The Commercialization of Thanksgiving—and So Much Else

Thanksgiving is rapidly competing with Christmas as a candidate holiday for the next cultural war. We know, of course, that December 25 is the holiday that dare not speak its name, having been transmogrified into “winter holiday” lest delicate ears be offended by “C-h-r-i-s-t-m-a-s.” Thanksgiving, so far, has managed to retain its name of religious origin (though we tend to speak publicly about what we are giving thanks for rather than to whom). The cultural war over Thanksgiving is being fought over: when can the sales begin?

“Black Friday”—the day after Thanksgiving—has, over the years, become the unofficial launch of the Christmas buying season as well as the barometer of holiday mercantile prosperity. In more recent years, the “holiday” buying spree has annexed “Cyber-Monday,” the Monday after Thanksgiving, where on-line sellers hope to rack up some of the dollars traditional merchants had a shot at Friday. A few places, in a sop to mom-and-pop, have urged the Saturday after Thanksgiving be reserved for patronizing local businesses.

The Thanksgiving controversy has arisen over when “Black Friday” starts.   Commercial hype began urging shoppers to show up Friday at 7 am for “early bird discounts.” Not to be outdone, other stores began selling at … six … five … four … three … midnight.

In recent years, some places have even seen “Black Friday” creep into Thanksgiving. Some merchants had “pre-Black Friday” sales at 10 pm, others 9 pm. Recently, to accommodate Thanksgiving early birds who downed their turkey in the afternoon, a few places began opening at 6 pm.

A couple of jurisdictions have pushed back by enacting local ordinances banning commercial activity on Thanksgiving itself. Some businesses mount opposition and often pit one town against another: in economically lethargic America, Smithville is just as likely to swipe shop-shuttered Jonesville’s customers as stand in solidarity, singing “Over the River and Through the Woods.” Setting jurisdictions against each other is an effective way eventually to breach the dyke: it only takes a few holes before the flood overcomes the barrier. It happened with Sunday blue laws: if recalcitrant jurisdictions didn’t tire of defending against Constitutional claims of “establishment of religion,” they found themselves under pressure from some local businessmen watching customers cross the city, county, or state line. And the arguments for Thanksgiving closing are usually not so much religious as sentimental, with an occasional dash of social justice thrown in.

The social justice argument points out that stores which open on holidays (or Sundays) deprive employees of rest and time to be with families. The retailer GameStop, for example, justified its decision to stay closed on Thanksgiving by saying: “We have a phrase around here that we use a lot—it’s called ‘protecting the family.’ We want our associates to enjoy their complete holidays.”

Despite the rhetoric of “choice” that often drives proponents of 24/7/365 marketing, employees often have practically little “choice” about showing up to work. One upstate New York mall even threatened to fine its stores that did not open at 6 pm Thanksgiving evening; if the mall is open, stores should be.

If an employer does not put subtle or not-so-subtle pressure on workers to work on the most important sales days of the year, the employees themselves—often low wage, economically marginalized people—will feel a need or at least a pressure to show up. Lower wage and especially part-time employees (the latter, some argue, a growing cohort because Obamacare incentivizes part-time hiring already have little, if any, guaranteed time off. It is an unspoken likelihood that such Thanksgiving workers will receive little, if any, premium compensation, e.g., time-and-a-half and holiday bonus. While most full-time employees have some sick leave provisions, most part-timers do not, and there is no federal guarantee of any paid sick leave for any employee. (The Family and Medical Leave Act guaranteed unpaid sick leave in certain circumstances. A few states have enacted laws guaranteeing every worker a minimum number of sick days. In sum, for many low-wage employees, “choice” notwithstanding, the only time they are guaranteed a day off with rest are those increasingly fewer national holidays with a concomitant social consensus that they be celebrated without commercial activity.

But apart from the social justice aspect of forcing employees and even businesses to work on Thanksgiving, there is also a broader community social justice issue. America, as any community, requires traditions and celebration to bind it together. Our social glue is becoming increasingly thin. Most of our federal holidays have been increasingly hollowed out of cultural activity and replaced by commercial activity. Presidents Day and Columbus Day are primarily known for sales. Memorial Day launches the summer—and summer sales—while Labor Day closes it, just in time for Back-to-School Sales. Martin Luther King’s Birthday still has to catch on as a broadly celebrated holiday. Christmas and, to a lesser extent, New Year’s, continue to be observed, the former often in pseudonymous fashion as “Winter Holiday,” the latter still not fully displaced by those who would criticize January 1 as representing but one culture’s start of the year. The only two national holidays that continue to be observed in a primarily historical/cultural fashion—as opposed to being the next sales opportunity—are the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving. These two quintessentially American holidays have largely managed to stay aloof from bald commercialization on the day itself, remaining family days. They are under assault.

