“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough”- Anonymous
“Some people grumble that roses have thorns; I am grateful that thorns have roses. Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr
“As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words but to live by them.”– John F. Kennedy
Those of you who have read this newsletter for several years know that I love Thanksgiving. I have said over the years that Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday, and I truly mean it. I love that the holiday is one that stresses getting together with friends and family, not having to give gifts, sharing good food, and especially encouraging the joint giving of thanks. Gratitude is a stance that has become an important part of my life, and I am glad that we have a day where, in theory at least, we can focus on that.
As with all the rituals and observances of any civilization, this idea of Thanksgiving has ancient roots. It is part of what it means to be human. The “new year” in most cultures before the Roman Empire meant “Springtime.” In hunting-gathering societies, spring meant going to where herds of animals and schools of fish were gathered and mating so we could get more of them for the upcoming year. It also meant gathering the seeds, plants, and flowers that would be food for eating and trading. In farming communities spring also meant planting seeds in the hopes that they would grow and produce crops for the upcoming year. That is why so many of our holidays of rebirth and renewal are spring holidays-Easter and Passover, for example. Rebirth is important and necessary, and we need spiritual help to make it happen.
To early humans, autumn meant increased hunting, trading, gathering and traveling to get ready for winter. In farming communities, it meant the time to harvest, collect, and store crops in preparation for winter. Most people already saw religious and mythological links between changes in the seasons and their lives, so the special importance of having different products at different times became “natural” and part of the “divine order.” We needed rituals to recognize this. The original autumnal “thanksgivings” were literally the “giving of Thanks” to the gods for a good harvest or hunt, and hope that the society could survive the winter. We would give thanks that we had made it.
That was the meaning of many of the original days of Thanksgiving: families and communities gathered together to give thanks to the gods, share the bounty, and re-unite with each other for the next year. The core of that is still within our tradition, and that is one of the things that moves me about this holiday. But each year it can seem as if those things are being overrun by the rush of heavy commerce and constant appeals to buy, spend, and consume. This year some “Black Friday” sales ads started running even before Halloween had happened! I found that shocking. The winter shopping season had begun while the witches, goblins, scary movies, and monsters of Halloween were still being celebrated. Ugh
That is not totally surprising, though. 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 the having of lots of products became associated with everything from class level to social worth, 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. That is where we are. Civilizations keep producing and developing more products at an ever-increasing rate. And if products are being made, someone has to buy them.
Commerce is at the heart of civilization, and we are no longer shy about that. After the 1920’s debuts of the Gimbels Macy’s Thanksgiving Parades, the 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. Stores and shops ran special sales and ad campaigns to get people into the stores and opening up their wallets and pocketbooks.
The term for that time now is “Black Friday,” and we embrace it as a positive. But the origin of that term has a dark side to it. In the 1950s, police in Philadelphia used that term to describe the chaos that ensued on the day after Thanksgiving. Hordes of shoppers and tourists flooded into the city to take advantage of the department store sales, to attend the Gimbels Thanksgiving Day parade, and to party in advance of the Army-Navy football game that used to be held every year on the Saturday following Thanksgiving. Suburbs were relatively new and expanding then, and new highways and freeways made it easier to get into the city to shop and go to sporting events. So suburbanites were added to the crowd, and Philly cops had to work extra-long shifts dealing with the regularly increasing mass of huge crowds, miles of traffic problems, muggers and shoplifters taking advantage of the bedlam in stores to make off with merchandise, and pickpockets endlessly working the crowds. To the police, 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 to change it to “Big Friday” in order to remove the negative connotations, but that term didn’t take off. 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 being able to make a profit-suddenly 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 these last two years as many sales moved online. Nonetheless, there will be many malls and brick and mortar stores open extra early this weekend and staying open extra-late right on through Christmas.
Cyber Monday” came into being in 2005 and has been very successful, taking in some 10 billion dollars last year and out-performing Black Friday. Clearly this seasonal urge to spend is quite powerful in our culture, and it now applies to charities and non-profits as well. Over 50% of charities and non-profits report that most of their individual contributions were received during the months of October, November, and December. The ideas of holiday gifting, seasonal calls for thinking of others, and charitable tax deductions has combined to drive more charitable fundraising these last three months of the year and has resulted in “Giving Tuesday.”. Giving Tuesday is a day for making donations to fund good causes following the excesses of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The founders wanted people to focus on giving after their weekend shopping sprees, 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 has its own website- https://www.givingtuesday.org/about 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, climate-driven catastrophes, worldwide hunger and more, support for charitable institutions is critical. Giving Tuesday is one way of making that possible.