live, how can we adapt, how can we mitigate?

This is not a technical conversation, but a political (small p) conversation. That is, it is rooted in what we hold valuable. We have mistaken the problem as something that experts can handle, and because all the answers really cause us to face tensions between things held valuable, we slide into partisan rancor. It’s time to hold a conversation on that level, rooted in our concerns and aspirations.

There is a very interesting piece by Andrew J. Hoffman in the latest Stanford Social Innovation Review on this topic — sorry to say, it may be behind a paywall.

Photo credit: Flickr user dpu-ucl

Idiomatic Pet Peeves

I can’t seem to help myself. I get my dander up when confronted by improper use of idiomatic English (or even just plain, old correct English) expressions by people who ought to know better.

A few on my mind lately include:

  • One does not “home in on” something. One “hones in on” it. [UPDATE: I have learned this is not exactly right. Both are correct. See comments below.]
  • One does not “take a different tact.” One “takes a different tack.”
  • “Alumni” is a plural word, and its singular is not “alum.” Someone is neither “an alumni” nor “an alum” of an institution. One is an alumnus (male) or an alumna (female). When gender is in doubt, the masculine is used. No, that’s not sexist, it’s grammar.

Whew! Glad I got that off my chest!

What are your pet grammar peeves? Add them in the comments.

Regrets Upon Death

Bronnie Ware is a singer and writer from Australia. For a number of years, she worked in palliative care (that is, attending to the dying). Out of that experience, she has written a book called The Top Five Regrets Of The Dying (affiliate link).

Photo by andronicusmax (Flickr)

As the year closes, and as we sweep away the past and look to the blank slate of the future, many of us are making “resolutions” or at the least setting their intentions. Bonnie’s list provides some insight as to what enduring goals might look like.

The top five regrets of the dying:

  1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
  2. I wish I didn’t work so hard.
  3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.
  4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
  5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

I’m thinking about these ideas as I formulate my own set of intentions for 2012.