Selling Thanksgiving

Norman-Rockwell-thanksgiving use

An article in our local paper’s Sunday Business Section both fascinated and sent a few chills up my spine at how effectively today’s marketeers can sell proverbial ice cubes to Eskimos.  They have persuaded large numbers of us to give up Thanksgiving as a day of gratitude for what we have, in favor of the chance to go buy more.

No one needs to wait for Black Friday now.  Major retailers will open their doors at 8:00 on Thanksgiving night, while Kmart’s shopping day will begin at 6:00 in the morning.  People like it and want it, the article says, but it’s instructive to look at the language used:

“The ever-earlier shopping frenzy is a source of dismay for traditionalists who view Thanksgiving more in terms of Norman Rockwell’s famous 1943 “Freedom from Want” painting…They ask: Isn’t the pace of life hectic enough without cutting into a day established for humble gratitude and quiet reflection?”

Is it just me or do you see a bias here?  Some implication that the traditional, quiet reflecting crowd, stuck in 1943, will probably spend the day watching reruns of “The Waltons.”

American Gothic by Grant Wood.  Public Domain

American Gothic by Grant Wood. Public Domain

The most interesting reason the article gave for jumping up from the table to hit the stores came from a “random” shopper at one of our malls, who said, “It’s fun, like a shared adventure for me and my friends.  We love it.”  An adventure is “an unusual, stirring experience,” according to Webster’s Dictionary, which isn’t what I equate with a trip to the mall, but hey, we all know Thanksgiving can be a chore.  

Millions of us have had the experience of traveling “home for the holidays,” only to remember exactly why we left in the first place.  And traditional Turkey Day roles still split along gender lines – who hasn’t heard women complain about working for hours preparing a meal, only to have the men snarf it down in 20 minutes, then pass out from tryptophans and beer in front of a football game?  From that perspective, a trip to the mall with friends might be, if not “an unusual, stirring experience,” at least a refreshing break.

Times are hard, and I can’t fault anyone for the Thanksgiving choices they make, but I do suggest a bit of reflection.  Many who read this blog are writers, and one of the best pieces of advice for writers is to create a mission statement; among all the choices I have now, what do I want from writing?  That’s a good question to ask as we face the holiday season.

Most of us long for peace and serenity, and a time of shared warmth in a community of family and friends.  Nobody wants to wake up on New Year’s Day saying, “Thank God all that is over,” though many will.  It’s a good time to review holiday options and “obligations” in light of the Dr. Phil question, “How does that work for you?”  

I’m no saint when it comes to keeping Thanksgiving “pure.”  For a number of years, when Tower Books was open, Mary and I and friends from work would gather for Thanksgiving dinner, then go browse Tower for an hour before having coffee and pumpkin pie.  Though we didn’t suspect it at the time, we may have been having a shared adventure.  So let’s admit that we’re free to spend Thanksgiving however we wish.  

It just saddens me to see corporate interests breech a once inviolate day, and turn it into an “ersatz” holiday, like Labor Day, stripped of all its original meaning and existing only so people can buy many things that they don’t really need.    

12 thoughts on “Selling Thanksgiving

  1. Agreed Morgan. I may not opt for the traditional family fare on holidays, but I am not shopping as some sort of option. I am just as guilty as anyone else of supporting the corporate monsters because who can be completely self-sufficient now days?
    My theory on the media is that they love to present us with images of people in whatever cozy circumstance that will sell the story along with the ads and unfortunately the media is more and more owned by corporate interests.
    Our families are 3,000 miles away from us and we don’t eat meat anymore so my husband and I go to the coast and spend time together doing things we love – playing music together, reading, writing, walking or just hanging out.


  2. Given that not all family Thanksgivings are Rockwell-esque, it’s hard to imagine that the people working the cash registers at Walmart, Target, etc. etc. are happy with their shared experience on Thanksgiving. I’m guessing they’d be quite thankful to be home with family or with friends or just to have some time alone than to be assisting corporate greed in the mall madness.


    • I’m very mindful of the people working who may not want to, as well as people who may not want to shop, but do so to stretch their ever-diminishing dollars for the advertised bargains. And then there are stories from previous years of violence during these shopping times, like someone who used pepper spray to ward of rivals for discounted xBox consoles (or something like it). The entire event is pretty sad.


      • It is sad – sort of strangely symbolic of our culture, or at least the stranger part of it.


  3. Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. I’m personally sad that people have to leave their families and work that day, but that’s just me. I’m old fashioned that way. I will spend the day with family and enjoy it. A trip to the mall is never a treat for me, so I won’t be hitting the stores. Thanks for a thoughtful post.


  4. Nice information. I’ve always thought that advertisers selling things are great writers that try their best to frame something in a biased way. Not exactly what you would consider kosher by any means, but their work is out there and tons of people buy into it.

    This is my second Thanksgiving outside of America. People in Japan don’t really care about it. But we manage to rustle up a few people and have a dinner using the ingredients available here. Instead of turkey, sashimi. Instead of stuffing, harumaki. I think there is a certain meaning to Thanksgiving, as well as other harvest festivals, that transcends marketing. I agree, let’s celebrate how we want. Have a wonderful day!


    • I don’t think the piece was overt advertising so much as “boosterism” of the “what’s hot and what’s not variety.

      And you brought to mind something I had not thought of for years. My family lived in Europe when I was between 15 and 17, and I remember how thoroughly we appreciated our native customs. I hope you have a wonderful Thanksgiving.


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