This year will see a growing rush by retailers to advance the sales and eventual profits of Black Friday by what is termed "Black Friday creep," opening stores on Thanksgiving Day itself. A list of retailers opening on Thanksgiving was published this week by Huffington Post. It included Wal-Mart, Kmart, Sears, Macy's, Best Buy, Kohl's, J.C. Penney, Target, Staples, Best Buy, Sports Authority, Toys R Us, Office Max/Office Depot and Radio Shack. This comes on top of retailers featuring online and in-store pre-Black Friday sales in order to get consumers to buy yet earlier this year.
The Huffington Post article also listed retailers that will honor family and Thanksgiving by not opening on Thanksgiving, headed up by Costco and Sam's.
Why is this information in a religion column? Thanksgiving has been under attack by retailers for years and remains a significant issue. Not long ago, almost every store, gas station and restaurant was closed for Thanksgiving. But the retail sector has taken aim at Thanksgiving with a vengeance.
Thanksgiving started as a harvest celebration among the Pilgrims and the local Native Americans in the Plymouth Colony. Robert Tracy McKenzie, professor and chair of the History Department at Wheaton College and author of the wonderful book "The First Thanksgiving: What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History," notes the key reasons pushing the Pilgrims to our shores:
"In contrast, the Pilgrims' struggle … speaks to us where we live. Their hardships in Holland were so ... ordinary. They worried about their children's future. They feared the effects of a corrupt and permissive culture. They had a hard time making ends meet. They wondered how they would provide for themselves in old age. (Can you relate to any of their worries?) And in contrast to their success in escaping persecution, they found the cares of the world much more difficult to evade."
Their initial escape from England didn't solve their needs, so they migrated to the New World. Life in the New World was hard but they found time to celebrate a successful year and give thanks to God. A coming battle for them would be with wealth and abundance.
One key factor weighing against people of faith is consumerism. Consumerism appears to be destroying our national holiday celebration of Thanksgiving and has successfully destroyed the true spirit of Christmas. Advent season 2014 begins Sunday, Nov. 30. A period of religious observance by many faiths, Advent is a period of reflection and realization of the events leading up to the birth of the Messiah. Unfortunately for many, the focus of the holiday season is on "us," rather than the true object of our affection, Jesus. As Rev. Bob Mather of Baxter Road Bible Church reflects, "It's not your birthday; it's Jesus'." The church devotes 100 percent of its income during December toward local nonprofits that help the homeless, the destitute, the hungry and the afflicted. Mather says the church is helped, not hurt, by this yearly initiative.
Local nonprofit organizations such as Bean's Café, the Brother Francis Shelter, the Downtown Soup Kitchen, the Anchorage Gospel Rescue Mission, The Salvation Army, Lutheran Social Services of Alaska and the Food Bank of Alaska are examples of great local organizations that depend on your support now when their need is greatest. Too many resources are unfortunately diverted to personal consumerism.
The Thanksgiving Blessing project has been ongoing for some years. Last year, this wonderful community project provided groceries to more than 10,000 people. The Food Bank of Alaska coordinates this project through six sites. They need your help. Call them directly or get detailed information online at tinyurl.com/mqt4bvv.
Another "Beer and Hymns"' fundraiser is scheduled for Nov. 30, 6 p.m. at O'Brady's. Contrary to a recent blast from a local Pentecostal pulpit calling this a "beer bash," this is a genuine celebration of community building and a locking of arms to address community needs, a true religious experience. Generally, more than $5,000 is contributed in two hours each time this wonderful celebration of hymnody, good food and great conversation is held. Local Lutherans, spearheaded by Christ Our Savior Lutheran Church, make this a beautiful and worthwhile event.
Many local churches will have Thanksgiving-focused services tomorrow, Sunday. A number of them will also offer Thanksgiving dinners after the service, the afternoon or the evening. This is a wonderful way to reflect on the joys of Thanksgiving. I've been invited to one such church dinner. Often these same churches collect funds to help the local food distribution agencies with procuring adequate supplies to make it through the holiday season.
I recall trying to make a Thanksgiving restaurant reservation years ago. One well-known local restaurant told me this was a time for their workers to enjoy the company of family and friends. I got it with that phone discussion as I'd not previously focused on the issue. The retailers of America are focused on competition and profits at the expense of their employees who must work Thanksgiving to support the advertising-whipped fervor for Black Friday creep and Black Friday sales. American families are imperiled. These types of events tear at the fragile fabric of family instead of strengthening it. I believe if enough consumers refused to give in to the lure of the retailers' siren calls, they would get the message.
In closing, it's not often I hear pastors addressing this issue from the pulpit. Part of it is because many of their members own, manage, work in or direct the activities of these retailers. In essence, the pastors should be educating their members to the dangers of consumerism. 1 John 2:15 says: "Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him." Scripture is replete with such warnings. The Pilgrims believed strongly in scripture, and let it be their guide. Let's rediscover the joy of family, friends, food, celebrating our abundance, and stopping to give thanks for what we have, and enjoy Thanksgiving to the fullest. Happy Thanksgiving!
Chris Thompson is a religion scholar who visits local churches and writes about his experiences and matters of faith. You can find his blog at churchvisits.com.