And be not deceived of the cultural aspect of that assault. Thanksgiving, after all, originated from a people who recognized their survival had depended on the solicitude of Divine Providence. For those whose vision of Church and State is more akin to the Berlin Wall with its intervening death strip, the fact that America’s origins lay in a people who acknowledged their dependence on God is an embarrassing fact that is best passed over. Celebration of that common religious cultural heritage could call into question the hypersensitive allergy to all things religious found in some people’s caricatures of the First Amendment, so it is best that this religious cultural heritage be supplanted by something secular. Commerce is a useful substitute: the Left is satisfied by changing the subject from religion, while certain quarters of the Right can find their laissez-faire free marketism-cum-“choice” given free rein. Les extremes se touchent. Lots of people can make their Profession of Faith in Shania Twain’s lyrics:

We live in a greedy little world/that teaches every little boy and girl
To earn as much as they can possibly/then turn around and spend it foolishly
We’ve created a credit card mess/We spend money we don’t possess
Our religion is to go and blow it all/So it’s shoppin’ every Sunday at the mall.

 And every Thanksgiving, too.

And for that employee who wants the day off? When Charles Dickens published “A Christmas Carole” in 1843, it was intended at least in part as a satirical criticism of the unfettered capitalism of Victorian England. Indeed, when The Westminster Review reviewed the book, it criticized Dickens for painting Scrooge in such black terms—was he really not the “founder of the feast,” without whom the Cratchitt Family would not have dined even on its goose, “size and cheapness” notwithstanding. Presumably, such store clerks should give thanks for their turkey by going to work! Charles Dickens even had an answer for such lazy ne’er-do-wells who might have entertained ideas of a whole evening off.

“You’ll want all day tomorrow, I suppose?”

“If quite convenient, sir.”

“It’s not convenient,” said Scrooge, “and it’s not fair. … But I suppose you must have the whole day. Be here all the earlier the next morning.”

Or by 6 pm Thanksgiving night in Cheektawoga, New York.

John M. Grondelski


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, NJ. All views expressed herein are exclusively his own.

  • slainte

    All days are equal in a culture permeated by materialist consumerism, but some days (Thanksgiving, Easter, and Christmas) are more equal than others.

  • Vinny

    The beat goes on. Say grace before your meal.

  • CR89

    In regards to the secularization of Thanksgiving note the increasing use of the term “Turkey Day” in place of the proper name. Once you see or hear it – and you will – you’ll notice it every time; I know I do. It is disgusting how our holidays have been “hollowed out”, as the author described it. From the comfort of home, I admit I’ll be one of the first to look for the videos of frighteningly insane “shoppers” ready to kill each other over a TV or popular video game, further justifying my refusal to have any part in the madness now so well-known as “Black Friday”. Black indeed.

    • Catholic pilgrim

      You know why they like “Turkey Day” better? “Thanksgiving” implies a Who (God) to give thanks for our family, Church, friends, gift of Life, nation, & everything. We Catholics don’t call our Mass “Eucharist” (thanks-giving in Greek) for nothing either. The Pilgrims gave thanks to GOD, but to Secularists apparently the reason for the holiday is Only the turkey & Black Friday (or Black Thanksgiving as many business are disgracefully pushing for).
      GK Chesterton: “Thanksgiving is the highest form of thought & being.” (Paraphrased)

  • s;vbkr0boc,klos;

    It is estimated that the medieval peasant had about 106 workless holidays a year which included Sundays, The secularization of Sunday opened the floodgates to ‘one nation under greed’ and was an early assault on the family as well. ‘Season’s Greetings!’.

  • publiusnj

    There is a much more positive analysis of this creeping Black Friday phenomenon that we should realize/relish. Let’s not forget that Thanksgiving is actually a creature of the State, a nice sectarian free holiday proclaimed by those secular saints, Abe Lincoln and Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the date of which was finally set by Act of Congress in 1941. By contrast, Christmas is the holiday that we have inherited from Christ’s salvific work in History; its date is set in the Liturgical Calendar, not by the saints of Congress!

    What’s more, it is not really Black Friday, but Christmas that is crowding out Thanksgiving. Black Friday is just a bit of marketing hype that the secularists use to hype the “traditional start” of the Christmas shopping season, which the secularists must turn to as a way of rekindling the dying embers of the American Dream. Indeed, the reason for FDR’s attempt to move Thanksgiving to the 3d Thursday of November was that the fourth Thursday in Nov. 1939 was Nov. 30, which would have left the Christmas Season too short even by 1930s standards.

