Gobble, Gobble, Spend and Swallow

I will admit that I’m almost aggressively apathetic about stores opening on Thanksgiving day. What interests me the most about the burgeoning debate, though, are cultural contradictions we see emerging from those ready and willing to hit the stores and those rejecting the unbridled leap into capitalism.

On the one hand, we need to willingly admit that the entire holiday has its roots in a necessary blending of the religious and the political. By roots, of course, I’m talking about George Washington’s proclamation that we give thanks to God for God’s mercy and bountifulness not those people in the goofy hats and leggings. Subsequent presidents kept the tradition alive, designating a day in late November as a day we might set aside to give thanks to God. Interestingly, Thomas Jefferson ignored the tradition and up until the Civil War the holiday was observed sporadically and, often, only in individual state.

Old Honest Abraham Lincoln revived the tradition and proclaimed the holiday as an opportunity to pray, practice humility, and stop killing our relatives on the battle field. Turkey, not love Lincoln believed, could bring us together. It was, like so many other things Lincoln did, a brilliant reminder that we were one nation and we could, if we so desired, gather around the table and share communion.

Talk about federalism run amok! First he wants to end slavery and now he wants to centralize holidays! Geez, our 1863 radio talk show host might proclaim. Who knew Lincoln was such a big government Republican? The 1860’s federal government can’t even decide who is human and a citizen. What makes us think they can manage a national holiday!

But let’s not get overly sentimental (or goofy) about American history. Our founding fathers were, as we all know, brilliant men who recognized that for us to survive both internal and external threats against our nationhood, we must unite around shared ideals. Thanksgiving, then, becomes both a religious moment and an opportunity to begin creating uniquely American traditions. We not only, Washington might say, cast off our European oppressors, we declare our independence and uniqueness by celebrating our humility and our nation’s birth. United we stand, and all that jazz.

Yet, as I tell my American lit students, we can’t talk about America if we don’t recognize the delicate blending of commerce, religion, and politics. (Don’t believe me–look at the back of a one dollar bill.) While the holiday begins with these nationalistic and religious roots, our modern version reflects a growing industrial nation’s appetite for goods and commerce. It might not be pretty to think so, but FDR recognized that we could spend our way out of the great depression. Once everyone was all fat, happy, and filled with good cheer (and beer) toward men (and grandma), they were more likely to spend money buying presents. Give them another week and they would remember how much they disliked all those in-laws and other relatives and close that pocketbook. (There’s that big government again! I’m starting to see a trend?)

Simply put, our modern Thanksgiving is a gluttonous celebration of excess: food, football, family, and fighting, er shopping.

But I don’t think we like to admit such a thing. Oh, we’re fine with the food and family, but I don’t think we want to recognize the blatant commercialism run amok in American culture. In many ways, our educational and cultural treatment of the holidays resembles yet another great contradiction of American culture. We celebrate by spending one day with our family and the next day buying things for them. (And a whole year paying it off!)

Until last year when Walmart and others realized we could, as we are always so want to do, have it all and have it now.

And here is where my apathy begins. I can say with great pride I’ve only been out on Black Friday once and I refuse to shop on Thanksgiving day. My choice isn’t noble or principled–I mostly don’t like being around people all that much. Some have nightmares about spiders: I fear Walmart at 5:00 am on Black Friday morning.

But I also don’t really care if Walmart and Target open. They are privately owned companies who can make their own choices. In many ways, they are simply feeding the inevitable desires of a country for whom shopping has become our national sport. If, one might note, no one went out shopping this Thursday, neither store would open next year.

Of course, if that pesky federal government hadn’t forced us to celebrate Thanksgiving at all, we wouldn’t be in this mess anyway.


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.

One Response to Gobble, Gobble, Spend and Swallow

  1. Pingback: I Can Hang Up Without Uncle Sam’s Help | Consistently Contradictory

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