For many, Thanksgiving is one of the favorite holidays of the year. In a culture which has lost much of its sense of family, it is a time for families to get together. It remains largely unsullied by the commercialization that has infected Christmas, Valentine’s Day, Halloween and even Mothers’ Day.
Everything about it – the smells, the family greetings, the chance to relive childhood rituals and so much more – is positive. More importantly, we are called to reflect on the abundant blessings that we have received from God. Even the irreligious must tolerate pious sensibilities since the holiday’s name commands us to give thanks.
The Spirit of Avarice
Of course, within the commercial world, Thanksgiving has another meaning. It is the unofficial signal that the Christmas holiday buying season is about to commence. For a surprising number of stores, the month between Thanksgiving and Christmas are the difference between profit and loss.
“Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving, has been the traditional start of this Christmas gift-buying season for decades. Throughout America, stores open early and stay open late on this day. Many eager shoppers spend the hours after Thanksgiving dinner with the newspaper advertisements planning their assaults the next early morning.
Thanksgiving day, however, was sacrosanct. For a long time, no big retailer dared to jump the gun by opening on Thursday. Then, about five years ago, the situation changed. As the pressure for sales grew, a few stores started to open on Thursday night. Soon the floodgates were unlocked, and everyone was invited to stampede to the malls in search of bargains.
Not everyone approved of this encroachment. In fact, many people reacted negatively seeing it as an attack upon tradition. However, retailers barreled over the opposition. The trend appeared to be unstoppable, written off as another aspect of the increasing commercialization of the holidays.
Recovering the Day
At least, that is what the retailers thought. This year, however, consumers seemed to be sending a different message of hope. A new Thanksgiving grace appears on the horizon. An increasing number of stores are opting to stay closed on Thanksgiving Day. Some sixty-eight national and regional chains have announced that will not open on the holiday.
Some of them are major department store chains – Dillard’s and Nordstrom will take the day off. Unfortunately, the largest player in that sector, Macy’s, has so far opted to stay open. Wal-Mart will open, but its affiliated warehouse chain, Sam’s Club, will close along with its competitors, B.J.’s and Costco. All of the major home improvement chains, Ace, Lowes, and Home Depot will close, as will office supply giants Staples, Office Depot, and Office Max. Discount clothing chains Burlington, T.J. Maxx, and Marshalls will likewise let their employees celebrate the day. So will arts and crafts chains like A.C. Moore, JOANN stores, and Hobby Lobby. (This last entry is no surprise as Hobby Lobby laudably closes its stores every Sunday.)
It would be naïve to say that these retailers are motivated by a love of tradition or the desire to give their employees time to celebrate the traditional holiday. Although the managements of the stores would be loath to admit it, the real reason behind the change of policy is the backlash of shoppers who resented the openings on Thursday in previous years. It is an axiom in American business that every telephone call, email or letter of complaint received means that many other less vocal customers share the discontent. Many of these may shop elsewhere. Complaints to corporate headquarters can be translated into tens of thousands of unhappy customers.
There was also another kind of backlash. Forcing employees to work when everyone else is celebrating lowers employee morale. Empty chairs at the Thanksgiving tables make employers look bad and employees unhappy.
The fact that so many stories would forego profits and retreat from their position shows that those who react can be victorious. It should encourage more reactions.
All People Need a Day of Thanksgiving
However, the push to shop on Thanksgiving reflects something much deeper than lost commerce. It reflects the demands of a 24/7 culture that must be resisted. Part of the frenetic intemperance of our time is the selfish insistence that all products should be available instantly and everywhere. Any blow against this culture is a step in the right direction.
We also need to re-recognize that employees have a right to days of rest. This is not simply a humanitarian whim; it is a Scriptural imperative. “Six Days shall you do work: in the seventh day is the Sabbath, the rest holy to the Lord”(Exodus 31:15).
Most stores used to be closed not only on Thanksgiving but every Sunday. Days of rest and feasts fulfilled a human as well as a religious function. Rest recharges our physical and moral faculties. These special days also have an important social function, as it gives us time to strengthen family and community ties while meeting our obligation to attend Holy Mass. We also need to restore the sense of separation between the world of commerce and that of the community.
Gathering on Thanksgiving is an important way to maintain and restore a sense of family. As the physical distance between family members grows, Thanksgiving offers a time to come together. Fortunately, many still respond to this call. The U.S. Transportation Security Administration projects that around 25 million Americans will travel by air during the 2018 holiday weekend. On no other day do we see so many people of every generation greeting each other than at the airport luggage carousels the day before Thanksgiving.
However, the most essential purpose of Thanksgiving is to turn to God. It is a day – for all too many the only day – specially dedicated to reflecting on the blessings bestowed on us by a loving God. We should take full advantage of this time for prayer and reflection.
The stores can afford to do without Thanksgiving; it is not at all certain that we can.