Sunday, November 25, 2012

The Commercialization of Thanksgiving

November 25, 2012

The Commercialization of Thanksgiving 

Good afternoon everyone! I hope you have all had great Thanksgivings, and have enjoyed the awesome long weekend! I know I certainly did.

I would like to use this time to talk (really rant) about what I see as the degradation of American holidays, and their authentic meanings in favor of commercializing them, and turning days of reflection, giving, and thankfulness into mere sales events, 'door buster deals,' and shopping trips. Only in America do we have a day where we are thankful for what we have, and then turn the following day, Black Friday, into a time where we literally trample other people in order to get what we think we need, at a lower price. This is the absolute height of irony, and something that could only happen in our country, the United States of America. Given this trend, I am honestly a bit sad to call myself an American, and to associate myself with millions of naive, shopping-obsessed fools who allow themselves to be duped by clever advertising and the '10% off' signs. So duped in fact, that they wake up in the middle of the night to go get deals on things like TVs, video games, other consumer electronics, and more stuff we really don't need. It’s all just about keeping up with the Joneses’.

It would be fine if people were buying things that they actually needed, but to wake up at 3 a.m. to go buy an Xbox 360, which just ends up wasting your time and money, is embarrassing, especially the day after we gather as families to eat a meal where we talk about how grateful we are for having food, and the presence of our loving parents, spouses, and children. It is a time where we ideally should be reflecting on the sacrifices of the pilgrims to build a new land. They fled from religious persecution, and did not worship money or gadgets as idols, but actually led purposeful lives, through worship, charity, and kind acts.

Not that I am one to whitewash history. The early pilgrims, and their later colonial friends, ended up wreaking havoc on the peaceful lives of the indigenous Native Americans. They used brute force to subjugate the native peoples, and stole many acres of their land. They looked down on the Native Americans as primitive and sub-human.

It is impossible for historians today to tally how many native Americans were killed through disease or warfare by European settlers. To give but one example: the Indian Removal Act of 1830 led to the Trail of Tears, in which about 20,000 Cherokee Indians were forcibly removed from their homes, and forced to walk over 2,000 from their reservation in Oklahoma. Read more about this tragedy here:

Getting back on my original train of thought, yes, there is no question that Europeans mistreated the Native Americans. However, that does not mean that we should totally write Thanksgiving off as irrelevant, or meaningless. We can still learn valuable lessons today in 2012 from these first pilgrims. We can learn about the importance of racial, and religious tolerance. Taking a leaf out of the Quakers' book would be a great start. William Penn, the founder of the great state of Pennsylvania, established this state as a region where anyone and everyone could live and thrive together peacefully, regardless of religion. His great experiment turned out to be a smashing success. However, we have not learned enough from the legacy of Mr. Penn.

According to a report from Pew's Forum on Religion and Public Life, "In the year ending in mid-2010, there was an increase in the number of incidents in the U.S. at the state and local level in which members of some religious groups faced restrictions on their ability to practice their faith. This included incidents in which individuals were prevented from wearing certain religious attire or symbols, including beards, in some judicial settings or in prisons, penitentiaries or other correctional facilities. Some religious groups in the U.S. also faced difficulties in obtaining zoning permits to build or expand houses of worship, religious schools or other religious institutions."

The United States of America has, according to this report, "moved from the low category of government restrictions on religion to the moderate category for the first time."

This is a problem that is perhaps even more important than our obsession with shopping, and our ridiculously easy ability to be misled by corporations that want our money. We need to step up our tolerance game, and regain our rightful place as a world superpower. That cannot happen without tolerance.

Europe has also become far more xenophobic, and intolerant, especially of Muslims, during the past few years. According to a U.S. State Department report, Europe has "growing xenophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-Muslim sentiment, and intolerance toward people considered ‘the other.’”

In the past few years, Belgium and France passed laws restricting dress that “adversely affected Muslims,” while Hungary passed laws that make it so difficult to register religious organizations that the number of religious groups has fallen from 300 to 32. In 2009, Switzerland added a constitutional amendment banning the construction of minarets.

This is a serious problem. In Egypt, Coptic Christians get murdered, and their churches burned on a daily basis. In the U.S., we all remember the maddening hysteria surround the Park 51 Muslim community center.

An extremely important idea that we need to take to heart, as Americans, and as citizens of the world, is that of religious tolerance, and acceptance.

In my eyes, it is tragic that people fight over the new iphone 5, while over 30,000 innocent civilians have died in Syria due to government-sanctioned genocide, without us doing anything about it.

