Black Friday is just around the corner, and with it will come the beginning of America’s annual cultural low point: the holiday season. This isn’t about being a Grinch – peace, love and giving are all fine ideas to base a time of celebration around. It’s just that these themes of the holiday season only really show up on greeting cards and television specials; they aren’t what the holidays, in practice, end up being about.
From the moment it starts on Thanksgiving weekend, it’s hard not to look at our holiday season cynically. For millennia, cultures have held celebrations giving thanks for a good harvest to the gods, the earth, or whoever they feel deserves the credit. But in the nation’s schools and on primetime TV, Thanksgiving is taught as commemorating some noteworthy feast between pioneers and Indians. These groups may have broke bread a few times, but a memorial of the peace between English settlers and American Indians is ironic at best and, at worst, heartlessly tasteless given the almost wholesale extermination of the continent’s original human inhabitants following European settlement.
But it’s only the day after Thanksgiving that the holiday season is really, truly underway. Black Friday is a day when Americans – after spending Thanksgiving eating 736 million pounds of turkey, watching an extremely violent sport and then driving home drunk – wake up at the crack of dawn to pack into supermarkets and trample one another for video games.
A few years ago, American companies decided to begin Black Friday on Thanksgiving Day. We can’t even keep our awkward family get-togethers sacred – now, the consumerism starts before you’ve even tapped into the second wave of pies. Corporations want you to have lunch and visit with your family for a couple hours, but then, they want you – preferably while you’re all still together, lightly buzzed and bubbling with a slight mob mentality – to head down to the Lots of Junk on Sale Store and buy some shit.
The greed has run so amok that this season, a mall in Buffalo allegedly threatened stores with $200/hr. fines for every hour after 6 p.m. they’re not open on Thanksgiving. Wal-Mart employees are planning massive strikes in protest of the company’s poor wages and family-damaging, mandatory Thanksgiving shifts. In solidarity with the workers, and if we want to pretend the holidays are actually sacred, no one should shop on Thanksgiving Day or Black Friday (or, really, ever). But while the petty greed of American consumers who swarm the stores is shameful enough, it’s only a drop in the bucket next to the frothing financial lust of American mega corporations.
It’s easy to see why conservatives are so upset at the desecration of the holiday season. Only this kind of thing isn’t what they mean when they speak of a war on Christmas. They aren’t upset at all that someone might have to work at their low-paying retail job when they should be with their family – they’re pissed that the worker said “Happy holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Surely this is a minor crime next to requiring work on Thanksgiving, even to conservatives, right? Judging by how FOX News has characterized protesting Wal-Mart employees and how gosh-darn fondly they seem to regard Wal-Mart in general, it seems they don’t think so. Perhaps because if pulling families apart on holidays did constitute a War on Christmas, then it’s FOX News and corporate America who are waging it. To them, the worst thing about the season is any time the word “Christmas” is replaced with “holiday,” be it holiday tree, holiday cookie or holiday play. “Happy holidays” has been a completely benevolent, standard greeting for decades – it just isn’t specific enough for some on the far right. Can anybody explain why leaving out Hanukkah is so crucial to conservatives’ enjoyment of the season?
Conservatives also become apoplectic whenever Christian symbols are taken off public property, such as the removal of a nativity scene from the Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina. The FOX article for that story begins, “The Baby Jesus has been kicked off Shaw Air Force Base in South Carolina, according to an organization who relishes any opportunity to eradicate Christianity from the U.S. military.” While I can’t share in conservatives’ hysterical victim complex, I can understand where they’re coming from to a degree. The special interest groups agitating for removal of Christian imagery from statehouses could be focusing on a number of vastly more important issues.
By this point, the figures have been so profaned they’re practically secular anyway. In Islam, depictions of Mohammed are considered blasphemous and punishable by death, but American Christians are all-too-happy to display a plastic, glowing manger scene they picked up at Big Lots. This is certainly better than imitating the Muslims, but it’s hardly sacred. To that end, I say keep the manger scene on the lawn of the municipal court if the majority of townspeople want it. It provides a good opportunity to explain its context: in this country, a lot of people believe in an ancient book, and even though intellectual evolution is allowing more of us to outgrow those beliefs, the stories in the book inspired some of what has become our holiday imagery. That’s harmless enough for even a child to swallow, and future generations will create new holiday imagery, anyway.
Bickering because the holidays aren’t exactly what you want them to be is a most crippling childishness. “Happy holidays” and “Merry Christmas” are both benign wishes, but neither is likely to come true if people are inclined to be offended by them.
Lots of good does happen around the holiday season. Food drives and charity programs ramp up and in the spirit of the season a great many people do good things. Unfortunately, the tremendous consumer waste imperils our environment, cultural misunderstandings and historical insensitivity harm our relationships with our neighbors, and rampant greed unmasks this culture at its absolute worst. We can change that with a little more tolerance, a little more compassion, and a lot less greed. If we can learn to pull it off in December, we might one day pull it off year-round. Then, we’d really have something to celebrate.