Reclaiming the holidays…

As we are approaching the holiday season, we begin with a co-celebration of both Hanukkah and Thanksgiving, one that will not coincide again until 2166. Technically, that year Hanukkah will be one day later, but they will nonetheless be around the same time.  Perhaps it’s not a big deal to many who are not celebrating Thanksgiving or Hanukkah, yet it is a rare occurrence, kicking off the 2013 holiday season.

Gathering around with friends and/or family for the holidays can be an opportunity for celebration and relaxation. Yet, in recent years we have seen a raise of consumerism culture, less time off for workers, and a total disregard for love, peace and communit(ies)y. More and more stores are now opening their doors on Thanksgiving Day calling it “Grey Thursday” or “Thanks for Shopping Day,” as our entire culture seems to evolve around one major activity: shopping!  Everyone we are told, through the medium of TV, magazines, newspapers, etc. should be buying things. It does not matter whether you need those things or not. Just buy! It does not matter if you can afford it – just borrow! Shop if you are happy. Shop if you are sad. And as you shop for new things, you are slowly transformed from being a citizen to being a consumer.

Research shows that the number of people shopping on Thanksgiving is increasing, with a reported 33 million planning to go shopping on Thanksgiving Thursday, according to the National Retail Federation.  Unfortunately, shoppers shopping on Thanksgiving Day are forgetting one simple thing – in order for stores to be open, people need to be working in them. And as research shows us, those people are more and more low-paid retail workers who are leaving their families at home to be clocking in on Thanksgiving and well into Black Friday. They do not get to enjoy time off; they do not get to celebrate love with their families. This year, on Thanksgiving Day, Toys “R” Us will open at 5 pm, Best Buy at 6 pm, Target at 8 pm, and Macy’s breaking a 155-year tradition of not opening on the holiday, will open at 8 pm. Even Burger King will be open! For every worker in that store there will be a family not celebrating with loved ones, there will be no time off for these folks, no relaxation – just work!

Walmart reported that this year they will be serving a turkey dinner to 1 million employees on Thanksgiving – replacing family with work, or better yet family kitchen with soup kitchen, as a great number of its employees are supported by some type of financial assistance from the government, because they do not earn enough.  Worse, early on this month, in Canton, Ohio, Walmart associates held a food drive for their associates who cannot afford Thanksgiving dinner, perhaps for the loved ones left at home without a parent, uncle, or aunt.

Not that I am a big fan of Thanksgiving or Hanukkah as we know it, but I am a big fan of liberation and a reinvention of holidays and traditions, as we pursue healing and support through community and friends. My reluctance towards the two holidays comes from their problematic history of pain and war.

Thanksgiving is one of those problematic holidays. First, there are at least two “first” Thanksgivings. The story most of us know is of the day in 1621 when Pilgrims and Native Americans supposedly shared in a harvest feast. However, what really happened that day, Dr. Tingba Apidta says that “according to a single-paragraph account in the writings of one Pilgrim, a harvest feast did take place in Plymouth in 1621, probably in mid-October, but the Indians who attended were not even invited. Though it later became known as Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims never called it that. And amidst the imagery of a picnic of interracial harmony is some of the most terrifying bloodshed in New World history.”  What is forgotten or left out of mainstream history is the fact that in the years following that unhappy meal, the majority of indigenous peoples in the area were either murdered firsthand or secondhand (via diseases of white folks).

The second First Thanksgiving – the one in 1637 that occurred near the Mystic River and involved the slaughter of at least 700 Pequot Indians – is the one we currently commemorate. Contrary to what we’ve learned in school the Pilgrims were not friends with the local Native Americans. They were the colonizers, engaging in a war of extermination against their hosts, at times pretending to be their friends. Just days before the alleged Thanksgiving love-fest, a company of Pilgrims led by Myles Standish actively wanted to kill a local chief. They deliberately caused a rivalry between two friendly Native Americans, pitting one against the other and leading to the creation of an 11-foot-high wall erected around the entire settlement for the purpose of keeping the “natives”out. Any Native American who came within the vicinity of the Pilgrim settlement was subject to robbery, enslavement, or sometimes murder.

Perhaps Hanukkah can give us a more celebratory message; however it has its problems. The story of Hanukkah is a story about war, specifically about a group of Jews led by the Maccabee family who overthrew one of the most powerful armies in the world and won their liberty. The redemption here comes from the powerful message that a committed group of people led a successful uprising against a much larger force, paving the way for Jewish independence and perhaps keeping Judaism itself from disappearing. However, it is also a complicated story, filled with darker sides, including the Maccabean leaders’ religious zealotry, forced conversions and deadly attacks on their neighbors.

What to do? Many refuse to celebrate any of these holidays. Yet, in a society filled with work and consumerism, I advocate for transformation while reclaiming and liberating the holidays from traditions by creating new meanings with love, family, friends and community. To do this, we first have to take time off, which in itself can be a revolutionary act, if you can afford to do so. As Lynn Parramore pointed out in a recent article a medieval peasant had more vacations than we do today.  The average American gets eight vacation days annually and a recent study showed that most folks do not take the time off, because they are saving it should they get sick, cannot afford to miss work, or are afraid of getting fired. Just think about it, if you are a low wage worker and are lucky enough to have some time off, can you really not work on a holiday? And even if you are lucky enough to take time off, most of us have learned to “check in” either through our emails or phones – always working!

This year, as we look towards 2166, let’s reinvent the holidays. If you can take time off – take it. If you can celebrate and relax – don’t go shopping. Fight alongside workers who do not yet earn a living wage and do not have paid holidays. Envision new ways of celebrating Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and all the upcoming holidays, by first openly acknowledging their problematic past. Try to create new spaces for celebration with community members. Rejoice in the simple things in life, as we may begin to heal from a history of aggression and a culture of consumerism, and be a part of a political, cultural and personal transformation.




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