If you look objectively at the evolution of what is referred to as the “holiday season” in the United States, especially with Thanksgiving and Black Friday, you’ll have to admit that some rather strange and even contradictory traditions have come into place over the years.
First, let’s look at the holiday of Thanksgiving itself. It evolved from harvest festivals held in Great Britain, and was supposed to have been based on the first Thanksgiving celebration held in the early 1600s in the American colonies—held either in New England or Virginia. The New England celebration was purportedly attended by many Native Americans, and people celebrate what was supposedly a peaceful and amicable relationship between the colonists and the First Nations people.
Native Americans look upon this celebration as a time of mourning. For this, like the landing of Columbus in the Americas in 1492, was a prelude to centuries of genocide in the Americas. Even today, Native Americans suffer from poverty, oppression, and displacement, and struggle to hold on to cultural traditions that once united people within the various First Nations.
But the Thanksgiving as celebrated by most Americans literally whitewashes this history. It reinforces an image of benign character and generosity of European-born Americans that obfuscates the bloodshed they inflicted on millions of First Nations people. For such whitewashing to become synonymous with the start of the Christian holiday season is strange. Certainly it is not in keeping with what Christ taught.
But Black Friday is even stranger. Black Friday first got its name in the 1950s because of workers calling in sick the day after Thanksgiving, and also in response to the traffic on this busy shopping day. The phrase gained popularity in the 1980s. While the modifier “Black” prior to any day usually described a calamity, retailers in the 80s tried to redefine it by sharing the observation that most retailers operated at a financial loss for most of the year (in the red), but starting the day after Thanksgiving they would start making a profit (in the black). President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved the Thanksgiving holiday from the last Thursday in November to the fourth Thursday in November in order to allow retailers to have a longer Christmas season.
But Black Friday as it exists today is the culmination of a gift exchange tradition gone mad. The benign act of gift-giving has become perverted into a mad dash of materialism, with gift-giving eclipsing almost all other aspects of Christmas. This mad dash has literally caused injuries and deaths in the United States. In 2008, shoppers pushing to get into a Walmart at its opening trampled a worker to death and injured several other employees and bystanders. Literally hundreds of people stepped on or around this worker, and made it difficult for fellow employees to get to the worker to help him. Even when police and emergency service people arrived, they also had great difficulty getting to the worker, as crowds single-mindedly continued to stream into the store. A website has been keeping a tally of deaths and injuries in the U.S.
Self-described Christians complain about a “war on Christmas” because it has become customary to say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” to take into account the fact that not everyone celebrates Christmas. These “war on Christmas” zealots would likely be offended if a Pagan came up to them in May and wished them a happy Beltaine. But these so-called Christians cannot see far enough to the end of their noses to realize that many non-Christians would be justifiably offended if Christmas was pushed on them. Such alleged Christians don’t want to see this because they believe that acknowledging the legitimacy of any religion besides Christianity is itself an attack on Christians. Yet these same people don’t complain about Black Friday—they just complain if the Walmart store in which people are being trampled has a sign saying “Happy Holidays.”
It is clear that the holiday season has been tainted by Thanksgiving and Black Friday, and as such, it would make sense to observe these days differently from the way they are celebrated now. Many Native American tribes observe the day as a “National Day of Mourning.” They also have suggestions for those wanting to observe the day in this way.
As for Black Friday, an alternative called “Buy Nothing Day” evolved in Vancouver, Canada in 1992. The campaign has been promoted by Adbusters.org and is now celebrated in 60 countries. It advocates literally buying nothing on Black Friday as a protest against the rampant materialism of our overconsumptive society and advocating a simpler and more people-connected way of living. People can mark the day by staying home with friends and family, going out and visiting nature, giving away one’s excess possessions to thrift stores or the needy, or participating in protests against the destructiveness of the modern consumerist lifestyle. Many people participating in Buy Nothing Day see this as a means of restoring the true spirit of Christmas and the holiday season in general—a time of reflection, and a time of connection with others.
Given that the Western materialistic consumer lifestyle is causing major destruction on this planet, Buy Nothing Day is an important observation to make. It can also be an important component of a truly spiritual holiday season, regardless of one’s religion.
The Earth Epic Calendar sets the change of the year at the time of the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere (Summer Solstice in the Southern Hemisphere), which currently is around December 21. Pagans celebrate the Winter Solstice, or Yule, at the same time. Buddhists celebrate Bodhi Day on December 8 to mark the day when Buddha reached enlightenment. Hindus in the United States created Pancha Ganapati, a five day festival that serves as a Hindu alternative to Christmas. (The festival is celebrated in honor of the Hindu deity Ganesha.) Jews celebrates Hanukkah sometime between late November and early January.
It makes sense to look at the holidays as a time of reflection, as it is often after the last harvest when there is little work to do in the fields in the Northern Hemisphere. The day of the Winter Solstice has the shortest day and the longest night. It is an excellent time to reflect on the past year and think about the coming year, regardless of one’s religion. The commercialism that has taken over much of the spirit of these holidays is temporary, and will eventually burn out as resource depletion puts the brake on this consumerist culture. These days can truly be silent nights and holy nights if we allow them to be.