On its 150th anniversary, Thanksgiving doesn’t look like what it used to. While the feast has been attributed to the Puritans’ celebration in 1621, the modern holiday was declared by Abraham Lincoln in November 1863 to celebrate the Union’s advances in the Civil War. For Lincoln, winning the war meant maintaining the national unity intended by the framers of the Constitution and proving that it was God’s will for our republic to endure. In the intervening decades, Thanksgiving has moved in the American consciousness from a celebration of national providence to one of individual success. With the help of advertising media, the meaning of this holiday has been further conflated with excessive shopping.
Who could imagine, in Lincoln’s day, that a store would open at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving? With the ever-earlier pre-Christmas sale season underway, Thanksgiving is slowly being absorbed by unbridled capitalism. And who works at Kmart, Walmart, Old Navy, Best Buy and countless other stores on Thanksgiving Day? Minimum-wage workers who must leave their own families to work for those above them. Gone are the 1950s, when minimum wage was reserved for teenagers working at restaurants. In the new America, 70 percent of minimum-wage workers are 29 or older. How many of them are raising children alone? What happens to those children when their parents have to work at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving?
Every year at Thanksgiving, my mother encourages each of us to say what we’re thankful for. This year, like every year, I was thankful that we always have enough food. It’s polite and accurate. There is a longer list of things I’m thankful for that I wouldn’t mention at the table. I’m thankful that I’m white. I’m thankful that by virtue of my skin color, I have a higher likelihood of graduating college, a lower chance of getting heart disease, and a significantly higher earning potential. I’m thankful that I’m a man. I’m thankful that I don’t have to fight for access to the drugs I may need to prevent an unwanted pregnancy or the procedure to resolve it. I’m thankful that I will never have to experience pregnancy or feel pressured to take unpaid time off from work to raise a family. I’m thankful that I’m cisgender and have not been assaulted because of my sexual orientation. I’m thankful that I do not have to prove my maleness to others for it to be accepted. I’m thankful that I come from a two-parent home with a stable socioeconomic status so that I never have to worry about my health insurance. I am thankful for these things individually because I live in an America where I am individually accountable for them.
Many people would argue that these are horrible things to be thankful for or that rather than bragging about what I have, I should be working to help those in need. To those detractors, I say only this: “What’s your plan?” In this age of individualism, we are encouraged to be thankful for what we have as individuals, not what we have as a nation. And when we lose that sense of national providence, we forget that part of Lincoln’s gratitude belonged to us, the people, as well.
When Lincoln declared Nov. 26, 1863, the first official Thanksgiving, he thanked God for the turning tides of war. But the holiday was intended to thank the brave men and women who were fighting to keep the United States together. After the war’s conclusion, it was the efforts of Reconstruction politicians in the South who worked to maintain that sense of national unity. When we look to our government today, whom can we thank for the current state of politics? Who stands up for compromise and good order in Washington?
While many fear a War on Christmas, the true assault has been launched against Thanksgiving. Black Friday consumerism is eroding the base of this holiday. For the working class, it is another day to make money. For those above them, it blinds us of what we can all be thankful for (the blessings of liberty, the strength of our democracy, etc.). Rampant individualism and its child — consumerism — have made Thanksgiving a shell of the holiday that Lincoln inaugurated. We must make a concerted effort to preserve this holiday by combating the forces that are tearing it down. Peace cannot exist where greed has free reign.
Richard Furstein is a senior anthropology major at Drexel University. He can be contacted at [email protected]