November 28, 2007

American Holidays: Thoughts in the Wake of Black Friday

At about this time every year, just when the Christmas Shopping Season is upon us, we see the same video footage on the news. People lined up, or even camped out, in the cold in front of some retail store at 3:00 in the morning waiting for the doors to open upon the Big Sale Event. The doors open and streams of consumers run into the shop, racing against each other to buy this year's hot bits of plastic and silicon, the new Bash Me Repeatedly About the Head with a Shovel Elmos, or the deeply-discounted "this Friday only at Joseph A. Bank" cashmere blazer with the built-in iPhone pocket.

Every year about this time, I look at those videos and wonder what the heck is going on. Why is it that people act this way? We're all hearing the stories about homes being foreclosed and runaway consumer debt, yet all across the country there are people pushing and shoving and trampling one another to rack up just a little more debt so that Uncle Ferdinand can have that new 42" plasma TV that also makes julienne fries. And somehow, in some weird and convoluted way that I can't grasp at all, this is supposed to be tied to celebrating the birth of a messiah in the Middle East about 2,000 years ago, even though there's no record of — in fact, not even a mention of — the actual date in the religious texts based upon this possible event, the day itself being a compromise made with a Roman pagan holiday in order to facilitate the Christianization of Europe some 1500 years ago.

None of this stuff follows from any of the other stuff. It looks to me, as a non-believer in messiah mythologies, like it was all made up. Still, there's that herd of humanity looking more like a herd of cattle rushing through the doors of Wal-Mart and Best Buy. Clearly, this isn't something that most people think about, it's just what's done. It's how we're expected to behave on this particular day. It's good for the economy, that harsh taskmaster to whom we all bow and pray.

American holidays are generally strange things, though. Whatever meaning they might have had a century or two ago, they're all about the economy now. How they're celebrated in this country has little or nothing to do with what they're supposed to signify. Christmas is the most obvious of these examples, but there are others as well.

For instance, Valentine's Day is originally the feast day of a martyred Catholic saint (or perhaps several of them; nobody is sure). The most likely story of St. Valentine is that he was a celibate priest... and yet the American Valentine's Day is all about erotic love, to the extent that we've adapted the cherubic Cupid (= Eros) as the day's mascot. Essentially, the day is observed by having men go out and buy flowers, candy, and even jewelry for their partners. One wonders what St. Valentine would have made of all of this. He probably wouldn't have been too happy with it. Then again, beheaded Roman priests don't exactly inspire romantic feelings and, I would imagine, are rather bad for sales of chocolates and roses.

Thanksgiving itself is a strange concept when I think about how it's celebrated. It's based on a English harvest festival that religious separatists brought to North America, and they were religious separatists precisely because they believed that the Church of England was irredeemably corrupted and sinful. A few centuries later, here we are celebrating the same holiday by extolling gluttony. I saw a report that some of us consume nearly 7,000 calories in a single day as part of celebrating this holiday, and I know that I must have gotten awfully close to that mark last week myself. This is the kind of thing that the so-called Pilgrims would have put someone in the stocks for doing back in their day. Then again, their harvest feast probably had fewer calories than a McDonald's Big Mac value meal, so I guess it's all relative. I won't even go into what happened to the people who already had a society where the separatists happened to set up housekeeping... but can you imagine the reaction if a couple of hundred Ethiopians suddenly showed up today and decided that they were the new owners of Baltimore? The Pilgrims were certainly illegal immigrants from the POV of the Native Americans of what is now Massachusetts, yet today the descendants of those Pilgrims are amongst those who are worried about the "illegal immigration" of Central and South Americans to the United States. Ironically, they're worried about those immigrants doing to the culture they've dreamed up exactly what the European settlers of Massachusetts did to the Native Americans. So let's all kick back and have another hunk o'turkey meat and be thankful that we're not dining on huitlacoche this year, right?

This stuff turns bizarre quickly when I analyze it in context. American holy days are like that.

Just one more example before I go back to my non-holiday workload: Independence Day, AKA the Fourth of July. It celebrates the United States' declaring its independence from Great Britain in 1776, an event that was part of a long and terrible conflict. Apart from George Washington, few Americans today can name someone who actually fought in the much-mythologized war for independence and, in fact, we didn't actually gain independence until 1783, a fact that, again, most Americans don't remember. Even after the war, this country as it now exists would have been unrecognizable to most of us before the adoption of the Constitution in 1787 (and a majority of ratifying states wasn't reached until 1791); before that, it was a loose agglomeration of autonomous states with no central government to speak of, a situation that worked out rather badly overall. Essentially, the United States became the United States on September 17, 1787, a date on which we don't celebrate much of anything at all.

But on July 4, we mark the day by blowing things up and, again, eating too much and drinking a good deal. I find that rather strange; by July 4, 1776, we had already been at war for several months and not much changed on that date. Still, we've picked that one for some reason and celebrate it by essentially re-enacting the very worst part of a long-ago struggle instead of the very best part of it. Instead of making things go boom on July 4, we ought to be marking the intellectual achievement and triumph of diplomacy embodied by September 17 and perhaps hoping that wars can become a thing of the past altogether. That's not really the American way, though. We're not much for intellectuals here. We tend to like shoot-'em-up cowboys much more, so it's off to the rocket's red glare and bombs bursting in air. Yes, that has nothing to do with the Revolutionary War and comments on the War of 1812, about which most of us can say nothing and have no inkling of why it happened in the first place. Still, we're all going to be "patriotic" about it and behave as we're supposed to because, hey, that's just what's done.

As for me, I won't be pushing and shoving my way into a department store in anticipation of December 25. It's just not what I do. When July 4 rolls around, I won't be blowing anything up because I live with someone who survived a real war and knows what it's like to hide in an underground garage. She doesn't much care for bombs bursting in air; they tend to give her nightmares. I'm probably not a very good 'Merikan. Oddly enough, I don't really care.

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