WASHINGTON -- Most older Americans think of the Thanksgiving holiday as embodying the spirit of "over the river and through the wood, to Grandmother's house we go." They think of a jolly day whose bounty of blessings easily gives way to singing, swaying together beside a popping fireplace or walking through the snow after a good nap.
Many still pause to remember that first Thanksgiving in the autumn of 1621 in New England. Plymouth Colony Gov. William Bradford foreshadowed today's better selves when he invited the neighboring Indians to come together with the Pilgrims for a "festival of recreation and feasting in gratitude for the bounty of the season."
Just an afternoon of recreation and feasting? Not at all, friend. Those early Pilgrims were no pikers. Their Thanksgiving went on for three whole days. Unfortunately, we have no proof of how the Indians liked it.
But this human predilection to thank the Almighty at times of bounty -- almost a "need" -- is so prevalent across the globe that some form of Thanksgiving ceremony came to take place in many different places.
Surely this year will bless the American nation with a good Thanksgiving, despite the economic and social problems of the nation. Indeed, the spokesman for Wal-Mart said recently that he expected the holiday to be "awesome," a word usually reserved either for bishops at the altar or for 13-year-olds who have just beheld a new electronic game.
But here we have a problem. For the "awesome" in that declaration was meant for that part of Thanksgiving that retailers call "Black Friday."
While the original Thanksgiving was essentially a Protestant religious holiday, a "giving thanks" to God, today's Thanksgiving is multi-religious, which is good and right. But the Wal-Mart man had something else in mind. Black Friday, of course, refers to the early Christmas sales on the day after Thanksgiving.
The name, one usually used for a terrorist attack or for the day a massive earthquake strikes the planet, turns out to be amazingly appropriate here, for this Friday has become an orgy of fists and frights as Americans fight to the death for cheap things!
I deign to mention this disgusting display of greed because this year, it has gotten even worse. Many stores are now opening, not early in the morning on Black Friday, but at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day! Here in Washington, Target has moved up its opening time from midnight last year to 9 p.m. this year. Kmart will be open from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, then reopening at 8 p.m. for its Black Friday.
The Washington Times, which did a good round-up cleverly headlined "Hungry retailers crash Thanksgiving dinner," found that here in the nation's capital, "at least 20 leading retail chains say they will open for at least part of Thanksgiving Day." The hospitals, of course, will be open for those bruised, bullied or beaten up in the excitement of the delirious crowds.
The Times related how a Target worker in California, Casey St. Clair, has gotten 220,000 signatures petitioning the store NOT to open on the holiday, and 40 other online petitions have been directed at Sears, Kohl's and Wal-Mart. A consumer backlash against the sheer greed, with 28 million Americans apparently prepped to shop-till-they-drop this year? We'll see.
One hopeful sign, however, is to be found in the fact that stores such as Target have been forced to respond to the petitioners and online activism. The Times, again: "The company last week posted an open letter defending its Thanksgiving opening, along with testimonials from company employees ... many of whom greeted the idea (of opening earlier) enthusiastically."
Ahhh, you might say, but these hurried purchases are for Christmas, and for giving to loved ones or perhaps even the poor in body or poor of soul. Doesn't that make Black Friday's excesses more acceptable, even perhaps more noble?
No. Surveys show, the Times went on, that 40 percent of what is purchased on what is now being called Gray Thursday "is for the shoppers themselves -- not others. Stores are not concerned about customers' intentions -- as long as the cash registers are ringing."
I like the term Gray Thursday. It shows another way in which our society and its most treasured traditions are being diluted by inappropriate usage. It takes one custom -- the celebrating of Thanksgiving as a historical and religious day -- and turns it into a sordid, market-indulgent carnival.
Today, more than ever, we Americans desperately need to treat our sacred symbols with the love and respect they deserve. Less than ever can we afford such desecration of our nation's heritage.