by Jon M. Sweeney and Rabbi Michal Woll
Thanksgiving may just be the most universally cherished and observed of American holidays. We share it without regard to race, ethnicity, religion, geography or sexual orientation. The two of us have really dear, although different, memories of the day from childhood. For Jon, it was a festive family meal and football event — both on the screen and in the backyard. It was his favorite day of the year and truly felt infused with gratitude. For Michal, childhood Thanksgiving afternoons were often spent at the “Millionaires Club,” a restaurant where meals for her and her sisters, and drinks for mom and dad, were all free. It was a place that felt like home for the family and they were grateful for the ease of letting someone other than a stressed mother-of-four do the cooking. For both of us, Thanksgiving was a day spent quietly, as stores and businesses were closed and traffic was minimal.
We are now both about 50, and the world has changed, a lot. Christmas fills the aisles before the turkey meets his maker. Leisurely shopping on the bonus next-day-off has morphed into “Black Friday,” and store opening times recede ever earlier as customers are whipped into a frenzy by the promise of sales, Sales, SALES! (complete with myriad reports of trampling deaths, injuries, and crowds managed with pepper spray). Five years ago, we sat at Thanksgiving dinner and listened as a few of our extended family were planning their that-evening shopping. We sighed. A year later we noticed some retail stores that didn’t bother closing on Thanksgiving at all. Since then, the situation has only gotten worse, in our opinion.
We know many people who want to rethink this time of year — not just bring it back to sanity, but reimagine the celebrations themselves. For Jews, this can mean simplifying Hanukkah, returning it to the observance of a miracle that it once was, complete with candles, games and gelt. For Christians, a rethinking of the season might mean rediscovering Advent by counting the days until Christmas and cultivating the presence of God in their lives. This is an opportunity to renew commitment to faith, giving and kindness. Some Christians are also rediscovering the historical Saint Nicholas. Nicholas of Myra was a fourth-century Greek bishop who lived in what is today Turkey. He actually did go around distributing gifts to needy children, finding kids in desperate need, often giving secretly so as not to be noticed, perhaps even — yes it is true — by dropping gifts down family chimneys. St. Nick is a reminder to give to that child who has little, not an excuse to obtain the latest gadget. A revalued Christmas morning may still involve gifts, but the celebration of what is received might be more in balance with what the kids have learned to give.
But let’s focus for now on imagining what can happen this month. Here we share with you what has become, for us, a meaningful new ritual, and one we try to make a focus of late November: ThanksGiveaway. We keep in mind the upcoming season and look around for things we may not need. Then, instead of shopping on the day after Thanksgiving, we go through our closets one last time before giving all the stuff away. Our dream is that ThanksGiveaway will become a serious cultural observance throughout the United States. Then, the December news would no longer report aggregate spending as a barometer of “consumer confidence,” but would broadcast indications of generosity as a gauge of our human spirit! Let’s put Black Friday out of business and replace it with ThanksGiveaway as the name for the day after Thanksgiving. Perhaps then, someday in the future, dictionaries will include this:
ThanksGiveaway (proper noun): The day after Thanksgiving in the United States that describes people’s attempt to shun what had become a tradition of shopping furiously for bargains, once known as “Black Friday,” with a day devoted to cleaning out extra clothing, unneeded books, rarely used cooking utensils and appliances and other nonessential or duplicate household items, and giving them away to others who may need them.
It’s a new/old spiritual practice. You might try it this year.
Jon M. Sweeney is a Catholic writer and the author of “The Pope Who Quit,” recently optioned by HBO. Michal Woll served Beth Jacob Synagogue here in Montpelier as Visiting Rabbi from 2009 to 2011. Together they are the authors of “Mixed-Up Love: Relationships, Family, and Religious Identity in the 21st Century.” They moved to Montpelier in July 2015 and live with their daughters Sima and Clelia in the Meadow.