“O give thanks unto the Lord, for He is good, for His mercy endures forever!” (Psalm 136:1)
In an article titled “A Moveable Fast,” the scholar Elyssa East summarized the history of our American Thanksgiving, and the intentions and practices of the early New England colonists toward this national feast. Initially, she writes, Thanksgiving was built around the Christian rhythm of fasting and feasting. Bearing that in mind, she also offered her own commentary on how this national celebration has changed over the years: “In the nearly 400 years since the first Thanksgiving, the holiday has come to mirror our transformation into a nation of gross overconsumption, but the New England colonists never intended for Thanksgiving to be a day of gluttony. They dished up restraint along with gratitude as a shared main course. What mattered most was not the feast itself, but the gathering together in thanks and praise for life’s most humble gifts. Perhaps this holiday season we could benefit from restoring a proper Thanksgiving balance between forbearance and indulgence.”
This sounds like a fair commentary on how the Thanksgiving Day holiday weekend is now approached and practiced by contemporary Americans. What adds further to this confusion is not simply the matter of anticipating a good feast on Thanksgiving Day and enjoying the guilty pleasure of overeating together with family and friends, but the fact that “overconsumption” and “indulgence” are hardly limited to one day’s big meal. Those terms are now more appropriately directed toward “Black Friday” and “Cyber Monday”—two days of an almost obscene consumerism. There seems to be a perceptible shift away from the food feast toward the frenzy of shopping and spending with a zeal that would possibly be admirable if it was only directed toward something not so openly and unabashedly self-indulgent. The only restraint is in the size of one’s pocketbook; but if that empties out, there is always the credit card! We may soon reach the point when our neighbor will no longer greet us with the conventional “have a happy Thanksgiving.” Rather, it may become “have a successful Black Friday!” Clearly, a sense of balance and proportion has disappeared from the lives of many Americans, as consumerism displaces a sense of thanksgiving.
Over the next four days, what will predominate in your lives as Orthodox Christians? Will you somehow manage to “shop until you drop” at the stores for Black Friday? How does such a choice hold up to your theoretical priorities—that “in theory” we place God above all? Are we better described as Eucharistic beings or as consumers? When presented with a choice, will it be for the Church and what the Church represents; or will it be “the world” and what the world represents?
I realize that it is easy to be critical of our consumer-driven society. And perhaps priests and pastors “over-indulge” in just such a predictable routine. My intention, at least, is not to moralize or chastise. After all, I am also a consumer! Rather, I am more-or-less thinking out loud, and sharing the questions raised by such thinking. Once the holiday weekend is behind us, can we “pick up where we left off?” That further question only makes sense if indeed we had begun to observe the Nativity Fast in anticipation and preparation for the Feast on December 25, and then postponed that effort for the weekend that we are now hoping to enjoy. When we return to the normal routines of our daily lives, do we have the strength and commitment to embrace “the Orthodox Way” of life that understands only too well the pitfalls and temptations of overconsumption and indulgence?
The “battle of the calendars” is perhaps never so fierce as during these last few weeks before Christmas. We can do the “jingle-bell rock,” or we can curb our passions. When we were baptized – no matter how many years ago—we prayed that God would strengthen us as “invincible warriors of Christ our God;” and that we would “keep the Orthodox Faith.” And that vocation is tested on a daily basis - especially when the temptation toward “indulgence” is so strong. I hope that everyone can find a balance between enjoying Thanksgiving Day and the family traditions that surround it; while at the same time keeping sight of the very reason that allows us to be eucharistic beings in the first place. And that reason is Christ.