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Nov 28 2005

Thanksgiving and Christmas musings

For an immigrant like me, the Thanksgiving holiday took a long time to warm up to. It seems to be like baseball or cricket or peanut butter, belonging to the class of things that one has to get adjusted to at an early age in order to really enjoy it. For people who were born and grew up here, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose special significance one gets to appreciate as part of learning the history of this country. As someone who came to the US as an adult and did not have to learn US history in school or did not have the experience of visiting my grandparents’ homes for this occasion, this holiday initially left me cold.

But over time, I have warmed to the holiday and it now seems to me to be the best holiday of all, for reasons that have little to do with its historical roots.

I mainly like the fact that it has (still) avoided being commercialized and merchandized to death. There are no gifts and cards associated with it. It is purely secular so no one need feel excluded. There are no ritualized ceremonies, religious or otherwise, that one has to attend. There are no decorations or even dressing up. It is just a time to get together with family and friends and share food. And even the food menu of turkey, potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, and pies, is such that it is not too expensive, so most people can afford to have the standard menu for a large number of people without going into debt. And although there is much talk of anticipated gluttony, in practice this also seems like just a ritualized and familiar joke, and most people seem to eat well but not in excess. There is also no tradition of drinking too much and rowdiness. Thanksgiving seems to symbolize a kind of socializing that is a throwback to a simpler, less crass and commercial time.

Thanksgiving remains mostly an opportunity to spend a day with those whom one is close to, sharing food, playing games, and basking in the warmth of good fellowship. How can one not like such a holiday?

The only catch with Thanksgiving is that it is immediately followed by the horror show known as the “Christmas shopping season.” Each year I am revolted at the attention that the media pays to the retail industry the days immediately following Thanksgiving. They wallow in stories of sales, of early-bird shoppers on Friday lining up in the cold at 4:00am to get bargains, fighting with other shoppers to grab sale items, people getting trampled in the crush, the long lines at cash registers, the year’s “hot” gift items, and the breathless reports of how much was spent and what it predicts for the future of the economy. The media eggs on this process by giving enormous amounts of coverage to people going shopping, a non-news event if there ever was one, adding cute names like “Black Friday” and more recently “Cyber Monday.”

Frankly, I find this obsessive focus on consumption disgusting. In fact, I would gladly skip directly from Thanksgiving to the new year because the intervening period seems to me to be just one long orgy of consumerism in which spending money is the goal. The whole point of the Christmas holiday seems to have become one in which people are made to feel guilty if they are not spending vast amounts of time and money in finding gifts for others. There is an air of forced jollity that is jarring, quite in contrast to the genuine warmth of Thanksgiving. And it just seems to stress people out.

Since I grew up in a country where people were encouraged to be frugal, often out of necessity, I still find it disquieting to be urged to spend as if it were somehow my duty to go broke in order to shore up the retail industry and help “grow the economy.” I still don’t understand that concept. An economy that is based on people buying what they do not need or can even afford seems to me to be inherently unsustainable, if not downright morally offensive.

The only things about Christmas that I still like are the carols. The a cappella arrangements of traditional Christmas carols produce some of the most beautiful music, and to hear good choirs singing the delicate harmonies is something that even someone as musically challenged as I am can appreciate. Although I am no longer religious, the one thing that can tempt me back into church is a Christmas carol service.

Let me be clear that I am referring to Christmas carols and not to the abomination that one often hears on the radio during this season, which are the popular Christmas “songs.” The latter consist of some of the most irritating music ever invented. I am referring to things like “Silver Bells” “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” “Holly Jolly Christmas” and others of that ilk. These awful songs are played over and over again at this time of year until I am ready to take a hammer to the radio. If I never hear those songs again, I will be happy.

I have an audiocassette that has about twenty carols that I sometimes play around Christmas time. But what prevents me from fully enjoying it is that the producers, in an appalling act of bad judgment, have sandwiched the beautiful a cappella choral arrangements, with “White Christmas” at the beginning and “Silver Bells” at the end, making it even worse by adding schmaltzy piano accompaniment. My enjoyment of the carols is tempered by the knowledge that these annoying songs are going to eventually come on, ruining the warmth generated by the carols. My hatred of such music is such that I am tempted to head over to the new Friedman Media Center in the Kelvin Smith Library and use their terrific equipment to digitize the tape, and transfer the songs to a CD, leaving out those two imposters. (If you have never used this facility, I strongly recommend a visit. There is almost nothing that you cannot do there in terms of audio-visual effects. It’s free to all Case people. And the staff there are very helpful too.)

