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home : insight & opinion : signs of life May 26, 2016

11/29/2013 11:12:00 AM
Thanksgiving's a time for 'micro-gratitude'
To hear some tell it, Thanksgiving is the latest holiday upon which "war" has been declared.

But because Thanksgiving is a complicated holiday with murky origins, the argument is more complicated than the secular-vs.-religious "war on Christmas" protestations.

One one level, it's a labor-management issue, with some retailers kicking off their "Black Friday" sales on Thursday; some are requiring employees to work that day, others are requesting, in one way or another.

"These poor workers... have to deal with the tensions and pressures of getting out of Thanksgiving Day with their families," said a somewhat overexcited Ohio Rep. Mike Foley, quoted on Salon.

Deep breath. In my experience and observation, the celebration of Thanksgiving is a moveable feast, so to speak; families have always worked it around jobs, vacations, school commitments and various other scheduling issues, as long as I can remember. For example, our thanksgiving was celebrated the weekend before last, because of a family member's work schedule.

Of course, those employed in "essential" services - police, emergency personnel, people who run refineries - have always worked on Thanksgiving, and any other holiday. Again, they work around, they trade off, they manage.

Personally, I'm thankful that the Steelers and Ravens are working on Thanksgiving. As another commentator said, "Basically, if you've engaged in any kind of entertainment on Thanksgiving Day beyond board games and horseshoes in the yard, you are part of the problem, too."

So it's not a new phenomenon, it's an old one that's just evolving. And one of the things it says to me is that, in today's American culture, no matter how you feel about it, retail seems to have now become one of those "essential" services.

That goes to another statement by the hyperventilating congressman. "Can we not get one day, one day, where we don't have to worry about the consumeristic culture beating its heat down our throats?" (Not quite sure what he meant by that last part, but you get the idea.)

The short answer to his question is "no." In a time where every news story about the economy must include the sentence," Consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of U.S. economic activity," why should we expect a respite from the "consumeristic culture?" We've spent a century or so creating a consumption-driven society, so it's always a little disingenuous to be outraged when that comes home to roost in one way or another.

Of course, there are always legitimate critiques to be made of how employers treat their employees, but that seems, to me, to be separate from the issue of how a holiday is celebrated.

The gist of much of the working-on-Thanksgiving outrage is, "Is nothing sacred?" Well, to the extent that this lament characterizes Thanksgiving as a kind of religious holiday, it actually started out as a kind of anti-religious initiative.

In reaction to the large number of church holidays on the pre-Reformation calendar, the most extreme Protestants, such as the Puritans, wanted to get rid of them all - some even wanted to eliminate Christmas and Easter - and replace them with "days of fasting" or "days of thanksgiving." These, ironically, were to be moveable as well, to be declared as needed whenever circumstances seemed to call for them.

So that was the quasi-sacred origin of our Thanksgiving - in conjunction, of course, with the traditional story of the Plymouth settlers, which is probably a blend of fact and folklore. But neither has much to do with the holiday as it exists now - for better or for worse.

Foley, and others, would like to legislate the "sacredness" back into Thanksgiving. Good luck with that. The way we celebrate holidays, like many other aspects of our culture, is the result of countless "micro-decisions" made over many years, by many generations. If we've micro-decided our way out of the imperative of expressing gratitude - or at least given gratitude a back seat - we'll have to micro-decide our way back. That'll take a while, if it happens.

Maybe that's the best way to celebrate Thanksgiving, whether we're outraged or resigned to what it's become - not with legislation or pronouncements, but with micro-decisions, guerilla acts of gratitude.

For example, my wife and I have a spiral notebook in which we catalog on an (almost)-daily basis the tiniest things we've been thankful for, that have just made us smile, in the past 24 hours - a good meal, something stupid the cat did, a small achievement, a phone call from a friend. Writing it down, no matter how insignificant, is the difference, because it adds up. So that's one idea. There are others.

Toward the end of his life, James Thurber, one of my favorite writers, said, "Let us not look back in anger, nor forward in fear, but around in awareness." That's a pretty good perspective on Thanksgiving. There's a lot to be thankful for, if you just look around in awareness - and give the outrage a rest. At least for one day, whatever day that may be.







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