    Despite another 3/4 of a century of unrestrained secularism, restraining the Christmas Season to the time after the government-sponsored Thanksgiving has become too little for the secularists again. So, they need Christmas to overwhelm Thnaksgiving despite the fact that Christmas has all those yucky sectarian associations (unlike the sanitized sectarian-free Thanksgiving). Think of that: the secularists can rant about the need to keep Christ out of Christmas, but THE Season of Seasons remains the Season celebrating the Birth of Jesus Christ. Alleluia! Let us rejoice and be glad!

    • John Grondelski

      Massachusetts and other colonies had days of thanksgiving as well as days of fasting, which are distantly related to what in the end Lincoln and others produced as the American Thanksgiving. But the fact that this holiday arose in secular circles does not mean it is inherently secular; this sounds a bit like throwing the baby out with the bath water.

      • publiusnj

        Sorry, but telling me that the Massachusetts Colony favored Thanksgiving is at best the coldest comfort. The Massachusetts Colony, which proclaimed days of Thanksgiving throughout the 17th Century, was the same hate state that passed the 1647 Law banning Jesuits from the Colony under penalty of death. Those secular bigots followed that one up with a direct attack on Christmas. In 1659, Massachusetts enacted a law banning any observance of Christmas, declaring:

        “For preventing disorders arising in several places within this jurisdiction, by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other countries, to the great dishonor of God & offence of others, it is therefore ordered … that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by for-bearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shillings, as a fine to the county.”

        It is within that culture of anti-Catholic hatred that the secularists’ passage of laws advancing Thanksgiving over Christmas should be judged.

        • Michael Paterson-Seymour

          In Scotland, Christmas Day only became a public holiday in 1958 and a lot of the Churches protested.

          • slainte

            If the Churches in Scotland protested making Christmas a “public holiday” because they understood that secularizing the holy would in fact profane it, then their actions were good and proper.

            The commercialization of Christmas mocks God.

            • publiusnj

              No, they actually banned Christmas because they hated the Catholic Church and anything like “Christ’s mass” that they considered “papistical.” The Scottish Kirk (i.e., the Calvinist Church founded by John Knox) has been at least as vile in its hatred of Christmas as either Cromwell or the Congregationalist Church. All three actors stem from the anti-Anglican and anti-King elements of what later became known as “Dissident” British Protestantism (except in Scotland where the otherwise dissident Presbyterians are more or less the Established Church in Scotland).

              In their intramural struggles with other protestant sects in 17th Century England, the most effective war cry Protestants could raise was to accuse their protestant enemies of being too much like the Papists. Any support of Christmas was prima facie proof of crypto-Papism. So, the same Scots elements that went to war with England in the Bishops’ Wars of the 1630s that ultimately led to the English Civil War and the English Banning of Christmas in 1647 (once the dissidents had overpowered the Anglican Establishment and its saint-martyr, Charles I) were the first officially to ban any Christmas celebrations in Scotland by an Act of the Scottish Parliament in 1640 right in the midst of the Bishops’ Wars.

              Thus, Cromwell (in 1647) and the Massachusetts Congregationalists in 1659 actually were taught how to hate and ban Christmas by the Kirkish Scots. And the Kirkish Scots (and certain elements that broke off from the Kirk to create even “purer” forms of Protestantism) held onto their official hatred of Christmas for almost a century longer than Scrooge and his fellow 19th C English dissidents!

              • slainte

                There’s is a marked participation in freemasonry among the Scots Presbyterians in Scotland and among the Protestants in the north of Ireland, does this exacerbate or cause greater intolerance of Catholicism?

              • Martha

                Wow. That is insane. How Christian can you be when you refuse to celebrate Christmas? I will never understand the Protestant mindset and hatred of all things Catholic. Just bizarre.

                • publiusnj

                  When you claim to rely on the Bible and the Bible talks about Christ founding His Church in the First Century AD–while your sect wasn’t concocted until the 16th C or later–you need to put up a whole lot of flak against the Catholic Church. Otherwise, someone will get to ask the obvious question: “how can you guys claim to be Christ’s Church if He founded His in the First Century AD and somebody else founded yours a millennium and a half later?” Then they have to fall back on circumlocutions like the “Invisible Church” even though Christ’s First Century Church was NOT invisible.

