This week brings the most American of all holidays — Thanksgiving. Celebrated the fourth Thursday in November, it’s easily the biggest celebration of the year; the day before is easily the busiest travel day of the year. School children have spent the days leading up to Thanksgiving with craft projects like making turkey pictures from hand prints; constructing turkeys out of a pear and cut-out bits of cardboard; and listening to stories about plucky pilgrims and the gentle Indians who helped to feed them on the “first Thanksgiving.”
Like any history-based observance, it’s a sanitized and mythologized rendering of what may or may not have happened (in this case, the arrival of Europeans in the Americas, skipping over any notion of cultural imperialism and the advent of genocide). And this being America, where shopping is a national pastime, a retail component has been added.
It’s actually a fun holiday that is celebrated by everyone, regardless of race, religion, or national origin (with the stark exception of most Native Americans — but no-one comments on that). Interestingly, historical accounts of the meal shared by the pilgrims and the Wampanoag back in 1621 make no mention of turkey. Apparently it was writer Sarah J. Hale (1788-1879), she who penned “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” who urged people to eat turkey and who got Abraham Lincoln to make Thanksgiving a national holiday in 1863.
Almost five hundred yeas ago, the pilgrims probably chowed down on venison. (Imagine trying to serve up Bambi at a family dinner.) Different families have their own ethnic spin on what gets served at a Thanksgiving feast, but today a turkey is always the centre-piece. (Which is why there’s a rather daft tradition of the President ceremoniously “pardoning” a turkey on the White House front lawn every year, a practice that seems to have emerged gradually since the 1950s and has now become a required annual photo-op.) Most of the turkeys consumed on Thursday will have been commercially raised, and bought frozen from a supermarket. So print and online media are full of advice columns this week on the right/best/easiest/safest way to defrost and roast a turkey.
The basic Thanksgiving meal includes sweet potatoes (usually in a casserole with marshmallows added — yes, marshmallows, I don’t know why); a green veg like green beans; potatoes (roasted and/or mashed); stuffing; gravy; and cranberry sauce. Along with lots and lots of desserts (pumpkin pie, pecan pie, apple pie…you get the idea).
The goal is to stuff yourself into a carbo-loaded stupor, not fight with any relatives, and at some point slump in front of the TV and watch The Game. This means a nationally-broadcast football game (American football, of course). Earlier, your day may start with the TV broadcast of the big Macy’s parade in New York — this week will be the 90th — which has spectacular floats, entertainers, and massive balloon creations. I suspect a lot of people only watch to see if there’ll be a balloon mishap (there’ve been quite a few over the years). The small town where I live has a delightful tradition of a father-son pickup football game at the high school playing field on Thanksgiving morning, a haphazard affair that probably started with gettin’ the menfolk out of the way while the women got down to the serious business of cooking.
Assuming you survive the food and the relatives, the day after Thanksgiving brings another quintessential American event: Black Friday. It’s basically the start of the Christmas shopping season, and many shops will have “special Black Friday deals,” opening at the crack of dawn to offer massive discounts on TVs and toys to the first shoppers through the door. Because only in America can people spend a day talking about all the stuff they’re thankful for, before going out to buy yet more stuff.
Yes, people do get up early to hit the stores on Black Friday; and yes, there are stories every year about hapless shoppers getting injured, even killed, in a stampede for a bargain. I’m not sure how thankful a retail worker is going to be, if they have to be at work at 4:00 a.m. the next day to prepare for a 5:00 a.m. store opening. With some places going so far as to open late in the evening on Thanksgiving day itself, there are now a number of larger chain stores who advertise how family friendly they are, by not opening on Thanksgiving for the sake of their staff.
People generally assume that it’s called Black Friday because this is the day when retail stores finally turn a profit (i.e., their accounts go from red to black). Actually, the biggest shopping day of the year for most retailers is usually the Saturday before Christmas. Either way, the origins of Black Friday started here in Philadelphia, back in the 1950s, and didn’t really spread to the rest of the country as a widespread retail thing until the 1980s. And the origin had nothing to do with sales and everything to do with a major law-and-order problem.
The Philly cops used the term to describe the chaos they faced the day after Thanksgiving, when hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists flooded into the city — not just to shop, but also to get ready for the big Army-Navy football game that was held on the Saturday. (A tradition that started back in the 1890s, in recent years the game has shifted to a date in December.) The beleaguered cops couldn’t take the day off, and had to work extra-long shifts dealing with the crowds and traffic. Reportedly, shoplifting was particularly rife as people took advantage of the chaos.
And now it seems some UK retailers are trying to push the Black Friday concept — adopting the worst aspect of an American tradition without any of the underlying history or wider context. At least here in the States people have spent a few days pondering all the things they have to be thankful for, and reconnecting with kith and kin, before getting sucked into the shopping day from hell.
Without the bookends of turkey the day before and an army-navy sports rivalry the day after, you’re left with overworked cops and shop workers, and a deluge of adverts. Enjoy.