Macy’s 1924 War on Thanksgiving

RagamuffinMy Thanksgiving usually begins by preparing the turkey first thing in the morning. In recent years my family has enjoyed a different method of cooking: roasting, frying, smoking . . . Once the Turkey is in the oven (or the smoker, or the fryer), we plop down on the couch to look through the Black Friday ads and watch the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Most Americans can trace the recent history of Black Friday. Not many years ago retail stores were attempting to lure customers with Black Friday “doorbusters” that began at 8am. Then those sales move to 6am, 5am, midnight, and are now encroaching on our Thanksgiving turkey dinners. The great irony of Thanksgiving is that it is a day reserved for expressing gratitude for the blessings we have been given, but we spend much of the day obsessing over that which we want.

Many of us lament this focus on consumption rather than on thankfulness and contentment. As the sales have gotten earlier, the advertising more aggressive, and more retail employees are required to work on Thanksgiving, we fear that modern greed is replacing old fashioned values. We fear that a desire for profit has replaced the desire for family.

Having watched the recent evolution of Black Friday we assume that the exploitation of Thanksgiving for retail success is a recent phenomenon. The reality, though, is that this goes back at least to 1924, the first year of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.

Before the Macy’s company began this annual event, small parades in New York City were common on Thanksgiving. These parades were often made up of children who dressed as “ragamuffins” and went door to door asking for treats or coins. In those days Halloween trick-or-treating did not exist. The “Ragamuffin Day” parades also included people dressed in scary, patriotic, and bizarre costumes. A New York Times article from 1899 said, “Thanksgiving masquerading has never been more universal. Fantastically garbed youngsters and their elders were on every corner of the city. Not a few of the maskers and mummers wore disguises that were recognized as typifying a well-known character or myth. There were Fausts, Uncle Sams, harlequins, bandits, sailors. All had a great time. The good-humored crowd abroad was generous with pennies and nickels, and the candy stores did a land-office business.”

The Macy’s parade was first called the Macy’s Christmas Parade and was meant to mark the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. As it grew in popularity the other parades in New York disappeared. Macy’s parade was likely inspired by the other Thanksgiving spectacles in New York, but Macy’s parade was not just a celebration. It was part of a strategy to increase sales at the department store.

The Thanksgiving Day Parade (or Christmas Parade) ushered Santa Clause into Harold Square and to the balcony of the Macy’s department store on 34th Street where he was crowned “King of the Kiddies.” Children and families from all over the city came to watch this event. Stores were not allowed to open on Thanksgiving in New York City, but that did not keep Macy’s from using the holiday to sell itself as the headquarters of the holidays. Children would be begging all month long to return to Macy’s to visit Santa.

We are continually encouraged to believe that the American fixation on consumption and greed surrounding the holidays is a recent development, but human beings have always been willing to sacrifice love, laughter, and family for wealth. Nearly 100 years ago, one of our most beloved Thanksgiving traditions began as an attempt to wring as much money out of New Yorkers as possible. This is not something that only goes back to 1924. The aggressiveness of greed goes back to the dawn of humanity. If there is a war on Thanksgiving, or a war on Christmas, it is an ancient war on contentment, generosity, peace, and compassion. It is a war where whoever accumulates the most wealth wins.

We should not be longing for a time gone-by, but a time we have yet to see. A by-gone era of morality and goodness is a wishful fiction. Humans have always been controlled by systems of selfishness, greed, and consumption. It should never be our dream to return society to times of old, but to move us toward a time of which we have only dreamt.

This dream is the world of which the prophets of old saw glimpses; a place where enemies are no more, where the lion lays down with the lamb, and where a man loves his neighbor as he loves himself. This is the world of which Jesus spoke being inherited by the meek; a place of the unexpected, explainable, and seemingly backwards.

In the Beatitudes (Matthew 5) Jesus exposes us to a world where the poor and the persecuted are valued. The story of the Good Samaritan shows us a place where the hated foreigner is the righteous one. The parable of the lost coin, the lost sheep, the mustard seed, and the yeast show us the value of what is often overlooked and abandoned. Jesus always encourages us to imagine a new Kingdom, not an old one, where peace, forgiveness, and love reign.

This Thanksgiving, this holiday season, let’s not be people who long for an imaginary past, but people who work toward a not-yet-fully imagined future: a future where we are satisfied with what we have and extend generosity to those who have less; a future where no one is hungry or homeless; a future where the helpless are cared for and the marginalized are embraced, a future defined not by how much we can get, but by the grace, forgiveness, compassion, and care that we can give.

Click here to listen to Jason Wiedel’s recent podcast about Thanksgiving.

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