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Stop the War on Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving photo

Image by kevin dooley

The War on Christmas jumped a few places in line and has returned to us early (perhaps this social “war” has come about earlier to meet with the progressively premature Christmas displays in shopping centers). Fox News and the like remind us that “secular” society is trying to push Christians into the proverbial basement all while forcing them to mute the satanic “season’s greetings.” Surely, predictable scandals will result; some city will remove their nativity scene and a local school will ask children to bring non-denominational cookies for consumption (sugar-free and organic knowing today’s administrators). This “war” will have no absence of horrors.

Most of us will see this nonsense as nothing more than an overreaction by conservative media pundits in need of content. All the while, a real cultural battle rages over the quintessential American holiday: Thanksgiving. Rather than focus on the use of acceptable holiday symbols and terminology, this cultural battle is at the heart of our nation’s moral fiber when it comes to the conditions we expect the working man and woman to subject themselves to.

Black Friday, much like Thanksgiving, is as American a holiday as one can imagine. The conjoined dates are opposing twins; Thanksgiving with its subdued domesticity and Black Friday with its public spectacle and consumerism wrapped into a single day. At least it used to be one day. Increasingly, the start of the holiday shopping period has engaged in a program of imperialism against its more wholesome (in practice) older sibling. What was an early morning opening on Friday grew into a midnight revelation. Now, it is common for stores to open when most families are just sitting down for their Thanksgiving dinner.

I hate to be the Grinch who stole Black Friday, but this needs to end.

I used to work retail and my brother currently manages a large store with over 100 employees. I know that Black Friday and the weeks that follow make or break most retailers. People are out there spending huge amounts of money, and if you plan to stay open and employed, you need to work to get some of that consumer cash. I also know many stores pay their associates double their wages to work on Thanksgiving. When I lived away from home and didn’t have a family, I didn’t mind the extra cash.

But these utilitarian arguments in favor of starting the holiday sales season on Thanksgiving are anemic on a societal front. It reminds me of a squabble I got into with a few commenters on one of Mike’s recent posts about millennial employees. I argued that it was unseemly to expect those in working class gigs to sacrifice more of their time and efforts for the bottom line of the corporation they would likely not benefit from. Yes, the company is providing compensation for their efforts, but the fact that working retail Thanksgiving day is becoming a norm should anger us as a society. Putting aside the historically revisionist origins of the holiday, Thanksgiving has generally been practiced as a time to come together with one’s extended family and enjoy a meal together. In principle, we give thanks to that family for being there with us through the tempests we face in life. Expecting retail employees to give up this occasion to start the sale season a few hours earlier is obscene.

There is a class component to all this. You would be hard pressed to find someone in a middle-class office job being asked to come in and work on Thanksgiving. Yet, we expect poorly paid sales associates to give up time with their family so that their employer can open a few hours earlier on a national holiday practiced by Americans of all religions and creeds. What was once a brief moment for family across America has developed into a day of kinfolk for some but a day of work for others. It simply doesn’t have to be this way, but it requires a collaborative pushback against the tendency.

Thankfully, cracks are beginning to show in this consumer trend. CNN Money reports:

American retailers have been pushing “door busters” earlier and earlier, dragging employees in to open stores on Thanksgiving afternoon.

 But this year, REI’s 12,000 full and part-time workers will not only have Thanksgiving Day off, they will have Black Friday off with pay.

 Stritzke acknowledged that keeping REI’s 143 U.S. stores closed will put a dent in revenue. He said Black Friday has been among the company’s top 10 sales days in past years.”

Thankfully, REI got some free press out of this arrangement, and I hope it encourages consumers to buy gifts from them this season. A number of other large corporations have also stated that they will not be open Thanksgiving.

I don’t care for shopping, but I am not going to get on my high horse about Black Friday and those who enjoy shopping on the occasion. It may be consumerism, but it’s also the citizenry out and about with their community, and I assume for many, this first whiff of the holidays is communicable.

So let’s keep Black Friday alive by keeping it far from our jovial turkey dinners.


Staff Writer
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Roland Dodds is an educator, researcher and father just north of San Francisco who writes about politics, culture and education. He spent his formative years in radical left wing politics, but now prefers the company of contrarians of all political stripes (assuming they aren't teetotalers). He is a regular contributor at Harry's Place and Ordinary Times.

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51 thoughts on “Stop the War on Thanksgiving

  1. The REI announcement made me glad to be mood-affiliated with them.

    I find Black Friday incomprehensible in the first place, though, so it’s a cheap sort of satisfaction. I’m hoping not to leave the apartment on Friday, which seems vastly preferable to shopping.

