Stop the War on Thanksgiving

War on Thanksgiving

For years I have been hearing about the “War on Christmas.” This bloodless war, whose primary weapon seems to be the phrase “Happy Holidays,” apparently threatens the spirit and soul of Christmas and Christians by recognizing that one fifth of the US population and over two thirds of the world’s population do not celebrate Christmas.  I was never worried about this war because it seemed that Christmas and Christians were doing just fine.

I am however, worried about Thanksgiving. Because folks, there is a War on Thanksgiving. Oddly enough, its chief combatant is Christmas, or more accurately, the retailers who seek to make Christmas shopping a year round activity.

I must divulge a little background. I love Thanksgiving. I always have. I love the smells of Thanksgiving, as the crisp air of Autumn shifts almost imperceptibly to the chill of Winter. I love the food and the decorations: cornucopias filled with autumnal gourds, the reds, browns, yellows and golds of fall foliage, the cinnamon and nutmeg of pumpkin pie and hot apple cider and the savory goodness of stuffing, turkey and gravy. I love the gathering of friends and family. I love our ritual of going around the table and saying what we are thankful for this year.

Thanksgiving is the one time of year in which I embrace my inner Martha Stewart, decorating the house with gourds and children’s seasonal crafts.But over the past several years I have had difficulty engaging in my seasonal ritual. Because whereas in my childhood, retail Christmas fervor did not take over until the day after Thanksgiving, today stores hardly wait until after labor day to begin the madness and by the day after Halloween, Christmas season has begun its assault.

The primary casualty of this Christmas Creep (aside from our wallets and our bleeding ears as the grating strains of “jingle bells” and “I’ll be home for Christmas” play on a loop for over 2 months) is Thanksgiving itself.

The War on Thanksgiving started in the retail setting. I began to notice over the past ten years that it was increasingly difficult to indulge my Thanksgiving decorating tendencies. Retailers began to push aside my cornucopia and autumnal colors for the ubiquitous red and green. Oddly cheerful turkeys gave way to Santas and menacing elves and our secular holiday of giving thanks was shunted aside for Christmas.

But the combatants in the War on Thanksgiving were not content with their expulsion of Thanksgiving from the retail arena. Bent on complete domination, they set out to banish Thanksgiving from our homes and our lives. Retailers like Walmart, Kmart, Staples, Sears, J.C. Penny, Best Buy, Toys R Us, Macy’s and countless malls across America have begun opening their stores on Thanksgiving itself.

These retailers make their low wage employees give up one of the only days they have off with family to wage the War on Thanksgiving. These employees must abandon their families and their one day off together to feed retailers’ insatiable desire for profit. And we as consumers are asked to abandon our festive tables, friends and families to brave the crowds of shoppers looking for that elusive bargain.

I cannot tell you how sad this makes me. Thanksgiving is literally a holiday about giving thanks. It is a holiday that welcomes all Americans (though Native Americans may have some misgivings on this) regardless of religion. It is a holiday that celebrates home and hearth and asks us to be grateful for that which we have.

The message of the actual holiday of Christmas may not be far off. But the religious Christmas of December 25th is not the one currently being celebrated in malls across America. Retail Christmas demands you spend what you do not have and indulge in unmitigated greed. Retail Christmas tells you there is never enough and that you should only be thankful when people bring you more.

This year I will celebrate Thanksgiving. I will be thankful for all the good things in my life, very few of which were purchased in a store. In protest, I will not shop on Black Friday and this season I will only buy from retailers who do not open on Thanksgiving Day.

I will fight for Thanksgiving. I will stand with those who are fighting against the War on Thanksgiving. Join me.

Sinners, Saints and Mental Shortcuts

Heaven and Hell
Every day I drive past the Methodist church in my town. Of the six churches in town, (yes, six- I live in New England) it is not the most beautiful, but I look forward to passing it nonetheless. Why? Because this church has in its congregation (and/or employ) a playful individual who is always putting up inspiring little sayings on the Church sign.

Several weeks ago the sign read “every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.” The quote is from Oscar Wilde, but its literary origins are less important than the message and the location.