I sincerely hope that Thanksgiving does not also become corrupted by merchandizing the way that Christmas has. But in our buy-buy-buy culture you can be sure that retailers are eyeing that holiday too and it will require great vigilance to prevent it from sliding down that particular slope.

11 comments

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  1. 1
    Anonymous

    I went to the library in search of good Christmas music. Finding stuff by good classical artists is the best way of getting “real” Christmas carols. I love Christmas, the lights, the decorations, the cookies, even the shopping (I just enjoy the fun of picking things out for people – it doesn’t stress me out at all). But I listen to my own music, because I want to hear some of the carols that you don’t get on the radio. Stuff like “Light a Torch Jeannette Isabella” and “Lo How a Rose Ere Blooming” and “I Wonder as I Wander”. And I don’t mind if they throw in Silver Bells, so long as it is a singable version so we can have fun singing along.

  2. 2
    Erin

    Oh, Mano, you are a holiday celebrant after my own heart! Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday for all the reasons you cite (though to be fair I think the origins of the holiday were probably religious: the traditional recipient of thanks is God), and Christmas leaves me uncomfortable for similar reasons.

    The biggest difficulty with Christmas for me — and I’d wager this is true for many others as well — is that my family loves the gift orgy thing and can’t understand why I don’t, so I’m stuck choosing between participating fully (which makes me uncomfortable), receiving but not giving (which is impolite), or just not going at all. In recent years I’ve opted for the latter and I’ll probably continue — but it’s a shame to feel I have to avoid people I love for such a sad reason.

    I love the harmonies of a cappella singing too. Do you like instrumental music at all? — there’s a quintet called Canadian Brass whose arrangements remind me a bit of a cappella groups, and they’ve got at least one Christmas CD that sticks to traditional carols rather than goofy radio stuff. Might be worth a listen if the library system has a copy :). (They do have recordings of other schmaltzy stuff, though, so you’d do well to scan the track list first.)

  3. 3
    Barry

    As usual, I’m with you.

    Couple of points: Best holiday CD (IMHO) is Johnny Mathis’ “Merry Christmas” with Percy Faith from the 70s. Mind you, I’m only 24, but I grew up listening to that CD and I’m hard pressed to listen to much else in terms of xmas music.

    I tend to enjoy Thanksgiving more than xmas because it’s before the annual holiday horror season, whereas xmas marks the end of a long nightmare. By the time the 25th rolls around, you just want it over with and it never seems to live up to the hype.

    What about the classic holiday movies? Again, my attachment is a fondness for my youth (I know, I’m only 24, I shouldn’t be pining for youth), but do you have any favorites? I’m talking about the Grinch, the old claymation Rudolph and the Charlie Brown type movies.

  4. 4
    Mano Singham

    Yes, Erin, is right that giving thanks in Thanksgiving is to god but that’s ok. Most people do it discreetly or not at all, and there is no sense of being dragooned into someone else’s religious beliefs.

    Actually, I have heard the Canadian Brass and they are good. Thanks for reminding me.

    It is kind of sad that the whole gift giving orgy has come between you and enjoying the holiday with your family. Actually, in my family when we were growing up, we gave Christmas gifts only to children (say about 14 or so and younger). I feel it is kind of silly to give gifts to adults.

    As for Barry’s question, I don’t really have a favorite holiday movie, although I can usually be persuaded to watch any Charlie Brown special. TV was only introduced in Sri Lanka in 1977 (we skipped right past the black-and-white era and went straight to color!) so my family did not have a tradition of watching TV at holidays and I never acquired it.

    Even now, I cannot stand watching films on TV because of the costant commercial interruptions so I tend to skip the holiday specials.

    I don’t know, maybe I just don’t have the proper holiday spirit!

