The Commercialization of Thanksgiving—and So Much Else

Thanksgiving is rapidly competing with Christmas as a candidate holiday for the next cultural war. We know, of course, that December 25 is the holiday that dare not speak its name, having been transmogrified into “winter holiday” lest delicate ears be offended by “C-h-r-i-s-t-m-a-s.” Thanksgiving, so far, has managed to retain its name of religious origin (though we tend to speak publicly about what we are giving thanks for rather than to whom). The cultural war over Thanksgiving is being fought over: when can the sales begin?

“Black Friday”—the day after Thanksgiving—has, over the years, become the unofficial launch of the Christmas buying season as well as the barometer of holiday mercantile prosperity. In more recent years, the “holiday” buying spree has annexed “Cyber-Monday,” the Monday after Thanksgiving, where on-line sellers hope to rack up some of the dollars traditional merchants had a shot at Friday. A few places, in a sop to mom-and-pop, have urged the Saturday after Thanksgiving be reserved for patronizing local businesses.

The Thanksgiving controversy has arisen over when “Black Friday” starts.   Commercial hype began urging shoppers to show up Friday at 7 am for “early bird discounts.” Not to be outdone, other stores began selling at … six … five … four … three … midnight.

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In recent years, some places have even seen “Black Friday” creep into Thanksgiving. Some merchants had “pre-Black Friday” sales at 10 pm, others 9 pm. Recently, to accommodate Thanksgiving early birds who downed their turkey in the afternoon, a few places began opening at 6 pm.

A couple of jurisdictions have pushed back by enacting local ordinances banning commercial activity on Thanksgiving itself. Some businesses mount opposition and often pit one town against another: in economically lethargic America, Smithville is just as likely to swipe shop-shuttered Jonesville’s customers as stand in solidarity, singing “Over the River and Through the Woods.” Setting jurisdictions against each other is an effective way eventually to breach the dyke: it only takes a few holes before the flood overcomes the barrier. It happened with Sunday blue laws: if recalcitrant jurisdictions didn’t tire of defending against Constitutional claims of “establishment of religion,” they found themselves under pressure from some local businessmen watching customers cross the city, county, or state line. And the arguments for Thanksgiving closing are usually not so much religious as sentimental, with an occasional dash of social justice thrown in.

The social justice argument points out that stores which open on holidays (or Sundays) deprive employees of rest and time to be with families. The retailer GameStop, for example, justified its decision to stay closed on Thanksgiving by saying: “We have a phrase around here that we use a lot—it’s called ‘protecting the family.’ We want our associates to enjoy their complete holidays.”

Despite the rhetoric of “choice” that often drives proponents of 24/7/365 marketing, employees often have practically little “choice” about showing up to work. One upstate New York mall even threatened to fine its stores that did not open at 6 pm Thanksgiving evening; if the mall is open, stores should be.

If an employer does not put subtle or not-so-subtle pressure on workers to work on the most important sales days of the year, the employees themselves—often low wage, economically marginalized people—will feel a need or at least a pressure to show up. Lower wage and especially part-time employees (the latter, some argue, a growing cohort because Obamacare incentivizes part-time hiring already have little, if any, guaranteed time off. It is an unspoken likelihood that such Thanksgiving workers will receive little, if any, premium compensation, e.g., time-and-a-half and holiday bonus. While most full-time employees have some sick leave provisions, most part-timers do not, and there is no federal guarantee of any paid sick leave for any employee. (The Family and Medical Leave Act guaranteed unpaid sick leave in certain circumstances. A few states have enacted laws guaranteeing every worker a minimum number of sick days. In sum, for many low-wage employees, “choice” notwithstanding, the only time they are guaranteed a day off with rest are those increasingly fewer national holidays with a concomitant social consensus that they be celebrated without commercial activity.

But apart from the social justice aspect of forcing employees and even businesses to work on Thanksgiving, there is also a broader community social justice issue. America, as any community, requires traditions and celebration to bind it together. Our social glue is becoming increasingly thin. Most of our federal holidays have been increasingly hollowed out of cultural activity and replaced by commercial activity. Presidents Day and Columbus Day are primarily known for sales. Memorial Day launches the summer—and summer sales—while Labor Day closes it, just in time for Back-to-School Sales. Martin Luther King’s Birthday still has to catch on as a broadly celebrated holiday. Christmas and, to a lesser extent, New Year’s, continue to be observed, the former often in pseudonymous fashion as “Winter Holiday,” the latter still not fully displaced by those who would criticize January 1 as representing but one culture’s start of the year. The only two national holidays that continue to be observed in a primarily historical/cultural fashion—as opposed to being the next sales opportunity—are the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. These two quintessentially American holidays have largely managed to stay aloof from bald commercialization on the day itself, remaining family days. They are under assault.

And be not deceived of the cultural aspect of that assault. Thanksgiving, after all, originated from a people who recognized their survival had depended on the solicitude of Divine Providence. For those whose vision of Church and State is more akin to the Berlin Wall with its intervening death strip, the fact that America’s origins lay in a people who acknowledged their dependence on God is an embarrassing fact that is best passed over. Celebration of that common religious cultural heritage could call into question the hypersensitive allergy to all things religious found in some people’s caricatures of the First Amendment, so it is best that this religious cultural heritage be supplanted by something secular. Commerce is a useful substitute: the Left is satisfied by changing the subject from religion, while certain quarters of the Right can find their laissez-faire free marketism-cum-“choice” given free rein. Les extremes se touchent. Lots of people can make their Profession of Faith in Shania Twain’s lyrics:

We live in a greedy little world/that teaches every little boy and girl
To earn as much as they can possibly/then turn around and spend it foolishly
We’ve created a credit card mess/We spend money we don’t possess
Our religion is to go and blow it all/So it’s shoppin’ every Sunday at the mall.

 And every Thanksgiving, too.

And for that employee who wants the day off? When Charles Dickens published “A Christmas Carole” in 1843, it was intended at least in part as a satirical criticism of the unfettered capitalism of Victorian England. Indeed, when The Westminster Review reviewed the book, it criticized Dickens for painting Scrooge in such black terms—was he really not the “founder of the feast,” without whom the Cratchitt Family would not have dined even on its goose, “size and cheapness” notwithstanding. Presumably, such store clerks should give thanks for their turkey by going to work! Charles Dickens even had an answer for such lazy ne’er-do-wells who might have entertained ideas of a whole evening off.

“You’ll want all day tomorrow, I suppose?”

“If quite convenient, sir.”

“It’s not convenient,” said Scrooge, “and it’s not fair. … But I suppose you must have the whole day. Be here all the earlier the next morning.”

Or by 6 pm Thanksgiving night in Cheektawoga, New York.


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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