I was reading a blog post on Patheos about society and merchants killing Thanksgiving. I found it an interesting read and I had to sit and think about the idea a bit. The blogger, I think, got it right in some ways and wrong in others. Since I am most likely older than the blogger (I painfully admit this), I can probably add my two cents as to what is happening to the Thanksgiving holiday in the United States.
Before I get some push back, let me state that even though I'm Heathen, I recognize that the "holiday season" is largely the Christmas season. That's because the majority of people in the US are still Christian, and even those who aren't Christian still celebrate Christmas as a secular holiday. So even though Christmas is just a hijacked Yule, I'm going to be a realist here and talk about what the majority of Americans celebrate.
Thanksgiving was born out of the traditional harvest festivals. It became an official American holiday in 1863 thanks to Abraham Lincoln. Before that, it was mostly celebrated in New England, although presidents before Lincoln would often declare a day of Thanksgiving. If you want the whole story, you can read my post on it.
Thanksgiving, due to its proximity to Christmas, was a natural start of the holiday season, once Christmas became popular, thanks to Charles Dickens and Queen Victoria. (Christmas, by the way, was not that popular of a holiday in the New World, thanks to our Puritan founders.) Even in Europe, Christmas was unpopular by the 19th century, requiring Dickens to give it a facelift. In Medieval times, it was a time of communal feasting and playing games. Much of that stopped abruptly when the Black Death hit.
So, by the time World War II came along, Christmas had enjoyed enough popularity to have President Franklin D. Roosevelt tinker with the date of Thanksgiving to be the last Thursday of the month so that merchants could plan their holiday sales. Seriously.
The blogger bemoaned the fact that Thanksgiving is being run over by black Friday sales that start on Thursday in the hopes to lure more shoppers to buy. And in truth, the holiday season is often a make or break time for many merchants. But should it mean that the stores should be open for you to buy stuff when people should be staying home with their families?
As old as I am (old as dirt, I reckon), I seem to recall that the Christmas buying season started around Thanksgiving, but I don't remember Black Fridays until at least the 70s, but the term was coined in the 50s because cops had to pull 12 hour shifts to deal with the shoppers. Since I didn't live in Philadelphia, that's probably why I don't remember it much when I was a kid. This Christmas shopping on Thanksgiving is a headache and one either people will embrace or decide to skip. It depends on how popular it will be for the trend to survive, but I'm counting on people to use their smartphones and buy online on Thanksgiving.
As depressing as Christmas shopping taking over Thanksgiving is, I'm more concerned with the lack of association of the Thanksgiving and Harvest festivals. Sure, kids learn to draw turkeys and pumpkins and corn, but in most cases kids don't see turkeys other than in books and in videos and have never stepped foot in a field where corn and pumpkins are grown. They and probably their parents look at the world through their extremely urban or suburban living. Sure, they might get a chance to visit a farm on a school trip, but that really is about the extent. So when they have their highly processed bird at Thanksgiving, they haven't really had a connection to the harvest. Instead, it's an excuse to eat and then sit on the couch and play video games or watch football. And yes. we look at Thanksgiving as the beginning of the Christmas buying season. Yay.
There's a town I enter when I hunt in a certain area which has an honest-to-gods harvest festival annually. That's because it's a farm town. When I saw the signs, I was delighted and intrigued. If it weren't hunting season, I'd be there just to watch what went on. Unfortunately Skadi has not gifted me an elk this season thus far, so I'm busy looking for those.
Understanding harvest, which is where Thanksgiving comes from, is important. Knowing where our food is from. Actually growing crops and tending livestock. Thanking Freyr for the abundance. Saving the last sheaf of wheat for the wights and gods. Remembering ancestors. That's what I believe is endangered.
Thanksgiving will undoubtedly morph into something more commercial, if Madison Avenue has its way. But hopefully as Heathenism grows, perhaps more people will pay attention to its roots and recognize the importance of Harvest.