Today is the day after Thanksgiving, but it is still a day with its own mythos. It’s Black Friday—a day with its own rituals, its own traditions, its own expectations. For some people, this is the start of the Christmas season. For some of us, we’ve been staring in shock at Christmas decorations in the aisles of the local drugstore since Labor Day—and many of us of the Episcopal persuasion mutter under our breaths about some weird counter-cultural thing called “Advent.” For years, though, the actual mad rush for retail kicked off on this day—Friday. And by the time many of you read this, some people will have been shopping for more than eight hours!
But the last couple of years, as part of the endless competition among retailers for advantage, some stores have opened on Thanksgiving Day itself. There have been some who see no harm in this—after all, people are free to shop, or not shop, right? Others push back against the idea of commerce on a national holiday that traditionally has been about time with family, and take vows not to shop anywhere that opens on Thanksgiving Day itself. Having once been required by the circumstances in my life to work in retail, I remember well the experience of Black Friday from a worker’s standpoint. I am pleased to report that the flashbacks and the nightmares stopped many years ago—although I will never forget the shopper who changed his baby’s poopy diaper on the floor of the bookstore where I worked and then left it and TWO OTHERS there in the shelves (yes!) of the picture books section. It was the ultimate “Choose Your Own Adventure.”
But I wonder if we do not risk losing something precious if this breaching of the barrier becomes widespread. Thanksgiving may be a federal holiday, and a secular one, but it is nonetheless therefore a sacred day in the truest sense of the word. It is a secular version of the wise biblical practice of sabbath, which helped everyone in the community be equals for one day a week. Therefore, I do not think it is either right or good for anyone for stores to be open on Thanksgiving. I am also thankful for and mindful of our emergency workers who must leave their families and homes on this day, and I fear that, if more and more people see this as just another shopping day, more of these wonderful people will by necessity be deprived of Thanksgiving than those who already are. Once the line is breached, and it is business as usual on Thanksgiving, it will be gone forever. Thanksgiving-- and thanksgiving-- should not be a luxury for a few.
Thanksgiving became an official federal holiday in 1863, by Proclamation by Abraham Lincoln. It was a dark time in American history. Not quite five months after the simultaneous crucibles of Gettysburg in the eastern theatre of the war, and Vicksburg in the western theatre, it was by no means a foregone conclusion that the war would end any time soon, much less that the country would emerge unified. Yet it was at a time such as this that President Lincoln called on the entire nation to pause and give thanks for all the good things with which we were blessed. Here is the opening sentence of Lincoln’s 1863 proclamation (http://historyscoop.com/2013/11/26/lincolns-thanksgiving-proclamation/):
The year that is drawing toward its close has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added which are of so extraordinary a nature that they can not fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever-watchful providence of Almighty God.
Even at a time when the country was riven by conflict, nonetheless there was cause for gratitude. And in calling the country to pause to give thanks, Lincoln was recognizing the important unifying function that holidays such as Thanksgiving perform. They remind us of the things that bring us together as a people. Yet, holidays such as this also do not have any sort of obvious religious component that would serve to exclude: no matter what one’s religion—or lack of it—all can participate in being thankful; all can celebrate the good things they have, and remember that we are brothers and sisters.
And I think, at its best, Thanksgiving performs a vital function of asking us to slow down, to reflect on the good things we have, to be grateful-- and hopefully, to have empathy for those less fortunate than ourselves. Thanksgiving should be about community and taking care of each other. People who are forced by economic hardship to work on days such as this do not have freedom or choice. They HAVE to work, often at part-time jobs that demand from them full-time availability. And I am not sure that for one or two days a year it isn't good to pull back from the rampant consumerism that sickens our society and be able to enjoy time with family, friends, or just rest-- for the sake of all of our souls. Because the mad sales scrums of Black Friday will be here soon enough and are indeed upon us. As they say on Game of Thrones: Winter is Coming.
May we remember even in the bustle to sit back, take a breath, and continue to remember what really matters, no matter what storms may blow around us. Gratitude is always necessary. Abraham Lincoln was right to designate Thanksgiving a national holiday, and he did it in the midst of a terrible crisis in our country's history. Even in the worst of times, we should look for that for which we can be thankful, even when it has been somewhat co-opted as the opening salvo of the War of Christmas that is the shopping season. Especially as we leap headlong into Black Friday, it’s nice to remember that time is our most precious gift of all. And, for some of us, at least we still have Advent!
(This was first published at Episcopal Cafe's Speaking to the Soul on November 27, 2015.)