The Personalist Project

Black Friday has been encroaching on Thanksgiving Thursday for many years now, and this year, it seems, will be no different. There are some conflicting reports about the exact opening hours of various retail chains, but the trend is clear. According to one article

Sears will be open on Thanksgiving morning, while Toys 'R' Us will open its doors at 10 pm Thursday, its earliest Black Friday opening ever. Walmart's jumbo-sized supercenters won't close at all.

Many Americans are not happy with this trend, but they seem powerless to stop it. Their objections and petitions are easily brushed aside by an appeal to what consumers want. "Our guests," says a Target representative, as if it is all about hospitality,

have expressed that they would prefer to kick off their holiday shopping by heading out after their holiday celebrations rather than getting up in the middle of the night. [Notice how the option of waiting till the next day never even occurs; it has to be right after dinner or at 2 in the morning.]

This reasoning is usually coupled with another: "No one is forced to go shopping. If you prefer to spend the whole day with family and friends, then go ahead and do so. Just don't force your preferences on the rest of society."

But this way of thinking is off the mark. It fails to understand the real nature of the objections: it is not the loss of individual freedom* but the loss of a common good that so many people regret. Thanksgiving is supposed to be a communal celebration, in which we, together, as families and as a nation, count our blessings and give thanks for them. It is a day set apart for a communal and public purpose. Any and all unneccesary economic activity undermines that purpose. It slowly turns Thanksgiving into just another day in which some go to work, and others are off, some go shopping, and others stay home.

A true public holiday, then, is the sort of thing that can only be had if all agree to participate in it. If some don't, they do real harm by depriving the rest of the community of a definite and important good. (It's hard to have a family dinner if dad decides to stay at the office.) Retail stores cannot force anyone to go shopping, but definitely can spoil our Thanksgiving.

To my mind, therefore, this is an area in which government has an important role to play. It should forbid retail chains like Target and Sears, to open their doors on Thanksgiving day (or at midnight on the Friday after).   I see no other way to protect it's character as a national holiday. (But I am certainly open to other ideas. See the comment option below.)

In this respect, national holidays are much like national parks. The analogy suggested itself yesterday, as my wife and I took our children to visit Grand Canyon National Park. The Canyon itself is simply overwhelming in size and beauty. But I was also struck by, and grateful for, the way in which the whole area has been preserved and made accessible to the public. There was a visitor center, some transportation options, and there were paved paths. But none of these spoiled the beauty of the area. They just opened it up to the public. I can't imagine how this would have been possible without the government stepping in to protect the area from all sorts of economic activity. Without such intervention the area would surely have been spoiled.

What is true for national parks, is also true for national holidays. They are common and public goods that need to be nourished and protected. So, for once, I find myself wishing for more goverment intervention.  


* There is that too, however. Many employees of the large retail chains are forced to work.

Comments (5)

Katie van Schaijik

#1, Nov 25, 2011 12:10pm

I've just been listening to a conservative radio talk show discussion of this topic.  There was lots of back and forth between two positions:

1) It's a horrible idea, unfair to the employees, who should be able to spend the day with their families.  

2) If shoppers want it, then the retailers will do it.  And if the competition does it, retailers have no option.  If the employees don't like it, they can give their job to someone else.

I found it interesting that the option you mention here, viz. that the government should prohibit retailers from opening, was never even raised.

Jules van Schaijik

#2, Nov 25, 2011 11:51pm

Katie van Schaijik, Nov. 25 at 12:10pm

I found it interesting that the option you mention here, viz. that the government should prohibit retailers from opening, was never even raised.

It is interesting, but to be expected. Certainly from a conservative radio talk show. Conservatives instinctively distrust government solutions to problems.

A while back I spoke with someone who pointed to Chick-fil-A — a fast growing fast-food chain that is closed on Sunday — as evidence that it is possible for businesses to buck the trend of being open 24/7 and still be successful. His point was that rather than looking for government to step in, and restrict the freedom of retailers, we should change the culture and convince more businesses that it is better to close their doors on holidays.

This sounds like pie in the sky to me. But I agree that government regulation usually had problems of its own. 

Joan Drennen

#3, Nov 26, 2011 10:53am

Thanks, Jules, for voicing this topic, one that is gnawing at the center or our belly as a family. I must confess that, for a last minute need, members of my family "visited" the large Superstore down the road Thanksgiving morning (the one that replaced the farm with the unreplace-able valley-rich soil.) I found myself looking away with one eye, while the other jotted down a short shopping list. I groan as I participate in the erosion of so much that I hold dear. Me, who once shed tears trying to explain why I disliked these giant stores that have "replaced" not only the family farms, but the family owned businesses, and the work and color of our culture.

Yesterday, we took a drive to Berks County for a long awaited jaunt to a country store (Echo Hill Country Market for bulk foods.) On the way, our kids argued (heatedly) about Black Friday, trying to work out within themselves what's ok and what isn't. Some defended the practicality of getting ready early, while others defended waiting and putting off gratification in order to gain the gifts of waiting. I merely refereed, but prefer the waiting argument, but I will be the one taking advantage of the extended hours for the last minute rush.

My Captain von Trapp heart is sagging, not sure in which ways I should sacrifice.

Jules van Schaijik

#4, Nov 27, 2011 12:52am

Thanks Joan. You remind me of something I had wanted to add to the post, but didn't. The reason we seem powerless to stop the trend to turn Thanksgiving into a regular shopping day, is not only that the retailers don't listen to us, but also because we find it hard to refrain from shopping ourselves. It is one of those areas in which we need to be supported by the larger culture.

In other words, when government forbids retailers to open their doors on Thanksgiving, she not only protects the national holiday from slow decline, but also supports us in living up to our own ideals. This, I think, is at least part of the meaning of those great lines in America the Beautiful:

Confirm thy soul in self-control, Thy liberty in law!

Katie van Schaijik

#5, Nov 27, 2011 10:24am

Jules van Schaijik, Nov. 27 at 12:52am

when government forbids retailers to open their doors on Thanksgiving, [it] not only protects the national holiday from slow decline, but also supports us in living up to our own ideals

This is true.  Not only is it harder to (for instance) not shop on Sundays when everyone around you is shopping, but the not-shopping delivers diminishing returns and feels forced and artificial.

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