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Or, the Capitalist Saturnalia

As you’ve no doubt already heard, there’s a massive worker protest going down this Thanksgiving in America, aimed at hobbling retail overlord Wal-Mart. Fresh from destroying the memory of Jesus by outlawing the words “Merry Christmas,” they’re crossing another sacred line by trying to force employees to work on Thanksgiving.

More of them, working harder, anyway: the idea is to replace “Black Friday,” the traditional busiest shopping day of the year, already pushed back from daybreak to the previous midnight, with actual Thanksgiving Night sales. Will Americans, dopey on the aftereffects of huge dinners and bad football, angrily drive to Wally World in order to fight each other for a $49 tablet? You know they will. And so does the corporate oligarchy.

Wal-Mart workers have been organizing strikes for months through social media and elsewhere, protesting, among other things, low pay and long hours. No surprise there. Yet the box retail giant isn’t, as had been reported, pushing sales back a day in retaliation; lots of other retailers that have no worker troubles have already begun the walkback.

This is indeed a war on Thanksgiving, long-celebrated as a day of feasting, family, football, and, oh yeah, giving thanks for a minute or so before you chow down. At least that’s what it’s been in America’s last half-century. However, the very notions of Thanksgiving and Christmas are deeply rooted in American capitalism, and thus not as sacred as you might imagine. Turns out there’s a precedent for the dollar trumping everything when it comes to holidays.

Halloween, for instance, was originally a Gaelic pagan holiday called Samhain; an end-of-harvest festival that marked the coming of cold, dark winters, it naturally began to be associated with the unknown or supernatural. The Catholic church, as they had with Carnival, attached their own ethos to the celebration, co-opting what they couldn’t stop by force. When the tradition was brought to America by immigrants from Ireland and Scotland, their “guising” (costuming) and “souling” (begging for food) combined to become the “trick or treat” phenomenon. That American tradition, believe it or not, only goes back about as far as WWII; when the war and its necessary sugar rationing ended, candy companies raced in to fill a void previously held by candied apples and nuts. Those haunted houses? They also came about as late as the 1950’s, when the Jaycees — that is, the training arm of the Chamber of Commerce — took the scenes folks were creating in their front yards, expanded them, and charged money.

Thanksgiving, 1621.

Thanksgiving was also a European pagan harvest festival, one which the Puritans relegated to merely giving thanks on special days when Providence had favored them. It was a strictly religious observance in the early days of the country — various Presidents, including Washington, made standalone proclamations after periods of crisis — until Lincoln codified it as a national deist yet non-denominational holiday in 1863, part of his plan to keep the nation strong during the darkest days of the Civil War. It was a work of historical fiction, Jane Goodwin Austin’s Standish of Standish: A Story of the Pilgrims, published in 1889, that solidified the image of the “First Thanksgiving” as a feast attended by the Puritan fathers of our country, along with some friendly Indians. This became the standard “history” and practice of the event: a celebratory feast giving thanks for America itself.

It wasn’t until 1942 that the date was set as the fourth Thursday in November, however, because FDR, in an attempt to get merchants more business during the all-important Christmas season, pushed it back a week from the last Thursday in November, the date Lincoln had set. No longer tied to harvest, it became the unofficial family feast day and kickoff to Christmas shopping. And who convinced President Roosevelt to push the date back? Fred Lazarus, president of Macy’s, the king of department stores at the time. Seems he was afraid that a November 30th celebration wouldn’t give his stores enough time to profit. Again, by the 1950’s, the date and tradition were standard practice.

Thanksgiving, 1943.

And then there’s Christmas, the most pagan, Christian, commercial and secular holiday of all. In 1809, Washington Irving’s historical fiction A History of New York, one of the young country’s first literary achievements, puckishly set up Saint Nicholas as the protector of the Dutch inhabitants of what was then known as New Amsterdam, fighting off “savages” and entreating Providence, again, in helping them establish the city. Irving name-checks Nicholas 42 times in the manuscript, often evoking him as one would a pagan God, as an oath of determination, a curse, an entreaty in battle. In a dream sequence, the smoke from Saint Nicholas’ pipe supposedly outlines the future shape of the city, wherein he lays a finger aside his nose and winks as a divine directive for the Dutch immigrants to flourish and propagate in their new home.

Theologian and professor Clement Moore kept the pipe and the gesture when writing his lyrical take on what was then still a Dutch-only observance, a poem entitled “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (later bowdlerized as “The Night Before Christmas”). He also took Irving’s idea of flying in a sleigh, adding eight named reindeer, and also borrowed Irving’s “tradition” of bringing presents on Christmas Eve to children who had left out their stockings, adults being seen as naturally corrupted and unworthy of that blessing. Moore also pushed the visit back a day, mainly to make the idea more palatable to Protestants who saw Christmas celebrations as blasphemous. Why would they? Because Christmas had stemmed from a Roman celebration, held on the Winter Solstice of December 25, called Saturnalia; it featured — you guessed it — feasting and gift-giving.

Thanksgiving, 2012.

Christmas eventually became an American tradition, one in which Christian worship increasingly went in hand with secular festivities and gift-giving, headed by Moore and Irving’s version of what was now called Santa Claus. In his yearly ads of the ’40s and ’50s, Coca-Cola ad artist Haddon Sundblom combined several elements which had become typical of Santa, planting them in the public consciousness for good; it was again the postwar consumerist boom of the 1950s that fueled the secular Christmas transformation. Some of the winter solstice traditions remained — the yule log, the Christmas tree — but it was largely a secular, national observance, featuring Santa as the commercial version of Jesus.

Popular songs, TV shows, and movies popularized the idea of Christmas as an American celebration of capitalism; a copywriter at one of Macy’s main competitors, Montgomery Ward, came up with a way to get kids into stores by creating its own coloring book story about Santa’s unheralded ninth reindeer, a scrawny thing named Rudolph. It later became a hit song. Thanksgiving became less and less about celebrating harvests that most American families had no connection with, and also lost its connection with bounty in general; more and more, it became a prelude to the gift-giving associated with Christmas.

So it’s really not surprising at all that Walmart would eventually seek to blur the lines even more by seducing consumers into shopping and coercing staff into working on a sacred, family-based occasion — having removed the connection to both Earth and God, it was only a matter of time before capitalism began to consume the season entirely. The season doesn’t even function as an expression of goodwill anymore: economists have found the net difference of all those gifts you really didn’t want adds up to a “deadweight loss,” meaning that the economy gets stimulated but your actual quality of life doesn’t.

As with every other aspect of life, the American fall and winter holidays are morphing into one, the traditional circles of community, church, and family growing ever smaller. Let’s face it. The War on Christmas (and Thanksgiving, and Halloween) was fought and lost a long time ago — and like any doomed war, its troops are being asked to give more and more of themselves.