[Nyerges is the author of “How to Survive Anywhere,” “Extreme Simplicity,” “Self-Sufficient Home,” “Guide to Wild Foods and Useful Plants,” and other books. He conducts classes in practical self-reliance. He can be reached at School of Self-Reliance, Box 41834, Eagle Rock, CA 90401, or www.SchoolofSelf-Reliance.com.]
Black Friday. When I was a child 50 years ago, we never heard that word. Oh, it was around, and it seems to have taken on a heightened life of its own in the decades that followed.
I can recall that in my world as a child – which was the vastness of Pasadena – every store closed on Thanksgiving. The streets were quiet, and you knew everyone was home preparing a meal, or they’d driven away to some other town to visit relatives. But commerce ceased. You were pitied if you had no family, and you were looked down upon if you kept your business open.
“Too bad that guy has to actually work on Thanksgiving,” we’d hear my father say. Most businesses were closed, and when my father realized that he had no working batteries for a camera or flashlight, he’d send one of my older brothers on a mad dash to find a store, any store, that was open and sold batteries. There was no internet, and no easy way to figure out who was open and closed unless you spent an hour on the phone. Suddenly, it wasn’t such a bad idea to have a store open. Of course, my father would be furious and he’d blame it on someone else for forgetting to stock up on some batteries. Usually, my brother would be gone an hour or two, but somehow managed to come home with the needed batteries.
Still, there seemed something very special to demand of yourself that Thanksgiving be set aside for family, for remembrance, for breaking the spell and monotony of work only and working only for material goals. In the United States, that used to be Sunday where people took the day off. In some areas, Sunday is still to the week what Thanksgiving is to the year. For example, try finding an open store in Utah on Sunday. Oh, you’ll find one, but not until you do a bit of searching.
Our values determine who we are, and who we become. In this world, everything seems to drive only the materialistic instincts. Merchants cannot wait even a few extra hours to open their doors for the Black Friday specials, and we are encouraged to rush out the door and buy now before the next guy gets the discounted item offered to the first 50 folks who push their way into the door.
The mindset is rampant in our society. A natural hillside, and lush trees on a lot, are described as non-performing real estate. Relaxing on a Sunday is thought of as being lazy. Studying esoteric literature is regarded sometimes as impractical. We are fast becoming a nation of non-thinkers, and it is usually (but not always) when we break out of our routine and out of our comfortable box of thinking that we rise to who we really are as spiritual beings, and live lives which reflect some higher goal.
I want a low price and a deal just like the next guy, but I am not willing to do anything to get that deal. I regard Thanksgiving day as nearly sacred, the closest thing we have to national holy day where we attempt to ponder who we are, what we are, what we did right, what we did wrong, what we need to do next. To quickly eat a slice of turkey and then some cranberry, and rush out the door to fight the mobs to get a deal is nearly sacrilegious in my thinking.
I have both good and bad memories mixed into Thanksgiving. By my teens, our family Thanksgiving gatherings were crowded, loud, raucous events that started the night before and included the whole weekend. Yes, there was the prayer that my mother insisted upon, and there were moments of quiet reflection. My mother began forcing each of us to say what we were thankful for, and with close to 20 people in a room, that could take a while. But then, food and wine and beer was served, and the “conversation” was more like non-stop yelling, while the TV played a football game in the next room at the highest possible volume.
No wonder I got to the point where I told my parents I would not be there on Thanksgiving. I didn’t try to make them feel bad by giving them all my reasons, but I did come the next day with my wife and we’d sit quietly and talk for awhile when the mob was gone. At first, my father called me a bad son for not showing up on Thanksgiving, but eventually he enjoyed the more thoughtful visits.
This year, I went to a local park with a small group and we together shared Native American skills that the east coast Indians would have taught the starving pilgrims of the Plymouth Rock colony. We taught about wild plants, and making fire, and weaving with natural fibres, and weaponry, and painting with natural minerals. Yes, we had some snacks, but it was not about food.
It has taken a long time to find what I consider a better way to commemorate this very special day. It was thoughtful and quiet and insightful while our small group learned and talked together. We shared the myths and the realities about the people at that “first Thanksgiving,” and looked at how the Indians were thanked for their generosity. There’s a lot buried just beneath the surface that is so relevant to each of us today that it’s a shame more of us don’t open our encyclopedias and explore these American roots.
Like so much of American history, there are plenty of myths, and plenty of facts. And like so many of American holidays, commercial interests seems bent on convincing us that “buying stuff” is somehow synonymous with commemorating the special day.