Each year at Thanksgiving time, I think about the time I spent working in retail and the family time that had to be given up during the holiday season at the end of the year. I used to have to get up at 3am the morning after Thanksgiving to go to work and prep for the Black Friday stampede. In those early morning hours, I would arrive at work to find a line had already formed to await the opening of the doors. I would setup as the customers outside braved the cold and sipped on hot chocolate and coffee by the side of the building.
During the busy shopping season, we had team meetings where it was acknowledged that working extra hours during the holidays was hard, but it was explained that was what you had to do in order to work in retail. The way it was said made it sound like we were all pursuing our dream of working in the retail space. It was as if extended holiday hours were just the sacrifice we had to make in order to live out those dreams. It probably goes without saying, but for many of us, working in retail was not the ultimate fulfillment of our occupational fantasies.
Last week, the incomparable Liz Bruenig had a post on Thanksgiving being the only vestige of the medieval tradition of feasts that used to be a major part of people’s lives.
Thanksgiving may be the only bona fide American feast day. Every other holiday has some other activity or occasion to recommend it, but Thanksgiving is a feast to celebrate feasting and to express gratitude for everything that can’t be properly commodified: family, friendship, the autumn season. The meaning of it may be less distinct than your average medieval feast, but the sense that it’s about something better and truer than the ordinary grind of work is what lends it its emotional depth (and what makes the travesty of workers forced to labor on the holiday so despicable ).
When I see that more and more stores are opting to open on Thanksgiving, I feel really badly for the employees who have to staff those stores when they should be spending time with their friends and family. As change in our society continues to accelerate, Thanksgiving remains an anomaly in prescribing time for nurturing connections. We have to hold on to those meaningful traditions that we have in the face of consumerist encroachment. At the very least, we should avoid patronizing those stores that care so little for the family lives of their employees (certainly on Thanksgiving).