Thanksgiving and the Culture of Buying Stuff

Warning: a personal, non-TV, non-fandom post that nevertheless has the potential to tick people off.

It’s Thanksgiving day here in the U.S., and I’ve spent it with two different family groups, one more or less on my mom’s side, one more or less on my dad’s. (It’s complicated.) Food was eaten, babies were played with, and I was able to catch-up with people I don’t see that often.

But I didn’t see my brother, nor the niece who’s named after me. They were both working retail.  (I haven’t actually seen my brother during the holiday for a number of years now, as the company he works for was one of the first to decide that the purpose of the holiday was for us to buy stuff, not to spend time with family.)

Here are some things I understand:

  • I get that all families are different, and that for some, shopping together is a tradition.
  • I get that not everyone has a family or friends they want to spend time with in the first place, and that, assuming they have the money, they might as well be standing in line for the whatchamacallit that they desperately want.
  • I get that some people are so financially strapped, their only hope of getting their kids what they want for Christmas is by shopping when the stores say they must shop.

But there are things I don’t get and/or don’t agree with, as well.

I don’t agree that it’s okay for people to have to work retail on Thanksgiving, just because they ‘chose those jobs’. Maybe they did – my brother, for reasons that have always escaped me, likes working retail. And maybe they didn’t: the niece I mentioned? She graduated college in May and has yet to find a job in her field. She’s grateful for the job. She’s depressed over missing the holiday.

The question of the stores’ fate is a tricky one. I understand that they’re desperate for profit, that however much our society is founded on the idea of Buying Stuff, we’ve apparently not been buying enough since the economy crashed.  I also get that while they’re full-on manipulating anyone who can be manipulated, they’re not actually forcing people into the stores, and that if everyone just said, ‘no, thank you’ the stores wouldn’t be open.  (In other words, yes, they’ve taken something from us, but we can’t really blame them, because we gave them permission to do so.)

Here’s something I don’t get, though: if what the stores need is for MORE PEOPLE to BUY MORE STUFF, if they need us to start our end-of-year shopping earlier…why not have a Black Saturday sale in mid-November?  It’s invalid, or at least, circular, to say it’s because people have time off over Thanksgiving weekend, because …increasingly, they no longer do.

Black Friday initially began because many people had the day off work and went Christmas shopping – often with out-of-town guests.  But I know a lot of people who are working tomorrow – I am, myself (voluntarily, and not in retail, it should be noted.) But do you see the irony here? The more stores that declare Thanksgiving an ordinary day, the more other businesses follow them in requiring people to work…who then aren’t available to shop. And it’s not even all retail: I know several people in the tech industry who worked today, because they do some sort of support for the financial systems required by the stores that are open.

I sincerely believe the people who are saying, ‘well, *I* will never have a job where I have to work on the day before Black Friday’ are naive. (Wait, didn’t I mean to say ‘Thanksgiving Day’? Well, no. From the retailers’ perspective, the holiday is about getting people out to spend money – even several of the ads for Thursday sales were called ‘Pre-Black Friday sales’ not ‘Thanksgiving Day Sales.’)

Here’s what it comes down to, and I know many, many people won’t agree with me on much of this:

Culturally, we’ve lost more than we know with the loss of the holiday.  (And yes, I think we’ve very much lost it. I will be enormously surprised if the one year old I played with tonight celebrates it in any meaningful way with her children.)

Holidays are part of the rhythm of life. They can, and do, mean different things, depending on the people and the culture, but at their heart, they’re a chance to pause and do something different. To break with routine. When I was a kid, Thanksgiving and Christmas were the two remaining days of the year when things just seemed to stop. Stores were closed, restaurants were closed, very few people were out on the street. Even then, I knew people who hated that aspect of things, because they didn’t want to be stuck at home with family; they wanted to be out doing something, anything, and there was very little to go out and do.

On some level, cultures are a group of people who have things in common – shared values, shared traditions, and yes, shared holidays. Here in the U.S., we’re so big, so diverse, so split politically and ideologically that increasingly, we have no such shared values and with the loss of one of our most unique traditions, we’re a step closer, I think, to not having any discernible identity at all as a country.

Except, of course, that we love above all things to shop.

I loved Thanksgiving as a kid, and, full disclosure, in part that was because we were a retail family.  My mother managed a retail store, and, back then, that meant if the store was open, she was there. There was no assistant manager. And yeah, even then, we often went to work with her on Thanksgiving for a few hours, to decorate the store for the next morning. But it was family thing, part of our tradition, and not required. If she’d been required to open the store, some of my most cherished childhood memories wouldn’t have happened at all.

But another thing I loved about it was because it was different. It was a day somehow out of time, a day to focus on something other than normal life, and it saddens me beyond telling that we’ve lost that, and that’s why, today, I found myself rebelling.

I decided that the only stores that will get my Christmas dollars this season are those that were not open today.

Specifically, I will not be spending money at the following stores during the holiday season:

Macy’s
Sears
HH Gregg
Target
Walmart
Office Depot
Big Lots
Kohl’s
Meijer
Best Buy
Old Time Pottery
JCPenney
Carson’s
Toys R Us
Michael’s
Office Max
K-Mart
Dick’s Sporting Goods
Shoe Carnival
Gander Mt
Family Dollar

Some of those hurt, by the way. I do usually shop at Kohl’s, and there are things I regularly buy at Walmart. (Full disclosure: I may still buy the usual things there, but I do often get some Christmas gifts there, and I won’t be this year.)

Stores I will Christmas shop at:

Home Depot
Jo-Ann Fabric and Craft Stores
Pier 1
Stein Mart
Menards
Radio Shack
Lowe’s
Bed, Bath & Beyond
Nordstrom
Dillard’s
Ross
PC Richards

I’m also planning on buying, if possible, from local and/or small businesses this year.

(The lists, btw, are based mostly on the ads in today’s paper, as well as comments by friends on Twitter. Neither list is exhaustive, but it’s not difficult to ask them if they were open.)

Does this mean I won’t be able to spend as much on people? Probably. But while I’m all for getting people what they want for Christmas (particularly kids) another thing I rebel against is the idea that love is somehow tied to the amount of Stuff we buy people.

I’m not trying to tick people off here.  I’m just saying that I, personally, resent being manipulated and that I’m not going to financially support stores which I feel have damaged something I love.

In that sense, it is a bit like TV, I guess. I’ve been saying for a long time that writers can do whatever they want; I get to choose whether or not to watch. In a similar way, retailers can do whatever they want; I get to choose whether to give them my money in response.

I choose no.

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