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  2. It’s hard to believe that Americans can’t stop spending money for one single day so they can spend Thanksgiving doing something free and enjoyable. A big fancy dinner for Thanksgiving isn’t free, but food is only a part of the holiday, not really the core meaning, no matter how much I love pie, wine and rolls.

    Kudos to REI. I love a good rebel.

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  3. I’m largely in agreement. Black Friday was never a think in my family and we always had some generally nice family meals with neighbors and other guests. Capitalism and consumerism have became show a defining feature of Americanism in the culture wars that a day of communal over-eating seems antiquated.

    My tribe has done damage to Thsnksgiving to though. There is an idea on the Far Left that family should be something of choice rather than blood. I understand that people do come from abusive families but outside actual abuse, the idea of getting rid of all blood ties and obligations seems wrong-headed. Many in my tribe also do not like the myths around Thanksgiving but a complete emphasis on the truth isn’t always a good thing for building a communal group.

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  4. I just don’t get the economics of it all. If REI doesn’t open Friday, won’t people who were going to shop there just going to wait until Saturday? Or are there people who will say, “I’m deadset on gettinf that coat today, I’ll go to LLBean”?

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    • Practically speaking, you are right Kazzy. It won’t be like all of those customers who would have bought something on that day just disappear. And REI’s website will be open for business too. It’s more likely that someone wanting to get something from the store will simply go to rei.com instead.

      To a large extent, I think this problem will be self-correcting. Retailers have already been hitting Black Friday from the pre-Thanksgiving part of the calendar. Amazon has been pimping Black Friday specials all month. I just went to Costco today to take advantage of their pre-Thanksgiving sale. Walmart, Best Buy, and the rest have similarly been giving Black Friday pricing for more than a week now.

      Meanwhile, Cyber Monday is growing and hitting BF from the other end of the calendar.

      Black Friday (and Thanksgiving) aren’t a good way to save money anymore. I made this complaint two years ago, and it’s even more valid this year. You’re not saving any money. Eventually this will trickle down into customer behavior, and this will in turn inform retailer behavior.

      I don’t know if we’re there yet, but I think we are close to peak-retailers-being-open-on-Thanksgiving. I think we’ll start to see more stores closing for Thanksgiving in the future.

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      • I’m also curious how good the deals really are. A lot of these stores have ways of making you think you’re getting a better deal than you are. And that is before you have things like doorbusters and loss leaders and the like. Unfortunately, financial literacy is poor in this country.

        If you enjoy the madness of Black Friday, have at it. But odds are many people could do just as well shopping other days and/or via other means.

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        • There are some super-deals but retailers have figured out how to get people to buy more using those few deals a long time ago. For example, they will put a high price item next to a low price item and the customer will buy both. Sales are better closer to Christmas because retailers want to get rid of stock.*

          *The trick to this is hoping that what you want is still in stock. I’ve done this gamble before and sometimes I win, sometimes I don’t.

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  5. We do a Thanksgiving with my side of the family on Thursday and then a second one with my wife’s side on Friday. We’re all geographically very close, but my side is pretty large, so to consolidate, we’d end up rolling my wife’s family into mine. That seemed like the right and welcoming thing to do, but my mother in law derives a lot of her self image from keeping house and hosting family events, so depriving her of that by turning her from the matriarch into a bringer of a single dish to somebody else’s celebration wasn’t a good move. On top of that, as immigrants from a very different culture, my in-laws feel a little bit out of place (and like the odd people out, given how few of them there are) and find those types of events exhausting. A small tea with her parents and my parents is fun for a little while, but wandering around a sea of largely unfamiliar places in an uncomfortable cultural setting is just hard work.

    Making them “move” their Thanksgiving feels a little bit like giving them the short end of the stick, but it solves those other problems and allows them to see their daughter every year instead of every other year or something else.

    But Black Friday sure ain’t happening for us. In any case, the SF Bay Area is enough of a nightmare to travel around on a normal Friday. We treat Black Friday as something like The Purge and just hunker down.

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  6. In years past, we drove to my sister’s for Thanksgiving dinner and, along the way, drove past a Best Buy. When we drove home after the meal, we always saw tents in front of it with the door busting people there hoping to get the extra cheap television.

    Last year was the first year where there were tents in front of the Best Buy when we were driving to the meal rather than home from it.

    It no longer strikes me as absurd to think of such stores opening on Thanksgiving Proper, allowing people to get in tents on Wednesday night driving home from work.

