THREE DAYS AGO, For a few fleeting hours, it seemed we Americans had everything we wanted. Friends and family gathered round the dinner table. Foods of the season filled the belly. We counted our blessings and gave thanks. It was more than enough.
Now, in the eye of the storm between Black Friday and Cyber Monday, we can’t imagine being satisfied with our lots. Only 24 days till Christmas! Hurry or we’ll miss the sales! Fear of scarcity arrived like a fast-moving snow squall that buried every speck of Thanksgiving contentment in its wake.
What a difference a few hours and a torrent of advertising make. With the holiday shopping season shortened by a late Thanksgiving this year, retailers couldn’t let consumers feel sated even for one day. Doing so would have been too risky. Why? Grateful hearts, the kind fostered at Thanksgiving, spell disaster for holiday season profits.
Perceived dangers elicit preemptive action, and retail is no exception. This year merchandisers used carefully timed discounts on a holiday beloved for its simplicity to lure us out of our homes, where we rested in nonmaterial abundance, and into brightly lighted stores, perfect for inflaming unquenchable desires.
Stores from Saugus to Braintree to the far reaches of cyberspace are setting records for aggressiveness this year. The blue laws of Massachusetts, as well as similar measures in Rhode Island and Maine, prevent most retailers from doing business on the holiday. But in the other 47 states, stores such as Kohl’s, Macy’s, and JCPenney were opening on Thanksgiving Day for the first time. Others were opening earlier than ever on the holiday: Best Buy and Walmart at 6 p.m.,
Toys “R” Us at 5 p.m. With this unprecedented kick-start, stores could expect to reap record-breaking double-digit increases in Thanksgiving (read: Black Thursday), Black Friday, and tomorrow’s Cyber Monday sales, according to forecasting of online purchases from Adobe Digital Index.
What we’re witnessing, however, is more than a bid to salvage a short holiday shopping season or a ploy to gin up one extra shopping day at Thanksgiving for years to come.
It’s also a quest to make sure deep, abiding gratitude never takes root in the hearts of a people conditioned to perpetual restlessness.
Gratitude is toxic to discretionary retail because of what grows in its soil. The habitually grateful heart is trained not only to give thanks but also to experience heightened awareness. It appreciates simple blessings, like a friend’s voice or a crisp breeze. Such attentiveness leads a person to recognize the bounty in what he or she has — and to see the lunacy in frantic shopping that never satisfies but leaves us with clutter, waste, pollution, debt, and a passion to buy more things.
It’s no wonder retailers are vying to co-opt the late November holiday that reinforces the virtue of gratitude, much as Christians co-opted pagan winter solstice rituals and transformed them into celebrations of Christ’s birth.
A day dedicated to generating gratitude must be viewed with suspicion, it seems, because any success it garners will come at the expense of holiday receipts. It must be transformed to serve the One True Religion of modern America: Consumption. The sooner and more complete the transformation, the better — at least for corporations pressured to sell more each year.
Gratitude gives rise to a second nightmare for holiday hawkers: contentment. To consciously hone appreciation for what one has received is to nourish the art of being satisfied. It delivers freedom from many a frustrated, vexing desire for nonnecessities that, if we ever get them, invariably leave us wanting more.
Western philosophy and religion have encouraged gratitude and its cousin, contentment, for thousands of years; they’re associated with happiness and living a good life, after all. But contentment has become anathema in a postwar America that conditions its people to forever want more of what the big guys are selling.
In the name of ambition, we’re supposed to keep striving by spending. We seldom question or rebel against this dubious philosophy of life. Sure, we say we want happiness, yet we dutifully settle for a thin substitute in the fleeting pleasures of Consumption. We’ve been well trained to obey.
But one day a year, on that most subversive of holidays in late November, we flirt with a different way. In a weak moment during a good laugh or a long walk, we might even consider running off with this different way and making a new, grateful, happy life together.
That prospect has become increasingly intolerable to the jealous gods of Consumption. They hurl every possible advertising tool at us this weekend to make sure gratitude and its kin get tossed out with the Thanksgiving garbage. Journalists pile on, whipping shoppers into frenzies by reporting sales as news (retail advertising pays part of their salaries, after all). With any luck, those pesky virtues won’t bother showing up even for a few hours next year.
Or maybe they haven’t disappeared entirely. Perhaps they’re just taking cover until this weekend’s blitz blows over. To revive them against the odds would be most countercultural — and most fitting for the season that’s just arrived.
BY THE NUMBERS
When Americans are doing their online shopping this year:
> Thanksgiving: $1.1 billion
> Black Friday: $1.6 billion
> Cyber Monday: $2.3 billion
Source: Adobe Digital Index 2013 Online Shopping Forecast
G. Jeffrey MacDonald is pastor of First Parish Church of Newbury and author ofThieves in the Temple: The Christian Church and the Selling of the American Soul. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.