The Strange Traditions of America's Holiday Season
December 4th, 2017
As the holiday season descends upon us and begins to take over every aspect of our life with decorations, secret snowflake, school vacations galore, an avalanche of delicious food, and the long-anticipated reenactment of family traditions, I always ask myself one question: Why all the fuss? I love the aura of turkey and hot chocolate and snow and candy canes that surrounds this time of year much as anyone, but there are a lot of strange things about the way American society – at least in many parts of the country – treats the stretch of time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.
In and of itself, Thanksgiving has a very complex and problematic history that few acknowledge as they blithely praise food, family, and football. For millions across America, the Thursday holiday does mark an otherwise hard-to-find opportunity to reunite with family and friends and to be grateful while celebrating the pilgrims’ seemingly pure and inspiring legacy. However, the story of the first Thanksgiving is not as simple as many of our parents and teachers make it out to be. As Huffington Post’s Richard Schiffman puts it, “[Thanksgiving’s] critics claim that it whitewashes the genocide and ethnic cleansing of indigenous people.”
In elementary schools across the country, Thanksgiving is put up on a pedestal. In mid-November, classrooms start decorating and preparing – kindergarteners cut turkeys out of construction paper, second graders write what they are thankful for on a designated poster, and fifth graders do projects about how the pilgrims came over on the Mayflower and were the founders of a new civilization, the base upon which the great and glorious America was built. When I was in preschool, we reenacted the pilgrim’s famed meal with the Native Americans – each person brought a dish to share and we all gathered around the table in communal peace and prosperity, just like (we thought) the Native Americans and pilgrims had when they held the first Thanksgiving.
The notion that the pilgrims were perfect and hardworking people who sacrificed everything they knew for religious freedom has been instilled in us since we started going to school, and some aspects of that assumption are valid. However, we were never taught about the ways in which native peoples were exploited by the people who took over their land or the ways in which their culture was suppressed and destroyed; we were never taught the other side of the story (as we almost never are). According to Schiffman, on Thanksgiving, there are two different events in Plymouth, Massachusetts, that celebrate – or, rather, mark – the occasion. One is a classic Thanksgiving day parade; the other is a “national day of mourning,” where Native Americans and their supporters gather to remember the demolition of the culture of Native Americans, the theft of native lands, and the genocide of native peoples.
From all of this emerged the concepts of Black Friday and Cyber Monday, days that both epitomize everything that Thanksgiving does not; competition, greed, and importance placed on capitalism and material things instead of coming together over a common meal and celebrating what you are grateful for, as Thanksgiving is supposed to be.
Black Friday and Cyber Monday both commercialize Thanksgiving in a way that, Thanksgiving’s slightly twisted history aside, simply makes no sense. Cramming into stores, trampling and depriving salespeople of the opportunity to spend Thanksgiving with family, camping out in front of somewhere with an especially crazy deal for the entire night after Thanksgiving or even the day of Thanksgiving; cooking for a big family of people in the spirit of togetherness. These two ideas have absolutely nothing in common, and only go to show how much America focuses on promoting consumerism and profiting from every event or holiday, however otherwise significant or important it is.
Christmas is commercialized similarly all across America. Starbucks cups, for example: even before the Thursday of Thanksgiving, Starbucks makes the decision to change the design of their cups to a red and white color scheme. This action symbolizes the way that almost every aspect of public life is somehow manipulated to make it commercially festive, a unique destination that will attract tourists who will, in turn, bring in more profit. Christmas trees are sold every few blocks; holiday music on the radio; millions of stores deck out their display case with snowflakes or red and green streamers; Brooklyn’s Dyker Heights puts on a display of Christmas lights so elaborate and magnificent that people come from all over the city (and beyond) just to see it.
The way that America’s facade is changed around the holidays is not necessarily a bad thing. Millions of people, myself included, look forward to the holiday season simply because they love traditions and holiday spirit. But Christmas is by no means the only holiday celebrated at this time of year (e.g. Hannukah, Kwanzaa), and its core principles still are very religious, not about amazing sales.
From the very two-sided history of Thanksgiving to the ironies of Black Friday and Cyber Monday to the commercialization of Christmas to the under acknowledgement of other religious celebrations, the American holiday season is a strange one, and as your participation in it increases with every passing day, keep the question of why it is full of traditions that seem to benefit capitalist enterprises in mind.