When I drove past the sign the first time, I was not familiar with the quote but its simplicity and kindness struck me. In our lives we are quick to judge others and, at times, ourselves.   We place labels, easily categorizing individuals and situations. Part of this is the result of using what psychologists call heuristics- mental shortcuts that allow us to make decisions and problem solve when we are faced with incomplete data. We rely on these shortcuts, basing decisions off of past experience and impressions.   Although efficient, these heuristics do not guarantee the best or even accurate decisions and assessments.

Using heuristics, we make assumptions about people we see. We categorize them as hard-working or lazy, virtuous or morally compromised and a million other shortcuts we have in our minds. We encounter them in a moment and having made a quick judgment, we see that judgment superimposed over the individual’s past and future. In this way we see an individual as born a particular way and living in the same manner until their death.

Of course, we know this is not true when we stop to think about it. But part of the point of heuristics is that their use means we are not really stopping to consider at all. In this way, our perceptions of others are incomplete, and if we are not careful, risk ossifying. We risk freezing someone in a single moment in time, or defining them perhaps, by their worst moment.

We do this to ourselves as well. We often believe that the way we have done things in the past is the only way we can do things. We let past behaviors, misdeeds and achievements define us. We justify unethical behavior in the present by coasting on earlier honesty. We discount current success, acutely feeling inadequacies from failures in our past. We begin to feel that we cannot change- that “we are who we are” however incomplete or biased those assessments may be.

Oscar Wilde’s quote points to the possibility of redemption- the most radical type of transformation. It asks us to see beyond a momentary mental shortcut and see the long arc of a life and the many choices that allow us to redefine ourselves over and over again.

I liked seeing the quote on the church’s sign. In a time when religions are often strident in their denunciations of the “sinner” but uninterested in helping those in need, the placement of the quote at a Church is welcoming. It is a recognition of the ways in which everyone we meet is merely at one moment in their journey and that the trajectory of that journey is not always discernable.

So wherever you are on your journey, know that the choices you make can continue or alter your path. You and the people around you are not frozen. We all have pasts and we all have the opportunity to change our futures.

Avoiding the Empty Calories of Chocolate Easter Eggs

When I was a child, a neighbor who was a devout Christian came over to our house and sat distraught, talking to my mother. She had just returned from the grocery store and found it filled with chocolate bunnies and cream eggs for Easter. She said to my mother, “we, as Christians, have already lost Christmas to commercialism, if we lose Easter too, our religion is in serious trouble.”

What my neighbor was decrying was the substitution of commercialism for content- of surface for substance. When advertisers come in to our lives and try and sell back to us our own experiences, they diminish them. Without question Easter eggs and chocolates are part of many families’ memories of the holiday. But they are not, and never have been, the sum total. The holiday has deep religious significance. Not everyone has religious connections to the holiday, but for them, Easter may also be about time with family and perhaps, the joy of Spring- things similarly not captured by commercials.

The problem is that when advertisers enter the dialogue, they are seeking to place their products at the center of our experience. Sadly, in our world of constant media bombardment, it is easy to lose what is authentic in our own lives. It is easy to let the televised version of events take the place of our own memories- swapping symbolism and commercialism for real connection.

Whether advertisers are painting a picture of the holidays, or love, or fun, or happiness, their aim is always the same- to make us buy things. Their goal is to turn our desire for authentic connection into purchasing. They want to sell us the facsimile and we are all too often willing to buy. But of course, one cannot really buy love or happiness and true religious experiences cannot be purchased at a store.

Our culture is all about convincing us that we do not have enough and that the next purchase will somehow make us whole. We are told that “retail therapy” is the way to cure our ills- when really such therapy results in greater credit card debt, more clutter in our homes and the feeling of emptiness that follows the realization that this purchase has not actually changed our situations in any meaningful way.

For, like the chocolate bunnies and creams eggs, the purchases are devoid of nutritional value. They offer us nothing that can nurture our souls and our lives. This year, resist the Easter Bunny and instead embrace what is real and meaningful in your lives. Find your spiritual center, embrace a loved one, take a walk in nature. Celebrate what is authentic and true in your lives and you will find it is a better therapy than what advertisers would have you purchase.