A Note of Thanksgiving
By A. D. Freudenheim

26 November 2000

Thanksgiving may be over, but I still feel that I have a lot to be thankful for in this past year and in the coming one: my wife, my family, my friends, supportive and wonderful one and all. Thanksgiving, in particular, is an important holiday for me; it has been one of the few constants in my life, one of only two annual events that have ever provided me with a sense of rootedness in my relatively wandering life. An opportunity to see friends and family, to congregate in the same place and perform many of the same rituals, and to relax and think, and take stock of what has been and what may be.

It is with this in mind that I find the end of my Thanksgiving weekend interrupted with the seemingly unstoppable flow of other holidays, driven by the relentless urge to market and the unceasing need to boost sales. Almost like magic on the day after Thanksgiving, the United States becomes focused on that next big thing: Christmas (and, to a lesser but still troublesome extent, Hanukkah). We dosey-do from holiday to holiday, giving each one as much attention as the last: from Labor Day to Columbus Day, from Columbus Day to Halloween, from Halloween to Thanksgiving, and so on. The transition from Thanksgiving to Christmas in particular is almost entirely commercial. Stores change their windows and advertisements for "the perfect present" take their place along side those other famous words of American commerce: "Sale!"

The beginning of the Christmas season also marks the start of that other great tradition, the "holiday" party. Those of us not of the dominant American religious tradition have varying levels of appreciation for the application of this word to the winter tradition of Christmas parties. In my case, I find the use of the word on the borderline of offensive, and nearing towards condescending, since the tradition starts and ends with Christmas. Hanukkah and Kwanzaa are late additions, for their own separate but valid reasons: Hanukkah is not a significant Jewish holiday, nor a particularly religious one, and Kwanzaa dates back only to 1966. Their inclusion marks a general level of American secularity but the holidays we speak of are ultimately anything but secular ; I would much rather enjoy them for their non-secular value - sharing them with my Christian friends - than pretend that I, as a Jew, can truly revel in the full meaning of Christmas.

Admittedly, there are some benefits to our secular culture. One clearly positive aspect is acceptance of others, broadly speaking; the American melting pot has again worked its wonders, and the border lines between Christians and Jews are not what they were 30 years ago; with the secularization of Christmas has come an integration of Judaism into the American mind-set; next to the Christmas lights and tree ornaments can also be found an assortment of Hanukkiot - the 9-candle candelabra used to celebrate Hanukkah. The mere fact that Christians and Jews mingle freely at office parties, perhaps even oblivious to these religious identifiers, marks a level of integration unimaginable two generations ago. African-Americans might argue that their rate of "acceptance" has been slower, but nonetheless, the kinara, the candelabra used for Kwanzaa, can also be found on sale with Christmas and Hanukkah items. Economic integration certainly isn't everything, but in America, it counts towards most things.

What we have gained seems clear: a freer, more open society, one that is oftentimes more accepting of the minority points of view. But what do we lose in this process of economic secularization? Perhaps more than anything else, with the increasing commercialization of every aspect of our culture, we lose some of the underlying religious values that were reasons for the growth and importance of organized religion in the first place. We lose touch with the value of friends and family, because we express their value through commercial acts. We forget, amidst the holiday bounty, that there are others less fortunate than ourselves: missing not just food but family, too. We allow ourselves to become both the chicken and the egg, the beginning and end of a cycle that has us looking forward only to the next holiday and back only as far as the last one. Our emotional phases are shortened along with our economic rotations.

By now, I surely sound like a letter-writer to Ann Landers, decrying the loss of America to the godless hordes. This would be a mistaken impression indeed; to be godless (of either the atheistic or the agnostic varieties) is not necessarily to be value-less. But commercial culture is not a replacement for either a theology or a moral structure, except for the most cynical of corporate raiders - or the most vapid of shoppers. The truly secular among us can consider themselves lucky in their ability to be flexible in their celebrations or offended by the religiosity surrounding them; it's their choice. Yet they, too, can mourn the rise of our commercial "religious" culture. The imposition of a commercial Christmas is, in the end, much harder to escape than the prayerful celebrations of a Midnight Mass.

And let us say: Amen.

  Copyright 2000, by A. D. Freudenheim. May not be used in whole or part without written permission. However, you may link to this page as desired!