Monday, November 30, 2020

Thanksgiving, Christmas and Commerce



(I originally wrote the bulk of this newsletter back in November of 2017. In the three years since I became aware that I had included incorrect information about the origin of the term, “Black Friday.” I apologize for that; the other info here is correct, but it was important to correct the misinformation. Today, especially when so much about history is being re-thought and re-examined, it is important to get things as accurate as possible. So with that in mind, here is a slightly revised version of my November 2017 piece.)

 Last week was Thanksgiving a day, in theory, of family coming together, home prepared food, and expressions of gratitude. While family and together time can be rough for some folks, traditionally it was a good time for family and friends. People saw folks they had not seen for a while, a few welcomed children and new in-laws into the extended family, and others simply enjoyed being together and expressing feelings of warmth and gratitude.  That is the way that holiday was intended to be observed, but things in our culture have changed mightily this year. We had to find new ways of being in touch with each other this Thanksgiving and we had to consider the possibility of setting up of new traditions. For some of us this worked out fine, with SKYPE f ZOOM gatherings, video messaging, etc. For others it was hard as they missed the old ways and were not able or ready to embrace a new way. One important thing remained the same, though. Whatever warm, fuzzy Thanksgiving feelings we had last Thursday were quickly overrun by the rush of commerce and constant appeals to buy, spend and consume. “Black Friday” was different this year, but it still happened. The winter shopping season has begun.

There have always been links between seasonal changes and commerce. Early human groups traveled across different places at different times in the year and found different things available for both consuming and trading. In the ancient world, spring meant hunting and trading for more plants and seeds, going to where the herds of animals and schools of fish were in order to get more. Autumn meant increased hunting, trading, gathering and traveling to get ready for winter. Most hunting-gathering people already saw religious and mythological links between changes in seasons and their lives, so the special importance of different products at different times became natural. The original autumnal “thanksgivings” were literally the “giving of “Thanks” to the gods for a good harvest or hunt, and hope for surviving the winter.  As cities and the lifestyle known as civilization developed, more extensive trading happened, and many more things became available. New products came from different parts of the world, and having of lots of products became associated with everything from class levels to social wealth to religious worth to personal worth, to political power and more. And when civilizations developed into empires, the importance of having, trading, giving, and owning products exploded exponentially. Civilizations kept producing and developing more products at an ever increasing rate.

Commerce is at the heart of civilization,, and we are no longer shy about that. We have developed systems for coming up with new products: Research and Development, planned obsolescence, and upgrades. We have come up with more ways of putting products in front of people-signs, advertising campaigns, product placement, pop-up ads embedded in web articles, celebrity endorsements, and more The bazaars and marketplaces of the old days have become shopping malls, warehouse outlets and online commercial hubs such as Amazon and E-Bay. After the 1924 debut of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, this post-Thanksgiving weekend quickly became the start of our “winter shopping season.” The gift giving associated with the Christmas story became more and more the focus of Christmas, and the Friday after Thanksgiving was the time to get it started. This became the time when stores and shops ran special sales and campaigns to get people into the stores. And opening up the wallets and pocketbooks.

The term for that time is now “Black Friday”, and the origin of that term has a dark side to it. In the 1950s, police in Philadelphia used the term to describe the chaos that ensued on the day after Thanksgiving. hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists flooded into the city to take advantage of the sales and in advance of the big Army-Navy football game that used to be held here every year on the Saturday following Thanksgiving. Suburbs were relatively new and expanding, and the new highways and freeways made it easier to get into the city to shop as well as go to sporting events. So suburbanites added to the mess. Philly cops had to work extra-long shifts dealing with the regularly increasing mess of huge crowds and miles of traffic problems. Shoplifters also took advantage of the bedlam in stores to make off with merchandise, and pickpockets endlessly worked the crowds. To police, then, the Friday after Thanksgiving was not joyous at all. Instead it was “black.”

By 1961, “Black Friday” had become the local term for that day in Philadelphia. Retailers tried unsuccessfully to change it to “Big Friday” in order to remove the negative connotations of the term, but that term didn’t take off. “Black Friday” was what it was called, and Black Friday it remained. So retailers did the next best thing. They changed the meaning and explanation for the term. They turned it into a story about businesses on that day suddenly making a profit-going into the black. This new story of what Black Friday meant caught on, and the term’s true origin was forgotten.  Not only did the phrase catch on across the  nation, but what was originally a one-day event slowly morphed into a four-day event that spawned other “retail holidays” such as Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. COVID made changes in those days this year, as most sales moved online. Nonetheless, there were many brick and mortar stores open last weekend.

Cyber Monday” came into being in 2005 as an idea to encourage people to shop online and build online business. It has been very successful, taking in some 9.4 billion dollars last year. With the amount of online shopping increasing this due to COVID, it is estimated the weekend will bring in some 12-13 billion dollars. Clearly this seasonal urge to spend is quite powerful in our culture. It even applies to charities and non-profits.

