Thanksgiving has long been considered one of few holidays in America reserved for sacred family time. Darkened storefronts are offset by dining room windows lit up with candlelight as families around America pause to give thanks for our nation, our blessings, and each other. It also marks the start of the Christmas season, even though many retailers seem to think the start-date of this season is much earlier.
While not everyone celebrates Christmas in a religious way, the holiday is a fundamentally religious holiday that recalls the holy family of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Thanksgiving and Christmas are bookends to a season that was once about family.
Only now, they bookend a season of rampant consumerism that objectifies and strains families. The news that Macy’s, sponsor of the Thanksgiving parade and an iconic American retailer, will now open the evening of Thanksgiving for hoards of crazed deal-seekers came as a death knell to the ideal of a family-oriented holiday season.
The cultural unraveling began with so-called Black Friday deals, and worsened when stores began to open at midnight. But even with the midnight openings, some parents could tuck their children in before trampling poor sales associates (who had to leave their families earlier) for “deals” on toys and other material goods that have absolutely nothing to do with Christmas or the holidays. Nearly every year now, sales associates and shoppers are injured or die in the Black Friday craze.
As one of my favorite memes puts it: “Black Friday, when people trample others for cheap goods mere hours after being thankful for what they already have.”
As Time magazine points out, Macy’s is not alone: other major retailers like Target, Toys-R-Us, and JC Penney will also let Black Friday bleed into Black Thursday. Employees are being told to prepare to be at work as early as 7:30 p.m., when most Americans would traditionally be digging into a slice of pumpkin pie around the fireplace.
‘Black Friday, when people trample others for cheap goods mere hours after being thankful for what they already have.’
We should be worried about more than the ruination of Thanksgiving, however. The way the holiday season has come to be oriented almost entirely around consumption puts major pressure on families, so much so that the American Psychological Institute offers materials to families on how to deal with the “extreme stress” of the holidays. Holiday consumerism objectifies parents as little more than a checkbook for their children’s whims and dooms countless poor and middle-class parents to anxiety and disappointment at their inability to provide the latest device or toy. Perhaps this is in part why lawyers report that divorce rates peak right after New Year’s Day—when the greatest gift parents can provide to their children is to remain loving and committed to each other.
All of this angst over a holiday that celebrates the birth of a baby to a penniless family, a birth that literally took place in a barn.
But we control our own destinies, and we can loosen the culture’s shackles on our families. Setting clear boundaries and limits to simplify and reduce holiday consumption is within our grasp.
Years ago my family opted for a simple gift exchange. Each person gave only one gift to one person for $100 or less. Our tree went from an embarrassing explosion of materialism to a simple and manageable pile of thoughtful presents. We spent one-fifth of the time opening gifts and the rest of the time playing games, reading, watching movies, taking walks, and spending quality time with each other.
Families can vow not to shop on Thanksgiving, Black Friday, or Cyber Monday. They can set limits on spending or gifts, and incorporate a family charity into the mix. The Internet offers an endless litany of ways to reduce stress, guilt, spending, and pressure during the holidays, such as off-setting time spent shopping by time spent doing activities together and building family traditions.
Christmas will always be, in part, about gifts. The giving of gifts is a worthy tradition that reminds people of generosity and selflessness. But every family should also experience the liberation that comes with remembering that the greatest gifts cannot be contained in wrapping paper or purchased at a discount.