        • slainte

          The New England Puritans sprang from the same tradition as Oliver Cromwell Joy and thanksgiving are not qualities one would associate with this lineage as Catholics, Quakers, and Baptists would attest.

          In the aftermath of the American Revolution, the Danbury Baptists were so concerned that the Congregational Church (Puritan) would be restored as the state church of Connecticut that their leadership sought clarification on this issue from Thomas Jefferson.

          Jefferson’s letter in response to allay their fears became the basis of the US Supreme Court’s efforts to separate Church and state. The Puritan legacy has not always been a good one.

        • JohnE_o

          publiusnj, you’re getting worked up over stuff that happened in the mid seventeenth century?

          Let it go, man, let it go…

  • Scott W.

    Bravo to Gamestop. I was supporting a game store under the rubric of buying locally, but they are open today. I think I will go back to GameStop from now on.

  • Michael Paterson-Seymour

    Here in Scotland, police have been called to disturbances at a number of stores that opened at midnight for Black Friday.

    It does not appear to have crossed anyone’s mind that, at that time of night, half their customers would be fighting drunk.

  • Scott

    How many spend both Thanksgiving and Sundays watching football? American past-time and all… But, it is part of the problem. And, it does not get resolved until we begin to renounce it.

  • Mickey’O

    I hereby declare Thanksgiving dead and gone. It has been completely converted to a mindless orgy of spending money you don’t have on things you don’t need. It has been converted into another President’s Day. (Many shoppers interviewed on the local TV were grateful to not have to cook a special meal or put up with their relations and in-laws! Give thanks? Only for MasterCard increasing their credit limit….)
    Not to worry. Pretty soon, all businesses will be open on Turkey Day (except the post office and the banks). Who will be shopping then?

  • Jdonnell

    The commercialization of everything is part of the Republican gospel. I still recall Reagan officials responding to news of climate change by saying that it would mean new opportunities for business, from burgeoning sun lotions, on up. As far as capitalism is concerned citizen=customer/consumer.

    • publiusnj

      Not the commercialization of “everything.” The Democrats OWN Abortion, commercially, sacramentally, etc. That is why I am no longer (and never will be) a Democrat.

      • Jdonnell

        The Republican talk about abortion but when in power do nothing about it. If the Dems. own abortion, the Republicans own war.

        • publiusnj

          Dems not a war party? You either forget or are ignorant about Dem Presidents Woodrow Wilson, FDR, Harry Truman, JFK who respectively started WWI, WWII, and the Korean and VietNam Wars. About as many troops died on D-Day in WWII as died in the entire Second Iraq War. Come on, wake up to reality.

          Even Barack Hussein Obama, a Democrat-Socialist, owns Iraq War 3, the re-introduction of US fighting troops that is now going on rather quietly to make up for BHO’s idiot idea of just pulling them all out. Sure, he tried to pull out from Iraq in 2010 to fulfill his campaign rhetoric about Iraq being the bad war while Afghanistan was the good war. Sure, he is now part way pulling out of Afghanistan, but BHO has now learned a lesson from his premature pull-out from Iraq. He is leaving a residual force of US troops in Afghanistan.

          So, Mr. Peace–Mr. Arab Spring himself–is learning the difference between silly campaign rhetoric and actually running a country. I just pray that this country makes it to January 20, 2017, without a major destruction of US interests throughout the World.

          • Jdonnell

            Gee, and here I thought the Japanese had started WW II with the US, and now I learn from you that Tojo must have been a Democrat. Republicans like you often use this distortion about who is for wars. The Dems are certainly not guilt free on the matter, but in fact, in modern times it’s the Republicans who push for war. They accuse Dems of being soft and help goad them into supporting wars. The Republicans didn’t want to get out of Vietnam and had supported it all the way. They wanted to prolong and extend the Korean War. Reagan started several US attacks–little wars, as in Panama, where the thousands of civilians killed by US bombs has never been fully accounted for. Bush Jr. started two wars, which Obama inherited and has been trying to end. You show just what the Republicans do; you don’t want our troops out of Afghanistan; you want more war, like other Republicans, who are now calling for more militarization vis a vis Ukraine.
            I do not “equate” war with abortion. I do point out that the Church hierarchy are quick to sound off on sexual morality issues but quiet and timid about other moral issues like war. Your bluster is typical of their likeminded supporters.

            • publiusnj

              And Gee, here I thought Al Qaeda flew those airliners into both towers of the World Trade Center at hundreds of miles per hour….And you’re absolutely ignorant of History to say that Reagan started Panama. In fact, of course, he was out of office by then.