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  7. The only reason for a retailer to open on Thanksgiving is to compete with, or get a jump on, other retailers. It’s not as if demand that can’t be satisfied on Thursday goes away. So, this is a perfect candidate for a legislative solution: any retailer open on Thanksgiving has to pay 10X overtime. The result is to push Black Friday back where it belongs.

    On Friday, that is. Or on Katy Lied.

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  8. I don’t do shopping during the holidays.
    I don’t do shopping in general If it can’t be ordered online, I tend not to get it.
    When I’m forced to go shopping I steer clear of peak times and peak days and holidays.

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  9. I am rather confused and out of touch on this topic. I see more people criticizing shopping Black Friday than stuff defending.

    Yet Jaybird is right. There are thousands upon thousands of Americans who pitch tents now for Black Friday, Black Thirsday really.

    Is there any writing on the demographic profile of a Black Friday shopper?

    IIRC Thanksgiving wasn’t set until the Great Depression. FDR sort of set Thanksgiving now to encourage Christmas spending and jump start the Economy.

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    • SaulDegraw: IIRC Thanksgiving wasn’t set until the Great Depression. FDR sort of set Thanksgiving now to encourage Christmas spending and jump start the Economy.

      The tradition of a harvest holiday is probably as old as agriculture, if not older, in case anyone takes your statement to imply that the holiday is wholly a modern contrivance.

      As for the American tradition:

      Thanksgiving in the United States was observed on various dates throughout history. From the time of the Founding Fathers until the time of Lincoln, the date Thanksgiving was observed varied from state to state. The final Thursday in November had become the customary date in most U.S. states by the beginning of the 19th century. Thanksgiving was first celebrated on the same date by all states in 1863 by a presidential proclamation of Abraham Lincoln. Influenced by the campaigning of author Sarah Josepha Hale, who wrote letters to politicians for around 40 years trying to make it an official holiday, Lincoln proclaimed the date to be the final Thursday in November in an attempt to foster a sense of American unity between the Northern and Southern states.[28] Because of the ongoing Civil War and the Confederate States of America’s refusal to recognize Lincoln’s authority, a nationwide Thanksgiving date was not realized until Reconstruction was completed in the 1870s.

      On December 26, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a joint resolution of Congress changing the national Thanksgiving Day from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday. Two years earlier, Roosevelt had used a presidential proclamation to try to achieve this change, reasoning that earlier celebration of the holiday would give the country an economic boost.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thanksgiving#Fixing_the_date_of_the_holiday

      So, Lincoln began attaching secondary purposes to Thanksgiving, Roosevelt tied them to what strikes me as rather inane reasoning about boosting the economy, as though a switch from last Thursday to fourth Thursday would accomplish something significant. Black Friday further extends the alienation of the holiday from its original purposes: Bringing ancient and more recent traditions together, we celebrate the harvesting of money, especially by commencing to spend down our accumulated surpluses.

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      • Is it true what I read that one of Linclon’s reasons for promoting thanksgiving was to give America an ‘origin myth’ that didn’t depend on the earliest English colonies, which were in the south?

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        • Never heard that one before – obviously contradicts the Wikipedist’s narrative, and seems like the kind of thing a Lincoln-hating Lost Cause-ist would promote, but I can’t say I know for a fact it’s false.

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    • There are thousands upon thousands of Americans who pitch tents now for Black Friday, Black Thirsday really.

      My guess is that this is a combination of people who inexplicably find shopping in crowded stores enjoyable and people whose budgets are tight enough that this is a rational allocation of time in order to get the deals.

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      • Probably so which makes the class war component interesting. Black Friday shoppers (or the people who line up at stores on Thursday night) are not upper-middle class and above people with good budgets. They are probably people who really need the deals. So it is a kind of variant of one part of the working class against the other part. The articles against shopping on Black Friday are generally written by upper-middle class types.

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        • From the people i’ve heard talk black friday shopping they were very much into the intense bargain hunting aspect. They wanted to get a Screaming Hot Deal. The deal was a victory and a win for there finely honed shopping skills. Saving money was part of it, but they could have afforded to spend more.

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          • This. It’s like the people who subscribe to World of Warcraft just to be a mogul in the online auction house.

            Full disclosure: I do play the AH, but that’s just so that I can use the money to buy gear instead of spending hours grinding for it. Substituting capital for labor.

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  10. There is a class component to all this.

    You said it…

    By the way, REI is a co-op, whose members account for about 90% of its sales, which means that almost all of the people likely to buy something from REI on one any given Friday aren’t going to go buy that thing somewhere else if REI happens to be closed. Not sure how many retailers have that sort of loyalty with their customer base.

