The death of Thanksgiving

art 08Macy’s has been taking some hard hits for announcing that it will open to shoppers on Thanksgiving Day for the first time ever. For some people, the announcement is being heralded as Thanksgiving’s death notice. Upon hearing of Macy’s plan, one observer told the Chicago Daily Herald, “Please write an obituary because I think this death needs to be acknowledged.”

Macy’s marketing decision may be symbolic – think what R.H. Macy would have said about it in Miracle on Thirty-fourth Street – but it’s not the first such decision by a major retailer. Increasingly, shoppers have been demanding Thanksgiving Day hours, and retailers have been creeping in that direction for years. Macy’s, I think, has simply become the Roger Bannister of holiday shopping.

Roger Bannister was the twenty-five-year-old British medical student who in 1954 became the first man to run a mile in less than four minutes. Until he broke the four-minute barrier, it was generally assumed no one could do it. Two months after he broke it, two other runners also ran a sub-four-minute mile. Now it’s the standard for all male professional middle-distance runners.

So now that Thanksgiving Day is an open field for shoppers, will there be no end to other stores that open on that day? Do we stop talking about Black Friday and start talking about Black Thanksgiving? Have we heard the death knell of Thanksgiving as a secular holy day, and will the traditional Thanksgiving dinner become a fast-food energy boost that we wolf down on our way to the starting gate of another season of retail frenzy?

Okay, I’m over reacting. If even “the sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the sabbath” (Mark 2:27), it doesn’t seem a far stretch to let humans – and I assume retailers are human, too – do with Thanksgiving Day what best serves their needs. What I’m really concerned about is not the compromising of a day on the calendar but the diminishment of our occasions for giving thanks.

“When you have come into the land that the Lord your God is giving you” (Deut. 26:1) – in other words, once you’ve made it in life and have the job and the house and the new car and the retirement account – the law of faith says you shall take a portion of your resources and make of it a thank offering to God. Then step back and remember the days when you had little or nothing. Stop what you’re doing and humble yourself before God. And you “shall celebrate with all the bounty that the Lord your God has given to you and to your house” (Deut. 26:11).

We’re not the first to be torn between competing values, in our case the values of the marketplace and our faith. The early church was also pulled between the values of their faith and the values of their culture. And Paul asked, “If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the universe, why do you live as if you still belonged to the world” (Col. 2:20)? “Do not be conformed to this world,” he wrote, “but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2).

It still is good advice, I think. When life is good, we need to stop and remember that everything we have is a gift from God. We also need to do that when everything is not perfect and life is a struggle. “May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from [God’s] glorious power,” Paul wrote, “and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father” (Col. 1:11-12).

That’s what motivated us in this nation to set aside Thanksgiving Day as a holy day for expressing our gratitude to God. It’s an invitation that might still motivate us today to preserve the day against the encroaching commercialism of Macy’s, Target, Walmart, and the rest. Is Thanksgiving dead? Not as long as it lives in our hearts and we protect the crucible in which its flame is guarded. This is a good time to remember the words Abraham Lincoln wrote in 1863 to establish Thanksgiving as a national observance.

“The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. . . . Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, . . . and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquility and Union.”

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