Once upon a time, Thanksgiving was for…thanksgiving. It was an occasion when that inchoate goo called “American civil religion” gelled long enough to admit that we should give thanks to God for the blessings encapsulated in New Jersey’s state motto: “liberty and prosperity.” Americans were grateful to live in a “free” country and to have a standard of living that for many was comfortable and for most palpably higher than that of many others around the world (including, in most cases, their immigrant forebearers’ “old” countries).
How quaint that all seems.
I’m not going to go into the hijacking of history, such as attempts to characterize the colonial settlement of North America as “Thankstaking” or the ersatz rewrite of American history represented by the “1619 Project.” I want to focus on one particular displacement of Thanksgiving: its commercialization. We probably should not be surprised at the commercialization of Thanksgiving, since it synergizes with the commercialization of Christmas.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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Thanksgiving is always a Thursday. With most schools closed and many businesses informally taking the intervening Friday off (if not actually closing), the Friday after Thanksgiving began decades ago gradually to acquire an “as-we-finish-one-holiday-we-look-forward-to-the-next” aspect. Many towns used the long weekend to turn on their Christmas lights or welcome the “arrival of Santa Claus.” Gradually, the day also became a start of Christmas shopping.
Franklin Roosevelt accelerated the trend in 1939. Up until then, Thanksgiving was observed on the last Thursday of November. But, in theory, the last Thursday could be November 29 or 30, which would yield five November Thursdays but only 24-25 days until Christmas. Wanting to use the economic stimulus of Christmas shopping to nudge America out of the Depression, FDR changed Thanksgiving to the fourth Thursday of November, i.e., allowing Thanksgiving to fall anytime from November 22-28, adding up to an extra shopping week until Christmas. From then on, the economic relevance of the post-Thanksgiving “Black Friday” (i.e., for merchants to end the year economically in the black rather than red) grew.
Over time, however, that commercialism increased. The start of the “Christmas season” gradually detached from Thanksgiving weekend, moving back ever further until we see the first Christmas ornaments sharing shelf space with Halloween costumes.
Gradually, too, Thanksgiving was transmogrified from solely a family gathering together to a kind of secularized vigil. In its earliest versions, it took the form of getting up early to queue up for “Friday specials” at a store’s usual opening time. To amplify the “excitement,” opening times gradually got pushed earlier and earlier—6 a.m., 5 a.m., 4 a.m.—until, eventually, in a commercial parody of sacred Christmas, store services started at “midnight.” At the same time, because being ready to unlock the doors at the stroke of midnight means having staff on site an hour earlier, it also forced employees to give up Thanksgiving evening to “go to work,” a phenomenon that, by the 2010s, some jurisdictions tried to arrest through code restrictions.
Large stores, with big commercial footprints and advertising budgets, pushed the ever-earlier Friday trend: you were more likely to have a “midnight” sale at a national chain store than Fertig’s Clothing of Perth Amboy, New Jersey. That—and the gradual displacement of local businesses by those chains—gave “Black Friday” a national marketing focus.
Compounding this consumerism, during the 1990s (as the commercial possibilities of the internet became apparent) online sellers also began competing for a niche. They didn’t go straight after “Black Friday,” but they wanted a piece of the pre-Christmas action. They had flexibility: online buying was supposed to increase convenience, freed from the human constraints of time and space. But too amorphous time or vacuous space doesn’t get things sold, so online sellers (especially after Amazon morphed from a book into an everything seller) claimed the following week, starting with “Cyber Monday.”
Squeezed from one side by national chains bidding customers to their physical stores on “Black Friday” and online sellers staking out “Cyber Monday,” small local businesses began crying foul. To alleviate their marginalization (prior to their eventual extinction by the big boxes and virtual sellers), American Express coined “Small Business Saturday” to encourage Christmas shoppers to buy local on the second day of the long Thanksgiving weekend. (Presumably, you should return to the big boys at the mall on Sunday.)
Now, I’m all for local businesses: “small is beautiful.” The fact it was an AmEx idea to promote “Small Business Saturday,” that concerns me: was it really about the virtues of the local or a sop to the local in the midst of the commercial? I’m all for local businesses: “small is beautiful.” The fact it was an AmEx idea to promote “Small Business Saturday,” that concerns me: was it really about the virtues of the local or a sop to the local in the midst of the commercial?Tweet This
Let’s face it: local small businesses are not what they once were. I mentioned Fertig’s, a local store that sold men’s work and leisure clothes. My town also had a local professional men’s clothing store: Roger’s. Fertig’s and Roger’s are both gone.
A friend of mine graduated pharmacy school in the 1990s. He went back to Perth Amboy, wanting to start a local drug store. His mother even gave it all the personal touches, like curtains. JK’s Pharmacy is gone, too.
Today’s clothing stores are mostly chains. So, too, are pharmacies: the pending closure of Rite Aid will leave CVS and Walgreens to divide the spoils. Local restaurants featuring local fare—even on the highways—have been squeezed out by national brands. “Local flavor” has mostly yielded to eating the same in New England or New Mexico. Globalization just didn’t eliminate factory jobs; it eliminated the local store.
What differences abide are often not in basic services but artisanal niches. When I was a kid, farmers’ markets were local farmers who wanted to sell cheaper and directly to local families, bypassing the stores. Today, most folks go to farmers’ markets not for economy but to get the local organic variant of Whole Foods, usually at Whole Foods-like prices.
In that sense, are the “Small Businesses” we’re saving on the Saturday after Thanksgiving really key parts of our local communities? Or, are they rather such “unique” products that they need a special day to get more than their usual curated clientele into them?
If “Small Business Saturday” truly fosters subsidiarity—the local but particularly the essential—I’m all for it. But if it’s just an excuse to get me to spend on some stuff I otherwise wouldn’t buy in the name of some “social justice with local patriotism” motif, then let’s ask what we can do to promote real subsidiarity. Because real local communities need real local roots, not local franchises of global corporations.
So, let’s try to restore priorities: thanksgiving over gluttony and time together in our local communities over consumerism.