Commercialization is not only limited to Thanksgiving, Labor Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Memorial Day, July 4th, New Years, and Valentine's Day. It has also seeped into what used to be religious holidays. Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah, etc, are now known as mere holiday shopping seasons, devoid of their religious significance.

I am deeply sympathetic to Christians that wish to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday, and discuss its religious events and messages, rather than focusing on turning it into a time to merely buy gifts. I wish more Americans would do that, rather than get sucked into the commercial bubble.

While there is definitely value in buying gifts for those that are in your life, including family and friends, we Americans take it to a whole 'nother level. According to the National Retail Federation, in 2011, 55.2 billion dollars was spent on Black Friday shopping during the Thanksgiving weekend. That’s a whole lot of money!

Perhaps instead of using our money to buy more electronics and purses, we could focus on spending at least some of it to organizations that are currently helping victims of Hurricane Sandy. Many of these people are now homeless and carless. Holiday gifts are the last of their worries- try buying a new house! Let's take the spirit of gratitude that Thanksgiving is infused with, and apply it to our own lives.

We are grateful for what we have, and therefore, we have an obligation to give.  Because of the gifts that we have been given, some natural, some from others, we have been able to succeed, and live happily. Now, it’s up to us to give of ourselves and our talents to others, be they friends, family or strangers. Because ultimately, giving of ourselves is what really provides us with meaning and satisfaction in life. 



  1. I really love this line:

    > Only in America do we have a day where we are thankful for what we have, and then turn the following day ... into a time where we literally trample other people in order to get what we think we need

    On the almost-obscene excess of commercialization in America, see also the Amazon Random Shopper:
    It buys things for you from Amazon completely at random. The creator of Random Shopper was very conscious of the irony. He writes: "How would these purchases make me feel? Would they actually be any less meaningful than the crap I buy myself on a regular basis anyway?" So he did this as a kind of artistic critique/comment on society, I guess.

  2. Very interesting topic...

    Michael I have split feelings on this. I really don't have a problem with things like Black Friday or doorbuster deals on Labor Day. I have a problem with that we do not take these holidays seriously or appreciate them, but that is NOT to say that we should stop these major shopping days. I believe that Schools need to take such holidays like Thanksgiving and spend time discussing the history and meaning behind the holidays and how they relate to us.

  3. Phillip- Thank you for raising such an important point that I didn't mention. Schools really should accept the responsibility, and educate our children more fully and accurately about Thanksgiving, Veteran's Day, and 4th of July so that American children know about important events that took place in our country, and why it's our duty to remember them.

    In regards to your first claim, I think you make a fine case, but I am unsure about your conclusion. Why don't you have a problem with Black Friday, or sales on Labor Day? These sales are not connected to the holidays they are situated on, and sometimes even promote values that run contrary to their respective holiday dates (see Black Friday)!

    In other words, while yes, shopping is a great way to stimulate our economy, and American consumers should definitely be spending more right now, why do we need to promote that to the extent of commercializing and monetizing our beloved holidays?

  4. Michael and Phillip-

    Another great discussion! I really feel split on this topic- I agree that Black Friday has been taken to a whole other level (the fact that it is not uncommon for people to physically fight over products sends a strong signal that something is seriously wrong!)- but, on the other hand, the holiday shopping time provides jobs for many people and does help boost the economy.

    In the recent years, stores have been opening earlier and earlier (i.e. on Thursday night)- I read an article last week about how in the coming years many Black Friday shoppers will start shopping as early as Thursday morning. What will this do to Thanksgiving?!

    1. Well like I said, in order to prevent the demoting, if you will, of Thanksgiving I believe it is necessary for schools to take upon the responsibility of teaching students the real meanings behind holidays such as Thanksgiving. And I couldn't agree more that having shopping events such as Black Friday are great for the economy and I think they should continue on. And I think it should be noted that shopping events such as Black Friday are not the only days where people fight for the products they are after. It really isn't that much of a rarity.

    2. Phillip-

      Do you think that just by teaching the importance of Thanksgiving, people (or students), would choose Thanksgiving over great shopping? Michael, what are your thoughts?

  5. Ms. Keller,

    I really believe that if students were imbued with the value of gratitude, understood the history of our country, and were taught about the hard work of the pilgrims (notwithstanding the Native American suffering), then they would choose to commemorate and celebrate this meaningful holiday over the sale of any new toy, electronic gadget, etc. However, this might be a bit too idealistic. Shopping is an essential element of keeping our economy strong, and kids will always want the newest thing, at the best price, or at least whatever the ads on T.V. tell them is good.