    Bottom line, though, is that this move costs REI next to nothing and also gets it lots of PR and fuzzy feel-goodness. And really, that’s what the holidays are all about.

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    • I work with a guy who part times at REI. The workers there are pretty darn positive about this. The long term workers there, of which there are many, are not highly paid. At most they are solid working class but since i’ve been seeing many of them there for years they are likely happy enough with it.

      REI is also a good place to get basic outdoor gear for low price. yes i’m a coop member. It is definitely cheaper then most specialty stores for the many various bits of outdoor gear i use.

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      • REI is a specialty retail store, not unlike books or muic. Thus most of the people working there are working there because of what they sell. And will work cheaper that many people in the cohort because of that. I doubt (could totally be wrong) that they ever did much promoting for Black Friday, and thus never had the huge swarms of people into the store. The people going to shop there would wait for other days anyhow to do any Xmas shopping.

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  11. Well, that makes me like REI even more, knowing that they’re diluting my dividend to pay those granola-heads to not work. (Wait, what?)

    I went in there one year to Christmas shop for the kids and between my dividend and various discounts walked outa there with roughly $350 worth of really great stuff for about $200. I dig that store.

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  12. In a similar situation, my county until a few years ago still had a vestigial blue law prohibiting liquor sales on Sundays. The move to repeal this came from the larger liquor stores. The opposition came from the smaller liquor stores (and presumably whatever vestige of abolitionism and/or Sabbatarianism was left, which wasn’t much). The argument from the smaller stores was that these were mom-and-pop operations, and Sunday was their only day off. Since no one could sell on Sunday, their overall lost sales were minimal. The larger stores had enough employees that the Sunday opening did not affect their owners’ lifestyles. Presumably the advantage of Sunday sales is that they could pick up some extra sales from stores that remained closed regardless, plus the sales of the people who couldn’t plan one day ahead.

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    • My home county still has a full on Sunday blue law. With similar defenders/opponents. One town that has a bunch of malls also has pretty strong citizen support as they decry all the traffic, but I’m not very sympathetic to that argument as they make tons of money hosting the malls so insisting the whole county shut down so they can have a quiet day without losing competitive advantage seems u fair. Is that rent seeking?

      But I do wonder how the sizable Jewish population in the area feels as those who keep Shabbos end up limited to Saturday night for weekend shopping.

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      • Seriously? PA has some of the WORST alcohol laws ever, but on Sunday you can buy sacramental jewish wine. That’s a clearly carved out “freedom of religion” thing.

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  13. Back when I was teaching high school (many moons ago), I had a kid ask if he could get extra credit for turning in his paper on time. Uh, no, you can’t be rewarded for doing what you were supposed to do in the first place. I feel the same way when I see retailers advertise, “We won’t be open on Thanksgiving!” It is as if I am supposed to be impressed that they are sticking with tradition. REI being closed on Black Friday, and paying its employees to boot, is something worth celebrating.

    I used to work retail and loathed working the day after Thanksgiving. I have never understood the appeal of spending a day shopping with hoards of people, regardless of what deals you might find. But some people love it. To each his own!

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    • Stick a couple hundred dollars (various denominations) in shoeboxes.
      You’ll still loathe the holiday, but at least the riot will be your fault.
      [This is what happens when you have unpaid workers during the holidays…]

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  14. I wholly approve of letting holidays be holidays. Camping out in front of a retail store on a holiday to be rewarded by the opportunity to be trampled upon within a mob racing to transfer as much of their wealth as possible to a large corporation paying a pittance to the unhappy sales clerks administering said wealth transfer is for the birds! If you are well-off enough to afford this sort of thing chances are good that you have a computer and a credit card so you can go online in the comfort and seclusion of your own home and pay functionally similar prices to have the retailer send the desired products directly to their intended destination, while you enjoy the society and company of people you love. (Or watch in horror as your racist uncle downs five seven-and-sevens while watching Bill O’Reilly, but that’s a different thread.)

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  15. “There is a class component to all this. You would be hard pressed to find someone in a middle-class office job being asked to come in and work on Thanksgiving.”
    Dude, no not really.
    My husband worked yesterday, Biologists have experiments needing monitoring, a ton of Computer Jobs are of the monitor it sort. You’ve got nurses, if that’s still “middle class”, even if it’s not exactly an office…

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  16. My understanding, also, that outside of a very small minority of flagship attention grabbing deals the vast majority of the retail goods available for purchase are not only not discounted but are at slightly higher prices. Black Friday gets its name from stores moving from in the red to in the black due to the volume of sales.
    If you want to find good sales go out shopping on boxing day, the retailers are practically paying you to haul the stuff away then.

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