Michael C. Phillip on society’s need to be more like Thanksgiving and less like Black Friday.
Somewhere in that hours-long transition between Thanksgiving Day and the Christmas season a very remarkable change comes over us. Thanksgiving being a time for reflection, counting blessings, giving thanks, and serving others, Christmas has mostly come to mean just the opposite. America wakes up (sometimes never having gone to sleep) on Black Friday and plunges into a state of mind totally opposite to what governed its thoughts and actions just a few hours before.
This change in behavior probably doesn’t seem all that abrupt to us anymore. After all, we’ve been observing this ritual for years now. It has long become a normal part of our holiday year. But to understand just how peculiar this behavior is, and to restore a sense of objectivity and rationality to our celebrations, it helps to view these two holidays from a different perspective.
Imagine you’re reading a short story where the author sets up the scene of a narrative in the opening pages. The story’s main characters come from an endearingly callow people of a fictitious civilization. This is a prosperous civilization. Not only is it prosperous, but its citizens make a very concerted effort to enjoy the fruits of their abundance: two days of every week are set aside as national holidays.
As the author proceeds, you find yourself having a heightened degree of compassion for these people. They seem to be a rather simpleminded people, for they don’t appear to realize that the two holidays they celebrate are polar opposites of each other.
On Thursdays, citizens celebrate the friendship and generosity of those around them. Words of gratitude, acts of service, and times of reflection pepper the 24-hour celebration. On Fridays, however, they celebrate themselves. Self-indulgence, often at the expense of those they were serving and praising the day before, characterizes this 24-hour period. One day they exalt their neighbor, the next they exalt themselves. Remarkably, these people participate in these two celebrations week after week without the slightest consternation at their incompatible value sets.
One might imagine this scenario appropriately finding its origin in a P.G. Wodehouse or Charles Dickens novel. It could be the basis for an entertainingly ironic, if not downright comedic story.
But something even more peculiar begins to happen over the course of the story. The people of this civilization have always just assumed that the values of these two holidays were perfectly compatible, if not complementary with one another. Their rituals have been a part of society for so long now that no one really gives any thought to their underlying meaning.
We come to find out that there is so much to be gained from Friday’s celebration that it actually begins to creep into Saturday. Before long, the entire weekend is a fete of self-absorption. Monday is eventually taken up in its wake, and Tuesday a bit later. Friday’s greedy takeover of the calendar week persists until Thursday’s celebration is surrounded on both sides. Before long, Thursday’s celebration begins to look a lot like Friday’s – and the rest of the week, for that matter. Kept around largely for the sake of tradition, Thursday’s celebration of service and gratitude eventually exists in name only.
This really would be the makings of a good novel. That is, if it weren’t grounded in reality. This being reality, the scenario has actual consequences.
It might be said that there is something of a battle going on in America today. Two opposing and overarching narratives are battling for our affections. One narrative has its roots in the nation’s founding; the other, only in the last half century or so. One narrative prizes freedom for the purpose of serving the common good; the other prizes freedom for the purpose of serving self. One narrative is inherently democratic; the other is largely autocratic. One narrative receives a day for celebration; the other receives a season.
These two meta-narratives, the former of service and the latter of consumption, are overarching because they extend into every area of our lives. Consumption, for instance, is most appropriately confined to the realm of economics. But when it is extended beyond the economic sphere and applied to other areas of life, such as relationships, it can be catastrophic. We begin treating other people like we treat inanimate goods: when they stop satisfying us, we get rid of them and replace them with something new.
The clearest evidence of this conflict is found in our nation’s rituals; in the way we celebrate holidays. This is because holidays reflect the things ultimate of a culture. Holidays are rooted in tradition and in values: they hearken both to traditional values and valued traditions. As the values of a culture change, so does the character of the holidays it chooses to celebrate. Likewise, as its traditions evolve, the values reflected in those traditions become more and more embodied by the culture. It can be a virtuous or a vicious circle. Thus, our holidays morph a little bit each year. Every year, by virtue of how we celebrate the holidays (i.e. the rituals we engage in in celebration of the holiday), we steer the meaning of our holidays in a slightly new direction.
That is to say, holidays are never in a state of rest because culture is constantly in a state of flux. Holidays, while they appear to come and go in mostly the same form year in and year out, actually have a fresh nuance to them each year that didn’t exist the year before. The subtlety of those nuances is often so faint as to be imperceptible from year to year, but taken in the aggregate over a decade or more, those nuances compound themselves until it becomes clear that the holiday no longer represents what it once did. (One example would be how Black Friday this year, instead of starting on Friday morning at midnight, began Thursday evening. Thanksgiving’s leftovers barely made it into the fridge before consumption of a different kind began. A precedent has thus been set for years to come.)
The Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays are the perfect microcosm of what is happening on a much larger scale in the battle for our affections. Each year, it seems, Thanksgiving (and its values) wanes just a little bit more in importance in our culture. Whatever vacuum is created is quickly filled by Christmas. The holiday, increasingly stripped of its religious (Christian) underpinnings, is now a full-fledged pageant to consumption.
We have Thanksgiving, characterized by the narrative of gratitude and service, and Christmas, characterized by the narrative of consumption and self-service.
But to get a sense of which holiday is winning the fight, it helps to look at how much real estate we’re giving each of them on the calendar. Whereas Thanksgiving has a day, Christmas has a season. Moreover, our cultural year largely pivots on the Christmas season. No other month can be said to have a greater economic or cultural pull as December. The Christmas season is like a black hole, pulling and twisting every other day of the calendar year in upon itself.
If we’re honest with ourselves, Thanksgiving’s role today is more like the short prelude whose purpose is to whet our appetites for the main Christmas concert. Thanksgiving is like the silver platter that shrinks from view in light of the succulent Christmas feast that rests upon it.
If Christmas is our culture’s most revered holiday, and if it is true that holidays reflect the ultimate values of a culture, then what Christmas stands for largely reflects what we stand for.
Consumption being the paramount value permeating Christmas, this should tell us that “we the people” actually prize consumption – perhaps the freedom to consume, above all else. We can tell ourselves otherwise, but our actions belie our beliefs.
If the rituals we observe are indeed a reflection of the kind of people we are as a culture, then perhaps we ought to engage in those rituals with a greater sense of prudence, even restraint.
The less thought we put into practicing our Christmas rituals (namely, immersing ourselves in a frenzy of consumption), or the more we accept our rituals as “good” simply because they are both rooted in tradition and simultaneously practiced by everyone around us, the more inclined we are to move in a direction away from the kind of people we want to be.
Do we want to be a people characterized by service for the common good, or do we want to be a people characterized by consumption and self-service?
A society must constantly be assessing its current cultural practices in light of the shared values that first bound it together. It must do this if it is to stay true to the image of the kind of people it always intended to be. Absent this regular self-examination, a society will, in time and without fail, veer from its true north and end up somewhere very far away from where it was aiming.
If we want to be known as a people where the love of humanity characterizes our actions, then perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to indulge in the rituals that characterize the Christmas season in America. A better way would be to make the rituals of Thanksgiving a daily part of our lives, and allow those values to reign in our hearts.
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–Originally published on philantro.pe.