     A 2012 survey found the some 50% of charities and non-profits reported that most of their individual contributions came in between October and December. The ideas of holiday gifting, seasonal calls for thinking of others, and tax deductions has combined to drive more charitable fundraising these last two months of the year and has resulted in “Giving Tuesday.”. Giving Tuesday is a day for making donations to fund good causes following Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The founders wanted people to focus on giving after their weekend shopping spree, and to see a seamless link between spending for family and self and giving to help others. The idea quickly took off, and it is now an international movement.  It even has its own website- which serves as a conduit connecting groups, causes, organizations and individuals. The website has history, tools to get organized, and connections to local movements from around the world. Given the widespread challenges presented by the COVID pandemic, support for charitable institutions is critical. Giving Tuesday is one way of making that possible.

So the “Black Friday” phenomenon can, and in many ways, has definitely overwhelmed the intended sense of the original autumnal thanksgivings. It can be about things and about consumption above all else. But it can also lead to a “Giving Tuesday” if we allow ourselves to get beyond the products and onto to something more meaningful. We can find another way to extend the notion of gratitude by giving back and giving to. I hope more of us can move to that this year. If you are so moved, please go to


Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Gratitude: The Root of Thanksgiving


Thanksgiving 2020

    Thanksgiving has long been my favorite holiday. I like that there is little pressure about gifts, that it involves a variety of great food, that  people come together just to be with each other, and, most importantly, that it celebrates the idea of gratitude. This idea was not necessarily a part of my life in my 20’s and 30’s, but as I have become older, it has gradually become an important part of my life. I came to realize that it is important for me to take time to acknowledge and be grateful for all the good things that I have in my life and to show conscious appreciation for all the people who have, knowingly or unknowingly supported, helped, and influenced me. And I also need to take time to notice and appreciate those small but wonderful things that are quiet parts of my daily life. Taking time to be grateful gives me the opportunity to do all that and to be aware of all that has been a part of making me who I am. It also tends to reduce my sense of anxiety and worry. For gratitude can leave me more at peace with myself and with the world.

   Many of us were first taught aspects of this lesson when we were kids. “Eat your vegetables; clean your plate. There are people starving in wherever…” Our parents wanted us to appreciate what we had and to not to think that we were “entitled” somehow to those things. They also wanted us to not take things for granted and to realize what was involved in what we so cavalierly made use of. I remember one time complaining, as a smart-mouthed 8 or 9-year-old boy is wont to do, about having to go over the house of a friend of my Mom’s for dinner; I didn’t like her cooking. “You’re going,” my mother said to me. “And you will eat enough to say, “Thank you.” Somebody thought you were worth cooking for.” I am sure that I didn’t fully comprehend what Mom meant at that time, but when I became a parent I know I said the exact same thing to my son- several times. It had become a way of looking at the world that I had somehow come to embrace, and I wanted my child to embrace it too. Gratitude had somehow become a part of me.

   Gratitude is something that has been under a lot of study recently. Psychologists, neurologists, mental health researchers, philosophers, and others have been trying to understand what engenders gratitude and what effects it has in real life. Some studies have found that grateful people seem to live longer, with fewer heart problems. Other studies have found that people who are grateful tend to have better friend, family, and romantic relationships. They are trusted more, and they can have more fun and experience more joy. And having a sense of gratitude even seems to help people better deal with grief, anxiety, uncertainty, and depression.

   This is especially important in times such as we are living through now. With COVID, the unemployment, shutdowns, food insecurity, deaths, family separations and sudden and long-term disappearance of so much that was “normal” or taken for granted, many of us have been in  states of fear, nervousness, anxiety, and anger. While it may seem that these feelings and gratitude are opposites, in reality they do not have to be. It is possible to acknowledge and accept anxiety, grief, or fear and have gratitude as well. We can embrace both. For example: there are usually great memories connected to things we grieve or miss. Recognizing and bringing up those memories can help us cope with the grief, even as we are sad. If we are nervous or anxious about something, there are probably times where we felt similar anxieties and got through them well enough to be where we now are. If we can remember that, then we can be grateful for having gotten through those previous times of anxiety. I have found that leaning into my sense of gratitude, especially at times when I am feeling painful things, can help save me from being overwhelmed by them. Yes, I have to accept pain. Yes, grief is real. But I do not have to drown in those feelings. They do not have to control or totally define me. I can also know joy, even while accepting pain.

   So I wish each of you, no matter what your situation is for this strange and unusual Thanksgiving, a day that gives you time to recognize, express and feel gratitude. Gratitude for the small stuff. For the unimaginably great stuff. For the stuff we don’t understand. For the confusing stuff that can puzzle us. For the stuff seems to come out of nowhere and surprise us. Gratitude for all the stuff that lets us know that we are all human and are all participants in this amazing thing called, “Life.”  This Thanksgiving will probably not be one like recent ones, but the essence of the day remains the same. Gratitude. Sending good thoughts to you all and holding you all in the light.

