If there’s one thing even more uniquely American than choking down mouthfuls of turkey no one wants, green bean casserole no one admits to preparing, and pumpkin pie that no one remembers buying on Thanksgiving, it’s going shopping all the time. For god’s sake, George W. Bush counseled a nation still reeling from the 9/11 attacks that when the going gets tough, the tough go shopping. “Take your families and enjoy life the way we want it to be enjoyed,” he said. Forget baseball—shopping is the national pastime.
Given that, I’m genuinely amazed at the pushback against plans by Walmart, Target, and other major retailers to open their doors on a day that everyone has off but no one has anything to do. Being disgusted by the willingness of stores to open for business on, what, the 10th or 20th most solemn day of the year isn’t just incomprehensible, it’s positively anti-American.
As Calvin Coolidge put it famously to a bunch of newspaper editors back in 1925, “The chief business of the American people is business.” Just as you can’t have Thanksgiving without a meal that fully no one actually enjoys (and a guest list that always seems only slightly less arbitrary, resentful, and ill-mannered than the manimals in The Island of Dr. Moreau), you can’t have a functioning free-market economy without massive amounts of shopping. Every day is “Buy Nothing Day” in North Korea and look where that’s got them.
And yet we encounter stories denouncing “the war on Thanksgiving.” Haven’t you heard, bellows Dean Obeidallah at The Daily Beast, that “thousands of [people] will be compelled to leave their Thanksgiving celebrations to go to work” because down-on-their-luck chains such as K-Mart are opening as early as 6 a.m on Thursday. “Stand up for the real meaning of Thanksgiving,” opines T.J. McCormack at Foxnews.com, and “skip the shopping on Turkey Day.” Facebook pages such as Boycott Black Thursday and Boycott Shopping on Thanksgiving Day are easier to find than the cans of jellied cranberry sauce you bought last year after worrying the supermarket would be sold out by the time you remembered to get some this year.
Enough already. The only thing worth getting bent out of shape over is that it took the nation’s retailers so long to move the nation’s biggest sales day, Black Friday, up by 24 hours and give us all one more reason not to watch the Detroit Lions get shellacked on TV. We’ve already been going out to the movies in greater and greater numbers over the years, so why not also pick up a Star Wars Trooper T at the Gap (open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. at most locations, by the way)?
Those of us who are old enough to recall little-remembered and even less-loved “blue laws” can only cheer the growth in 24/7 shopping. Dating back to the colonial times and religious in origin, blue laws severely limited whether stores could open at all on certain days of the year and what sorts of goods they could offer. Growing up in 1970s New Jersey, for instance, supermarkets could sell milk, bread, cold cuts, and other “necessities” on Sundays but whole aisles were literally roped off because the Sabbath was no day for frivolous purchases (especially of the alcoholic variety). Picking up furniture or clothes would have to wait til Monday.
Blue laws have mostly faded but they linger on, especially in New England, the region that once boasted a theocratic form of government—and gave rise to Thanksgiving. In fact, Massachusetts state law still pooh-poohs shopping on Turkey Day, meaning stores there will largely be shuttered.
What’s particularly ironic is that restraint of trade back in the days of Plymouth Plantation almost killed off the Pilgrims. Under the early guidance of William Bradford, the Pilgrims practiced a form of communism, in which everyone was expected to work for the common good. From each according to his ability, to each according to his need and all that jazz. The predictable results, as Bradford notes in his classic account Of Plymouth Plantation, were chronic shortages in food, clothing, shelter. Indeed, the only thing that wasn’t scarce was bitching and moaning about how nobody was doing any work.
Bradford and Plymouth’s elders switched course and liberalized economic regulation, giving each family land and the right to grow however much of whatever they wanted, which they could then keep or sell. The result? The new capitalist system “made all hands very industrious,” famines became a thing of the past, and people were generally happier (“gave farr better contente”).
Today’s puritanical, anti-commerce prudes—whether in the Massachusetts statehouse or the newsrooms of the nation’s elite journalistic outposts—would do well to reinvent the lessons of Gov. Bradford for the 21st century: Get to bed early on Wednesday, pick up a pre-cooked bird and as many sides as you can manage at a Boston Market, chow down in the car while driving, and roll into the Walmart parking lot by 9 a.m.
That is, if you want to do Thanksgiving right.