If we have any sense of history and patriotism, Americans should be embarrassed about the commercial corruption of Thanksgiving. Last year, many big box retailers rendered Black Friday obsolete across much of the nation by opening their doors Thanksgiving night as early as 9 p.m. This year, several, including Toys“R”Us, Sears, Walmart, and Kmart, moved their openings up to 8 p.m.
In Massachusetts, our 17th-century blue laws provide a momentary barricade, forcing stores here to delay openings until after midnight. But as sure as you can now buy liquor on Sundays, one can see the floodwaters of materialism sweeping the last of retail store restrictions out to sea.
It is far from what President Lincoln talked about when he made Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863. In the depths of the Civil War, Lincoln said the nation needed a moment to be thankful for the nation's bounties "which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come." He said that the "gracious gifts of the most high God . . . should be solemnly, reverently, and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American people."
The greed of retailers who whip people into a frenzy to buy gifts has driven big-box store workers to launch online petitions for the second year in a row, saying that the Thanksgiving openings cut short their own family holidays. One petition by a Target employee in California, 24-year-old Casey St. Clair, gained a reported 353,000 signatures, which she personally delivered Tuesday to Target's headquarters in Minneapolis.
St. Clair said on her petition that she works as a substitute teacher and at Target on nights and weekends. A form letter on the petition addressed to Target CEO Gregg Steinhafel said, "You are most likely tucked away in bed while workers are in the stores pushing back a rabid crowd of shoppers trying to get an iPod . . . The world won't end if people have to wait seven more hours to buy useless junk that will be outdated in a year anyway."
What makes the protest poignant is that the nation pushed back on Thanksgiving commercial creep seven decades ago. In 1939, as the United States emerged from the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving up to the third Thursday at the behest of big businesses wanting an extra week of Christmas shopping revenues.
But, according to the Roosevelt presidential library narrative, thousands of protest letters came to the White House. Small businesses were upset that they would lose customers to department stores. Schools and universities had already locked in vacations and traditional rivalry football games. "Calendar makers were the worst hit," the narrative said, "because they printed calendars years in advance and FDR made their calendars out of date for the next two years."
One letter that came to Roosevelt could have been written today. It came from Robert Benson and Clarabelle Voight of South Dakota. Written under the letterhead of a real estate and insurance company, it said, "this country is not entirely money-minded, we need a certain amount of idealism and sentiment to keep up the morale of our people, and you would even take that from us. After all, we want to make this country better for our posterity."
The voices of idealism had the final say in 1941, when Congress permanently placed Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November.
The purpose of Thanksgiving, according to Lincoln, was to ask the "almighty hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it . . . to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility, and union." Lincoln did not have the likes of Target, Walmart, or Kmart in mind. On Tuesday, President Obama cited Lincoln in his Thanksgiving Day proclamation, saying, "Let us spend this day by lifting up those we love."
Let Thanksgiving remain a day of family union. As St. Clair's petition said, we can wait seven more hours to buy useless junk.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.