(Here is a link to the WHYY radio program, The Pulse, on Thanksgiving 2020. The first section of the program is about gratitude:

Thursday, November 19, 2020

A Little Truth About Voting in the USA



  It is now over two weeks since the 2020 Presidential election, and we still do not have an official and certified “President to be” of the United States. Joe Biden is the presumptive winner, and most people assume that even if President Trump does not concede, Biden will be certified as the winner-eventually. But there are still lawsuits and several recounts to go through for at least another week. We are in a “post-election limbo’ of sorts.

    Things about this situation bother and worry me, of course, but it also has me thinking about the curious backstories behind US elections and voting. When I was in elementary school we were simply told that America was a “democracy,” whatever that meant, and that people had the right to vote. I think that most Americans, even today, are raised with that basic narrative and belief. As I grew up, though, I learned that that was not quite the whole truth. The history of US voting is a complex thing, and many Americans do not want look too deeply at the truth of it. One of my favorite history books, that’s not in my american history book, by Thomas Ayres has some disquieting truths about US voting. That book and many other sources gave me more information and more insight into the actual processes and happenings surrounding the history of the vote in the United States. It is a stranger tale than most Americans know, and much of it is not pretty.

  Initially only white men could vote, and it was only white men who had property and/or a certain amount of wealth. That meant that only about 6 % of the population was eligible to vote for George Washington. Over time, though, all white men were given the vote-North Carolina in 1856 became the last state to rid itself of the property requirements for voting. After the Civil War the right was expanded again. The 14th Amendment (1868) defined citizenship, and the 15th Amendment (1870), in theory, gave Black men the right to vote. But individual states, under the Constitution, have a lot of rights to determine voting requirements, and having something on paper is not the same as having it in reality. Hence the long struggles of the modern Civil Rights Movement to try to make what the 15th Amendment said in writing an actual, real-world reality. We are all familiar with the decades of marches, lawsuits, and demonstrations involved in trying to extend the vote to Black people. Many people were beaten, jailed and killed in that struggle. It was not until the 1965 Voting Rights Act that the Federal government became actively involved in enforcing the 15th Amendment. The Act led to the end of such things as poll taxes and literacy tests, and Blacks for the first time were truly given the right to vote in all states.

   Women weren’t given the right to vote until 1920-a scant 100 years ago and 144 years after Abigail Adams, wife of Founding Father John Adams, asked him during the writing of the Declaration of Independence to, “…remember the ladies, and be more favorable to them than you ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power in the hands of  the husbands." That request was only answered after decades of struggle.

    Native Americans, Asian-Americans, and other ethnicities were also covered by the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The United States’ history with regard to those groups is heavily marked by Federal and state discrimination. Both citizenship recognition and voting rights were denied them for decades. The Voting Rights Act changed that. However, some of the protection of that act have been reversed by recent Supreme Court action. So there are still states that have intentionally passed laws and enacted processes that are designed to deny or restrict access to the polls by different groups. Establishing the right to vote in reality, continues to be an ongoing struggle

  This election has also been beset with charges of vote fraud. None of those charges has been borne out, but such charges are not new in the United States. And in fact, in several previous elections those charges were true. It used to be that becoming a US Senator was a stepping-stone to the Presidency, so becoming a Senator could be very important. In the Senatorial elections of both Lyndon Johnson and Harry Truman fraud ran rampant. Hundreds of deceased people in Texas somehow managed to vote for Johnson when he won in 1948, with over 200 dead folks voting in one precinct alone. Truman used the actions of notorious Kansas City crime and political boss Thomas Pendergrast to help him win the Missouri Senatorial contest in 1934. Pendergrast’s men shot up opposing candidate’s headquarters and beat up poll watchers. In the end, four people were killed and eleven hospitalized. And Truman won.

  There was also President Nixon’s 1972 re-election campaign organization, the Committee to Re-Elect the President, or “CREEP”. In their zeal they created phony criminal and subversive organizations and tied them to Democratic candidates. They spread lies about Democratic candidates’ sexual activities. Most famously, they planned the break-in at the Watergate Hotel that was detailed in the book and film, All the President’s Men. All of that helped Nixon win the Presidency, but later led to his resignation.

   So as we wait for the official certification of Joe Biden as the next President, it is important for us to take a good look at the actual history of voting in the US and to realize what it calls for us to do. Yes, we need to vote; it is great that a higher percentage of people voted in this election than in any election since 1900. But we also need to be aware of and pay attention to all of the parts of the process and all of the time. Many of them happen at times that are out of the intense media spotlight of a Presidential election year, but they are still vitally important. So-called, “off year” state elections matter a great deal, as it is states that set most of the requirements for their citizens with regards to voting. Debates over things such as Voter ID, ballot design and voting district boundaries have real world consequences for citizens. Fortunately or unfortunately, being a citizen in a republican form of government is not a spectator sport. It takes continued vigilance and work, for we have yet to become a place where all people truly have equal access to the ballot. As Ben Franklin reportedly said when asked what type of government we had after the approval of the Constitution, “We have a republic; if you can keep it.” If we can keep it, indeed.


Thomas Ayres: that’s not in my american history book

Business Insider slideshow: How Voting Rights in America  Have Changed Over Time:  



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