Weeks before Halloween, Christmas decorations started appearing around town. At the local department stores, mannequins of witches and zombies were crowded by Santa’s elves. The Christmas season has, it seems, overcome Halloween. Halloween is a charming holiday, so this is lamentable to some degree. But given the relatively stable interest children have in candy and play-acting, Halloween is not in danger of extinction. The constantly-expanding Christmas season does not threaten to undermine its spirit.
Sadly, the same cannot be said for Thanksgiving. When pitted against the aggressive encroachment of Christmas and the corresponding shopping season, Thanksgiving, our most humane and decent holiday, doesn’t stand a chance.
Unlike Halloween, Thanksgiving is a holiday of human significance. Though it is occasioned by the mythology of Pilgrims and Wampanoag Indians, the point of Thanksgiving is not that of rehearsing or commemorating that original event. In this respect, Thanksgiving differs crucially from other holidays. The Thanksgiving gathering is not a means to some other end, such as memorializing the signing of a document (July 4th), observing an ancient liberation (Passover), celebrating the birth of a god (Christmas), or honoring the bravery and sacrifice of soldiers in war (Veterans Day). The point of Thanksgiving is rather to gather with loved ones, to reaffirm social bonds, to enjoy company, and to appreciate the goods one has. To be sure, the Thanksgiving celebration is focused on a meal, typically involving large portions of turkey and cranberries. Still, the details of the meal are ultimately incidental. The aim of the Thanksgiving gathering is not to eat, but to be a gathering. The coming of people together is the point– and the whole point– of Thanksgiving.
Consequently, Thanksgiving is the least commercialized major holiday. There are no special items to purchase, no material obligations, and no gift-exchanging. Since the point is to come together with loved ones, there is no need for commercial items to mediate the relations between people. We gather on Thanksgiving in order to be in each other’s company.
Christmas is different. It is suffused with its two myths, one of the North Pole and the other of the North Star. Neither myth is particularly inspiring. Consider: Santa is a man of miraculous ability. He is morally omniscient, he produces a copious amount of toys, and he distributes them across the globe with astounding speed and accuracy. But, alas, Santa is not a good man. He delivers presents to children when his powers could be used, instead, for redressing injustice and suffering. Why doesn’t he deliver desperately needed supplies– food, medicine, clean water, comfort– to those most needy? He knows how to travel to all of the world’s households in a single night. Why won’t Santa share this technology? He claims to be concerned with rewarding those who are good and punishing those who are bad, and yet he spies on children, even as they sleep. How contemptible.
The North Star myth fares no better. Jesus’ birth occasions Herod’s slaughter of Bethlehem’s innocent first born boys under two years of age. Thanks to an angel’s warning, the Holy Family skips town. What of the other families who didn’t get the warning? Tough luck. So much for “love your neighbor.”
Jesus grows up to be a shoddy moral exemplar. He heals the blind, but offers no cure for blindness. He treats the sick, but he offers no preventative measures against sickness. He could have introduced the practice of hand-washing to human society, but didn’t bother. He gets angry at money changers in the temple, but it is for money-changing in the temple, not for dishonest business practices. All this while women are subjugated, men are enslaved, innocent people are starving, and children are abused. On top of this, if Mark is to be believed, Jesus promises that those who do not follow him will burn with “unquenchable fire.” Disagreeing with Jesus warrants unending torture. How utterly contemptible.
The Christmas myths are morally horrid. That’s not the worst of it, though. They are overwhelming, suffocating. The way in which Christmas is celebrated overpowers the genuine human contact the holiday might otherwise occasion. Presents are the focus of Christmas, and the days, weeks and, now, months leading up to Christmas are consumed with travails of procuring gifts. That is, Christmas is focused on want. People gather, but for the sake of exchanging gifts, providing material items to satisfy wants. Accordingly, we must make lists of the things we want others to buy for us. In fact, not to tell loved ones explicitly what one wants for Christmas is to place a heavy burden on them– they must now try to figure out what to buy. To avoid the hassle, many elect simply to exchange gift certificates. In the end, we’re simply funding each other’s shopping; it’s all just money-changing.
Given its focus on acquisition, it should come as no surprise that the Christmas season is constantly, and aggressively, expanding. The Christmas shopping season now begins at 12:01 a.m. on the Friday following Thanksgiving. A long weekend which could be spent enjoying the company of family and friends is claimed for bustling and angry crowds, long lines in shopping malls, disputes over parking spaces, and unavoidable traffic jams. Within a few hours at most, one wants only to be alone, to get away from other people. The spirit of Thanksgiving is destroyed by Christmas.
There is an overabundance of opportunity throughout the year to hassle with strangers in shopping malls. We have plenty of opportunity in our lives to gain increased appreciation for the Sartrean dictum that “hell is other people.” And every day we are constantly bombarded with commercial reminders of the things that we want and of the ways in which what we have is not sufficient. Christmas heightens these phenomena, engendering discontent. Thanksgiving, by contrast, provides a weekend escape from all of this. It counsels us to sit back, relax, appreciate what we have, and spend time with the ones we love. On Thanksgiving, we appreciate what we have, and acknowledge the ways we are indebted to others. Our families and friends are imperfect, but they nonetheless are ours; they are unique, idiosyncratic, and irreplaceable. Unlike Christmas, which is fixated on the new and the disposable, Thanksgiving calls us to appreciate the durable and the familiar. In order to preserve this civilized oasis that is Thanksgiving, we must wage war on Christmas and all of its madness.
We recommend that the war should be waged on the following two fronts:
First, stay home on Thanksgiving weekend. Do not shop on “Black Friday.” Sleep in instead. Spend time with your family; relax, eat leftovers, have a drink, watch a movie, take a walk. The shopping malls will survive, the sales will continue, the shelves will remain stocked. You have plenty of time.
No doubt some will dispute that last claim. They will say that time is short, and that they need the long Thanksgiving weekend in order make a dent in their Christmas shopping list. Hence the second front of our war on Christmas:
Second, rethink gift-giving. It is a simple and lamentable fact that the percentage of the Christmas gifts you receive that are useless to you is pretty high. Yes, it’s the thought that counts. But if it’s the thought that counts, then it is perfectly acceptable for people to exchange the kind of gift that cannot be purchased in a store, namely, the gift of time. Tell the adults on your Christmas list that this year you’re giving them the gift of free time; you are releasing them from the obligation to buy for you a gift, and you are encouraging them to spend in some other way the time they would otherwise spend at the mall purchasing a material gift for you. Offer to make time in January for a long and relaxed lunch date (and then make good on the offer). For friends with children, offer to babysit so that they may have time for themselves or for each other. For far-away friends and relatives, resolve to write letters; real letters, with details and thoughts just for them, with questions and occasions for beginning ongoing conversation.
These proposals are hardly militant, though widespread adoption of them would result in a decisive blow against the aggressiveness of Christmas, thereby saving Thanksgiving. Waging a war on Christmas in this way might also have an additional benefit, namely, that of saving Christmas from itself. A more humane, civilized, and sane version of Christmas, one more like Thanksgiving, might even be worth celebrating.