Other than their usual correlation to snow, and end to the semester, and more baked goods, I don’t have much affinity for the holidays. My objections are mostly personal, veering toward the curmudgeonly. I can get behind the assertion that it’s deplorable to threaten employees into working on Thanksgiving – particularly if those employees do have an affinity for the holidays. I’m less sympathetic to complaints about consumerism that focus on how it harms the consumers themselves, much more so to those that question how those consumption patterns harm the workers who actually make them possible. Personally, I resent (and so tend to respond churlishly, contrarily to) events accompanied by affective mandates, most especially those festooned in expectations that I should be happy. My family is delightful (really) and seeing them is pretty much the highlight of any such occasion (really), but other than that, I don’t really see the appeal (really), or share in the anxiety about these traditions being eroded.
Still, I get the idea of Thanksgiving, and I understand it well enough to understand that the commercials promoting the actual holiday – not Black Friday – as an ideal time to buy stuff represent an effort to modify our understanding of how, and why, the holiday ought to be celebrated. During three hours of football yesterday, I watched approximately 10,000 commercials, so I feel like I know something about this phenomenon.
Of course, there are lots of economic and market-share reasons why companies would want to transform Thanksgiving into an impetus to consume objects (metaphorically) in addition to food (literally). But to the extent that this strategy works, I think it might reflect an instability at the core of notion of thanksgiving, institutionalized in Thanksgiving, more generally.
Jacques Derrida, in Given Time, categorized the true gift as an aporia. To be a true gift, it cannot be understood as such, lest it get pulled into an economy of exchange and obligation. In his “Villanova Conversations,” he says:
The gift is precisely … something which cannot be reappropriated; a gift is something which never appears as such and is never equal to gratitude, to commerce, to compensation, to reward. When a gift is given … no gratitude can be proportionate to it. A gift is something that you cannot thank for. As soon as I say ‘thank you’ for a gift I start cancelling the gift, I start destroying the gift …
Consequently, a day organized around the profession of gratitude entails its own dilemma, precisely to the extent that we experience our own gratitude as authentic and meaningful. If the “thanks” brings with it a freight of indebtedness, of mandatory reciprocity, it can devolve quickly into resentment, quantification, and guilt. On the other hand, to eschew thankfulness risks presuming one’s own entitlement, and a practical disconnection from networks of sociality and hospitality. Also, everyone will think you’re an ass.
This dilemma gets exponentially more complicated in those instances where people are giving their thanks not only to those who are feeding them in the moment but also, and ultimately, to a divine or supernatural being who they believe provided the food before them.
And so, insofar as dwelling in an aporia is discomfiting and our lives are contingent on the lives, deaths, and behaviors other beings in innumerable ways, the turn to consumerism instead makes a kind of sense. Buying a present for oneself circumvents the dilemma. Buying one for someone else, and thus looping them into an economy of exchange, short-circuits it.
The alternative, I suppose, is a form of gratitude that is not articulated (perhaps not even internally) but experienced, silent, wordless, transformative.