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Jay Evensen: Commercializing Thanksgiving is more than tacky

Published: Sunday, Nov. 21 2010 12:00 a.m. MST

You remember Abraham Lincoln's famous Thanksgiving Proclamation of 1863. You know, the one where he said that, despite the ravages of the Civil War, we should be grateful for those killer sales that soon will usher in a glorious holiday shopping season and kick-start the lagging economy.

That isn't exactly what he said, of course. It's just a modern interpretation.

I've been curious to watch reactions this week to announcements from some major retailers that they plan to open their doors on Thanksgiving. Some will open all day; others will open only during the morning.

"Tacky" is a word I've heard. It isn't just that stores are open. We expect grocery stores to be there at least part of the day so we can grab that pumpkin pie mix we forgot to get. It isn't even that the day should be restricted purely for spiritual pursuits. The football tradition goes back at least as far as 1880, when Yale and Princeton battled to a helmet-less draw.

No, it's a bit harder to define than that. It's as if all those things we lament for making Christmas too commercial have begun to intrude on another holiday with a high purpose. It's a deliberate move to push the worldly frenzy of "Black Friday" onto the quiet dignity and tradition of the turkey dinner table — a time when a lot of families still like to take turns with the ritual of expressing why they are grateful.

It's hard to overstate the importance of those traditions. Gratitude not only is a tonic for self-pity, a false sense of entitlement and a host of other ills, it helps the nation keep a proper sense of perspective.

That was the real point behind the Lincoln proclamation, which listed all the things for which Americans should give thanks to God, barely mentioning the war. Instead, he spoke of blessings he said "are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come …"

But since many of us can't imagine the horrors of living amid a war such as that one, it may be more instructive to stay in 1880, with those Yale and Princeton football players.

There was a presidential proclamation that year, too. President Rutherford B. Hayes said, "At no period in their history … has this people had so abundant and so universal reasons for joy and gratitude at the favor of Almighty God, or been subject to so profound an obligation to give thanks for His loving kindness, and humbly to implore His continued care and protection."

Amid the "great recession," the loss of jobs, the wars and all the political anger surrounding the recent election, here is an interesting exercise: Compare the world you live in with that of even the wealthiest American in 1880. Then decide what your own level of gratitude ought to be.

Using "turkey day" as a time to jump-start the Christmas shopping season may indeed be tacky. But the reasons it feels wrong go deeper.

The developers of consumerism seem to keep building their subdivisions ever farther onto the spiritual outskirts of the American landscape. Before long, we won't be able to see the trees for all the asphalt and fancy window dressings. Consumerism will become the point, the whole reason for the holiday.

It already has become something of a duty. If the nation's shoppers don't spend, all of us will suffer. Profits will tumble; manufacturers won't be able to produce as many items; entrepreneurs won't get the cash they need to invent new gadgets; people will lose jobs.

All of that may be true from one perspective. But couldn't it wait for another day?

A blogger for the Christian Science Monitor put it this way, "This holiday unites all Americans, regardless of their religious beliefs. … Family, friends, and counting blessings add up to a sacredness that's worth preserving for one day out of 365. Not a half day."

Otherwise, the writer said, "The country will be celebrating 50 percent off, instead of acknowledging the bounty it already has."

I'll bet old Abe would agree.

Jay Evensen is a Deseret News editorial writer. E-mail: even@desnews.com. Visit his blog at www.deseretnews.com/blogs

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