This Thursday, November 22, we celebrate the holiday of Thanksgiving in the United States, and many of us will spend the day watching a Thanksgiving Day parade and football on television, eating more turkey and pie than we should, and celebrating with family and friends. It is interesting that Thanksgiving is often thought of as a secular holiday, that is, one largely separate from Christian religious institutions, given the origins of the word “thanksgiving.”
If you look “thanksgiving” up in a dictionary, some of its definitions include “the act of giving thanks” and “a prayer expressing gratitude.” Even “Thanksgiving Day” has a religious association, described as “a day appointed for giving thanks for divine goodness.” Many of us are likely used to thinking about and naming what we are thankful for around Thanksgiving. From kindergarten through third grade, I had to make a tree of thanks in art class, writing on red, yellow, and orange leaves the things for which I was thankful. (And I admit that I am having my own two sons do this, too. this year! Old memories die hard.) For years, in an attempt to inject the day with some deeper meaning, my mom required everyone around our Thanksgiving table to name one thing for which they were thankful while we devoured the stuffing and potatoes.
But the thing about giving thanks is that it implies we are giving thanks to someone or something. When we are thankful for something, we recognize that the thing for which we are thankful is not really in our control. We acknowledge that there is giftedness to our lives and that we are appreciative of the benefits we have received. When we give thanks, on some level, we know that we have been given that for which we are thankful not because we earned it, deserve it, or because it is due to us.
And this is where I think Thanksgiving is a profoundly religious holiday. For Christians, we are giving thanks to God for everything we have been given by God. And we are thankful because we know that what we are given comes to us from God’s overflowing and utterly gratuitous love. Offering thanks is a way to show our gratitude for all God has done and is doing in the world. Offering thanks is a way to remind ourselves that the world does not revolve around us as individuals. Offering thanks shows that we accept the gifts that have been given to us and that we live in the abundance that is God’s grace, mercy, and love.
The celebration of the giftedness of the world that happens at Thanksgiving is slowly being eroded by its close association with the high holiday of consumer culture: Black Friday. For many years, stores opened at 6am on Black Friday, to maximize the hours during which consumers could begin their Christmas shopping. In the early 2000s, opening hours crept earlier and earlier, with people getting up in the middle of the night to stand in line in order to get hot items at unbelievable prices. Last year, in 2011, a new threshold was crossed, as several retailers opened at midnight, and this year, a whole host of stores will actually open on Thanksgiving evening.
I am troubled by Black Friday’s infiltration into Thanksgiving. First, for stores to be open on Thanksgiving means that workers have to be at the stores, thus depriving them of a day of rest and a day of thanks with their families. Second, stores being open on Thanksgiving shifts people’s attitudes away from grateful acceptance of what we have been given by a gracious God in an abundant universe. Instead, our mindset shifts to one of acquisition and a concern for scarcity. Instead of focusing on all that we have, we fixate on what we do not yet have and how we can get it. We focus on how there might not be enough TVs or video game systems available at the right price, rather than noticing how God has provided for us.
I am not the only one concerned about the infiltration of consumerism into Thanksgiving. Since 1997, the day after Thanksgiving has also been Buy Nothing Day, a day of protest in which people concerned about consumerism do not participate in Black Friday shopping. Similarly, other movements are encouraging people to shift their shopping habits, so that they buy gifts at local stores and through fair trade channels, rather than through national chains. The Christmas season certainly can contain the joy of giving, but it also requires us as Catholics to give some time to thinking about what we buy, where, and when.
What are the Thanksgiving traditions in your family? How do these traditions help you to give thanks and accept God’s gifts with gratitude?
Do you normally shop on Black Friday and were you thinking of shopping on Thanksgiving this year? Do you or someone you know have to work in retail on Thanksgiving? What might you do this year to keep Thanksgiving holy and focused on giving thanks?