  5. 5
    John

    I have a few questions/clarifications. I have read your blog in the past and you are most definitely to the left on the political spectrum. I was quite surprised at your choice to use the word Christmas instead of holiday. With the national trend forcing Christians to be afraid of saying Christmas in fear that we are choosing to ignore the faiths of others, I was wondering why you chose to do so. While reading your article though, you never mention what Christmas is all about. You give it a negative connotation with its connection to American consumerism but I doubt you truly meant it that way. The consumerism part of Christmas is disgusting at times and is due to more the media and the National Retail Federation. But the ultimate responsibility lies with in the people. Many Christians have forgotten what Christmas is all about. People spend on average $738 on gifts and about 130 million people go shopping the day after Thanksgiving. But I believe there is a growing trend as well to push back against consumerism. Our priest actually talked about how we have lost the meaning of Christmas in all the consumerism and that the best gifts are the ones that people don’t ask for but you give because you know they need them. I have a feeling though as technology grows we will continue to lose touch with Christmas but some of us remember why we celebrate.

    I absolutely agree with you about Christmas music and it just gets worse and worse as today’s pop stars remake/destroy Christmas carols.

    Also Thanksgiving is slowly sliding down that slope. The day before Thanksgiving is one of the biggest if not the biggest grossing days for grocery stores. Soon they will be figuring out ways to get people to spend more money.

  6. 6
    Katie

    I feel compelled to defend the day-after-Thanksgiving shoppers, as I am one myself. My sister and I go shopping every year on the Friday after Thanksgiving, and we have a blast. We buy gifts for our parents and have fun chatting with other people in incredibly long lines. I have never seen people fighting over gifts or being rude in any way. It’s nice to walk around the mall and burn off some turkey calories as well. And I love the cheesy Christmas music. :)

  7. 7
    catherine

    Thanksgiving really gets lost in the rush between Halloween to Christmas. The only thing that gets focused on is turkeys, these very intelligent birds who are the victims of Thansgiving celebration.

    This year I decided to see just how quickly after Halloween the Christmas displays went up. I thought there would be at least a week or so of a break, but I swear, on Monday (Halloween was on Sunday this year, I think), I started seeing ads on TV, and my local CVS, who in all other ways is an excellent place to shop and get prescriptions, had most of its displays up. I felt as though I had been in a coma for weeks and had awakened a few days before Christmas only to see that I wasn’t at all prepared.

    There is on thing I will give Christmas. People who don’t think of contributing at other times of the year do often make substantial contributions at this time of year. Is this sick? Yes, of course, but so is much of our society. I’m appreciative that at least one of the holidays focuses on giving beyond one’s own family/network.

  8. 8
    Eldan Goldenberg

    I think the difference between the religious element of Thanksgiving and Christmas is that Thanksgiving is a lot less specific. Christmas is by definition related to Christ, so anyone who doesn’t believe in Jesus as the son of God doesn’t have any part in that religious festival. On the other hand, every religion I know about, and most non-deist ethical systems, has some form of giving thanks, either to a deity, a set of deities, other people or some more abstract concept like Fate, so even the religious part of Thanksgiving is much more inclusive.

    Having said that, my family [of non-christians who mostly don't live anywhere that celebrates Thanksgiving] have tended to use Christmas without the religion and with only small-scale gift-giving as a time to spend together. It doesn’t matter that we aren’t part of the dominant culture; it’s just always been the one day when none of us have any other demands on our time, and my dad’s phone is guaranteed not to ring with a work crisis, so we can all be in one place and relax.

  9. 9
    Mano Singham

    I think Christmas has become for many people what it is for Eldan’s family and there is nothing wrong with that.

    Katie, I have no problem with the shoppers and am glad that you have fun with it. I have a problem with the media treating shopping almost as an obligation and covering it with more devotion than (say) a war.

    John raises and interesting question about my casual use of the word Christmas and I will post something about it on Wednesday.

  10. 10
    sarah

    In regards to the comment about “black Friday” and “cyber Monday” I would like to clarify at least the origin of the name for the former. My understanding is that “black Friday” was not a term conjured up by the media, but rather a term used by those within the retail industry. The name represnts the first time all year when many retailers “see black” since they had previously been operating “in the red” for the majority of the year. Thus, the “cute name” of “black Friday” was intended more as a lable for those “on the inside”; the media has simply popularized the term. In regards to the other term, I am unsure of the origin of “cyber Monday” but it would not surprise me if that was catchy phrase developed by the media.

  11. 11
    Paul Jarc

    Circlefest will give Christmas music fans plenty to enjoy this Sunday at the Church of the Covenant:

    http://www.universitycircle.org/events/activitylist.htm
    </blatant_plug>

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