Carve the Turkey, Pass the Gravy, and Slide the Discover Card

Thanksgiving is the the quintessential American Holiday. Forget Christmas with its heavy dose of contradictory materialistic Christianity. (Plenty of time to write about that later.) Thanksgiving is our Dionysian festival, our reminder that America is still a super-power, a land of plenty, a veritable cornucopia goodness. It’s our moment to nobly step up and flood the great economic engine with cash.

I’m not here to condemn the materialism and gluttony that drives the holiday. There are plenty of stories of fights, tramplings, or men who forget their daughters at Wal-mart after buying the big screen tv. But those mar the reality that Black Friday sales topped $11 billion dollars and over 300 million people went shopping the day after Thanksgiving. (Your welcome China.) With that kind of traffic and activity, there will be problems but the good outweighs the bad. Certainly, there are large swaths of people out there on Black Friday (and sitting at computers on this Cyber Monday) buying things for themselves. Black Friday, though, isn’t about getting: it’s about giving. And that’s the glory of the holiday.

This is, after all, a holiday where the president of the country pardons a turkey (sorry wrongly convicted criminal–if you tasted better with brown gravy maybe we would run that DNA report) in the morning and then carves up his younger and plumper brother that night. Millions of us grew up each year enacting the first Thanksgiving, dressing in poorly made pilgrim costumes and increasingly politically correct native American costumes. Elementary schools across American looked like badly dressed Village People. (“Thank you for this food. Now, everyone, “At the YMCA.”) At least we thought it was the first Thanksgiving. The story itself was always a mask for the true purpose of the holiday–a way for us to pretend that Thanksgiving didn’t mark the holiday shopping season.

History sometimes gets in the way, though. FDR declared the fourth Thursday Thanksgiving for the sole purpose of boosting the economy in the early 1940s. The harvest celebration, the philosophical thanks for those natives who gave our ancestors succor in times of trouble (hey, we gave them smallpox–no takebacks!), those were lost in the true meaning of the holiday.

And FDR had it right. What makes Thanksgiving so unique is that we spend this limited amount of time with our families and it reminds us that we want to give. (It also reminds us that we want to get out of the damn house, but maybe that’s just my family.) Sure, in theory Christmas is that time of giving and sharing, but it’s also a time of getting and receiving. Thanksgiving, on the other hand, is all about buying and gifting.

No one over 8 gets up at 4:00 in the morning to get gifts. We all know, the older we get, that the fire truck doesn’t have a used by date and that at 9:00, after a cup of coffee, that special gift will still be special. But on Black Friday by 4:00 am the best gifts are gone. And we are out there buying gifts. Without expecting to get. We might expect to get a good deal, but most people are economically savvy enough to know the deal isn’t that good. For every $100 off that one item, the rest of the deals are pretty standard fare.

But that’s really not the point. In a world where we look for our adventure on reality tv, Black Friday offers us a chance to suffer for the greater good and express our American-ness. I don’t mean to imply that materialism is limited to America, either. Flaubert’s Madame Bovary serves as the great literary warning about trying to keep up with the Jone’s (or whatever the French equivalent might be). But I do mean to imply (or, I guess I’m saying it outright) that our materialism on Black Friday (and Cyber Monday) is something we should celebrate and embrace. When we are out searching for deals, when we are out standing in lines at midnight with the snow falling around us, and when we slide that credit card, we are being American.

Trust me–Sally will love that snow globe with Justin Bieber. The thought counts, but the 40% counts more. It means you can buy two.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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