Pausing for Thankfulness and Sharing

Good Economic Practice

Right before Halloween, I happened on a CNET reference to a London Telegraph article informing readers what their children want for Christmas: the iPod Touch, the iPhone 4, and the iPad topped the list. Given our own economic worries, and with other British news at the time recounting government austerity measures under the UK government’s Spending Review and feared losses of benefits in a time of low employment, my reaction could be summarized as “I’m sure you do – now, clean your room and make up a second, more reasonable list.”

It’s something I heard from my parents rather frequently. And yet, I do not remember a “bad” Christmas. Not even the year I didn’t get skis (which I stopped wanting about a month after the holiday).

Of course now, U.S. retailers consider such thinking to be heresy – as do many in the media and a considerable number of consumers. At the start of last week, my email inbox was flooded with announcements of “Black Friday Week,” referring to the day after the Thanksgiving holiday, when retailers hope to generate the greatest sales of the holiday season. Barnes & Noble, Borders, Amazon, Staples, Kohl’s, Best Buy, and even the bank ING trumpeted the arrival of Friday deals. Media sources worried over how much Americans would spend for Christmas.

Thanksgiving was not even mentioned.

Among the small range of truly American holidays, Thanksgiving stands out for people gathering together not to champion a political moment in our history or the achievement of distinguished individuals, but to reconnect with those things that are universal to humankind and enduring beyond institutions and even nations. With origins over a hundred years before the Declaration of Independence and the founding of the nation, the holiday is principally a harvest festival – something familiar to many cultures. The Pilgrims’ celebration of the survival of at least half their number through the New England winter of 1620/21, and of a successful harvest the following summer, connects us today with the fundamental recognition of our human need for food, shelter, work, and rest from work – and with losses recognized and mourned, tragedies survived, and the need for human companionship and support in all areas of life.

The Times of Their Lives: Life, Love, and Death in Plymouth Colony tells us that the three-day gathering in the early autumn of 1621 consisted of about 50 English settlers and over 90 of the natives. In the harvest-home tradition of the times, “revelry” in the form of lots of food, drink, conversation, and sports focused on firearms and archery would have been primary features, with informal seating and a recognition of a higher power, but not an emphasis on prayer.  The time was, however, one of recognizing the value of work and community – and inclusive community at that, although such tolerance of the native peoples by the European contingent was short-lived.

In the gradual evolution of Thanksgiving, it was Franklin Roosevelt who most prominently bumped the holiday into the pure economic realm, when in 1939 he moved it earlier by a week to create a longer Christmas shopping season. I find this fascinating both for the suggestion that retailers then did not begin Christmas promotions in September or October, as they do now, and in the fact that Americans responded so negatively to this move by an immensely popular president that he reversed it after two years.

Twenty-five years later, however, the heightened push for sales was already evident. “Black Friday” originated in my home city of Philadelphia, as the name given by the Police Department to possibly their worst day of the year. (It was not until the Reagan 1980s that it became associated with the accounting terminology of getting retail sales into “the black” and out of deficit.) Crowded, manic, and cutting short people’s relaxation, the institution of spending in the name of Christmas shopping for others – with the hope and, increasingly, manipulated expectation that you’d buy as much or more for yourself – was well on its way to becoming the obsession it is today.

Writing for Bloomberg Businessweek this holiday season, Drake Bennett points out that while “a strong shopping season can give the whole economy a short-run boost,” in the long run “retailers aren’t doing themselves or the economy any favors by pushing shoppers’ buttons so expertly. Families that max out their credit cards eventually must cut back, so spending today robs from spending tomorrow.” And I admit, I thought something similar when I was exhorted on Facebook to abandon Cyber Monday (fourth day in the extended weekend of artificial need that has come to replace a three-day celebration of plenty) and shop diligently at my local businesses to “save my neighbor’s job.”

Not a bad sentiment – but wouldn’t my neighbor’s job be better off if I shopped there regularly, not just when she or he is in frantic competition with discount pricing from giant retailers?

Bennett’s article uncomfortably details the psychological machinations of marketing “experts” for the Christmas shopping season, which would be enough to put me off the Black Friday-to-Cyber Monday thrust on its own. (It is bad enough that Wall Street uses spy satellites to monitor the fill rate of parking lots as a measure of the retail market’s strength; to have researchers measuring my supposed willpower and working to overcome it smacks of criminal activity.) But my resistance to this phenomenon goes deeper. It goes to the erasure of the Thanksgiving holiday itself, and the history associated with it: one of having worked hard to overcome obstacles and both celebrating and sharing the results.

The current business logic of rushing past Thanksgiving to “save the economy” through self-indulgence, whereby we “license” ourselves to buy for us in the act of purchasing for the holidays is one logic – not “logic” as a universal concept. Further, it is a logic – as the wishful British children demonstrate – that encourages a high degree of self-focus and the expectation, even the demand, of getting whatever one wants. This is not a realistic life lesson, but it is widespread in developed countries that are already feeling the effects of overindulging a generation. (In Norway, for example, the term divagenerasjonen – “The Diva Generation” – has been coined to describe a growing number of indulged youth who expect their employers, their parents, and others to take care of them eternally and keep them entertained, rather than considering what they themselves have to contribute to job, family, and society.)

An alternative logic – one closer to that of the original harvest home – might serve both business and society better in the long term. In this logic, you cultivate awareness of both what people have and what they have done, allow time for community building, and set “giving” in the context not of sale of items but of  enduring, quality relationships. The emphasis would not be on a bargain that is in limited supply, for which shoppers have to abbreviate their holiday by getting to a store at 4 a.m., nor in the creation of an environment of greater anxiety (“you have to save our economy by spending”; “you have to rush to this event or you will be worse off”; “you owe it to us to shop with us, and you owe other people their presents”). It would be on providing the best service and goods possible on a long-term basis, with a heightened customer awareness and attentiveness over the holiday season.

On the business end, this model highlights the fact that relationships are the things that “weave the fabric of all business,” as Bob Burg points out in Go-Givers Sell More. “‘Does it make money?’ is not a bad question,” Burg says. “It’s just a bad first question. … The degree to which you focus on adding value to others, constantly and consistently, will determine your worth, both in the heart and in the marketplace.”

Building such value would, I think, would be a more enduring economic practice for the United States, economically and socially, than our present “do-or-die” Black Friday model. And I admit, my greater concern is social. The old proverb “you can’t take it with you” has been distorted to include the unspoken addendum “so spend it all now.” The credit crisis, bank bailouts, mortgage foreclosures, and the national debt all testify that “spend it all now” has been a highly dubious policy, and one that has created considerable anxiety. A reassessment of where true value lies may not meet our need for instant gratification – but it might better meet the standard of a true pursuit of happiness.

Besides … I want my Thanksgivings.