(The essay was originally published by the Newport Daily News on November 27, 2013.)
An important threshold was crossed two years ago when Wal-Mart and Toys R Us moved their opening or early bird specials from very early Black Friday into Thanksgiving Thursday. Last year they moved these times even earlier and were joined by Sears and Target who both opened Thanksgiving evening. Santa’s commercial floodgates appear to be opening and swallowing up our national holiday of thanks.
The decline in the importance and integrity of Thanksgiving is regrettable. The common story of Thanksgiving, celebrated in elementary schools across the country, is a tale of the perseverance of Pilgrims and of cooperation and common thanks between two different peoples who had been until the early 1600s worlds apart. It is one of the stories that defines us as Americans. And civilizations need stories to serve as their connective tissue, helping them endure.
Over the past fifty years, Thanksgiving has diminished in importance as Christmas commercialism has expanded. Since the early 1960s Christmas radio programming has steadily expanded into November. A few years ago for the first time, one of my favorite radio stations started solid holiday music beginning the day after Thanksgiving. Last year some radio stations began playing holiday music as early as November 15. Such Christmas commercial creep has also taken place on television and in the print media. With regret I witnessed on November 2 this year the first Christmas TV commercial of the season.
At the local pharmacy and drugstore, merchandise relating to Thanksgiving seems to have become extinct. The past few years the passing of Halloween has immediately brought Christmas goods to the shelves.
This yuletide commercial creep is simply a part of the general increased commercial penetration of American society over the past fifty years. For example, fifty years ago it was the Sugar Ball football game; now it is the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The Orange Bowl became the FedEx Orange Bowl and is now the Discover Orange Bowl. The Granddaddy of Them All, the Rose Bowl, is now the “Rose Bowl Game presented by Vizio.” Insurance companies have paid for their names to be said and seen in baseball and football games, one as a player slides into home plate “safe and secure,” the same one appears on the line of scrimmage just before the play begins, and another mysteriously appears between the goal posts as I watch the point after touchdown.
Sports stadiums have also succumbed. The Phillies no longer play at Veterans Memorial Stadium, but at Citizens Bank Park. The San Francisco Giants once played at Candlestick Park; now they play at AT&T Park. Thank goodness for Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium.
Fifty years ago at the movies we would settle in with the newsreel, previews, and a few cartoons. Now we grow impatient as we are forced to view not only hyper-fast trailers but also commercial ads.
Even our homes are no longer immune from commercial attacks. Fifty years ago when the phone rang, we answered it. The call was just about always from someone we knew—family, friend, acquaintance—who was not trying to sell us something. Today even placing one’s phone number on the no-call list does not ensure immunity from commercial offensives. Clearly our homes are no longer our protected castles.
It was President Abraham Lincoln who made Thanksgiving a national holiday. In the fall of 1863, the pivotal year of our Civil War, Lincoln issued a proclamation declaring that the last Thursday in November would be a day of national thanksgiving. It was first celebrated on November 26 of that year, a week after his Gettysburg Address. “It has seemed to me fit and proper that they [God’s gracious gifts] should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people.”
Clearly Lincoln would not be happy with what American capitalism has done to push Christmas before Thanksgiving. He believed, as did the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle, that government should always promote policies and execute laws that seek to elevate the condition of human beings and that enable the pursuit of those high ideals that all humans truly need in order to pursue happiness. He would be saddened to know what has happened to the holiday and would certainly strive to give the holiday a rebirth. If Descartes, the great thinker of the Enlightenment, were alive, he might, in looking at our society, restate his famous dictum as: “I consume; therefore, I am.”
I was recently traveling over the Newburgh-Beacon Bridge across the Hudson River above New York City. On the toll gate arm I saw in large letters, FROST, but I could not read the remainder. I am wondering whether it said FROST ON BRIDGE or FROSTY FREEZE.