              NOR have you addressed the utter moral depravity of MOTHERS hiring thugs to kill the defenseless babies in their wombs. That can’t be minimized as you choose to do by calling it a mere “sexual morality issue;” Abortion is the savage killing of a life entrusted to the woman, often by slicing and dicing the baby with “surgical precision” but heartless savagery.

              • Jdonnell

                You are quite right about Panama; another Republican made war there. Reagan took military action in Grenada and Libya. He also raised war-making spending any president had ever made.
                War, not abortion, was the topic. Even if I don’t approve of it, I won’t judge mothers who are desperate enough to do it. Unlike them, the Republicans like G.W. Bush, who send our troops to kill tens of thousands–hundreds of thousands eventually. No mother does that.

                • publiusnj


                  You write: “Even if I don’t approve of [Abortion], I won’t judge mothers who are desperate enough to do it.” Of course not. You are a Democrat.

                  Therefore someone who has made the evil deal of accepting anything murderous women will do to the babes in their wombs if inconvenienced just so long as they go along with the Party’s ticket. That ticket, in turn, keeps itself attractive to others by promising to allow Abortion almost without limit (as in: “Late Term Abortion with slicing and dicing? Why not?”) and also to put some money in the pockets of the “Democrat Coalition.”

                  As I have said, the particularly evil thing about Abortion is that it ALWAYS involves the slaughter of the innocent and defenseless…and by their MOTHERS of all people.

                  • Jdonnell

                    There are some who will vilify a woman for having an abortion after becoming pregnant by a psychopathic rapist but who vote for a president whose acts kill untold thousands of innocent civilians. I won’t do that. The think about making wars as has G.W. Bush, using lies and misinformation (as well as irrational thinking) is that his act kills many thousands of “the innocent and defenseless.” Yet, people like you will vote for him because he pretends to oppose abortion.

                    • publiusnj

                      The OVERWHELMING bulk of mothers who kill their kids had no involvement with a “psychopathic rapist.” Rather, the impregnator was their latest boy friend or a casual pick-up (or once in a while even a husband (how sick is that)). But defenders of the 42 year long bloodbath have to make up some story to make their moral bankruptcy a little less obviously disgusting, so JDonell makes up the psychopathic rapist bogeyman to excuse murder. The fact remains, though, that 50,000,000 (fifty million) innocent, defenseless children have been killed by the Abortion Rights Legion.

                      Maybe 6,500 US troops (i.e., just a week’s worth of victims in the Abortion Bloodbath) got killed in the two wars redressing the attacks on this country and letting the Muslim terrorists know we could go after them (a lesson that has been squandered post-surge by the feckless BHO). BHO is such a pathetic leader of this country that he can’t even admit he was wrong on Iraq and that he now needs to put troops back in because his prior retreat just emboldened the head-chopping Al Qaeda enemy now called ISIS to try to give BHO plausible deniability.

                    • Jdonnell

                      You miss the point. I didn’t refer to all the instances, just one. And, I could cite many other comparable circumstances. You avoid responding by essentially changing the topic. And, I do not cite the numbers of war casualties as something to be compared with the number of abortions (I don’t believe such utilitarian thinking in terms strictly of quantification). Rather, I referred to one mother v. one president, whose war-making resulted in thousands of deaths of his own countrymen (the estimated number of Iraqis is over two hundred thousand dead, plus all the others killed as a result of the anarchy the US invasion and occupation led to). You seem to want to underplay the casualties, as if that makes G.W. Bush look less like a war criminal. That he did all this using our tax money, I am further incensed. You want to blame O for W’s wars. ISIS is part of Bush’s legacy.

                    • publiusnj

                      You don’t want to compare abortion to war because the magnitude of the destruction of individual humans caused by American Legalized Abortion by itself dwarfs the casualties of any war except WWII even if one looks at all the casualties on all sides civilian and military, including the Holocaust.

                      And whether you want to admit it or not, Iraq War 3 belongs to Obama. He ended the occupation following Bush’s Iraq War 2 prematurely and thereby threw away the victory American Troops had purchased throughout the original invasion, the occupation and then the surge. So, BHO–who has no respect for American troops’ sacrifices–threw them away to fulfill a campaign theme. Except, of course, the Islamists knew they had a patsy in BHO, so they restarted the war and BHO is now being forced to wage Iraq War 3 from scratch with half-measures designed to hide what is really going on. Most recently, he had to put in elements of the 82d Airborne (Infantry) Division; so his Kennedyesque pretense that the troops are “just” advisers is quickly unraveling.