“It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.”
-Charles Dickens, “A Tale of Two Cities”
In America, Thanksgiving is believed to have originated either in Massachusetts in 1621 or in Florida in 1565. It has been celebrated annually since 1863 when President Abraham Lincoln officially recognized it at the height of the Civil War. It was celebrated on either the third, fourth or fifth Thursday of November until 1942, when Congress passed a law that fixed the day of celebration as the fourth Thursday of the month.
In the years that followed, it became an American tradition, largely secular but with decidedly religious overtones. And, since 9/11 especially, it has become almost a second Fourth of July in many iterations, the combination of spiritual reverence and flag-waving patriotism none-too-subtly suggesting a tilt towards theocracy that would have been anathema to both the seventeenth century pilgrims and the Civil War president.
It also marks the beginning of a holiday season in the United States that leads to Christmas and, a week later, New Year’s, and, about a month after that, Super Sunday. Thus the holidays, all of them, are at once patriotic, religious and commercial, the perfect amalgam that represents the schizophrenic state of the American ethos in the new millennium.
And nothing captures that thought better than the Macy’s Parade in New York City.
The parade, the second oldest such event (trailing only the one in Philadelphia that is now dubbed “the 6abc IKEA Thanksgiving Parade”) in the country, is a veritable cornucopia of patriotic fervor, heavily spiced with commercialism and sprinkled none-too-lightly with religious sentiments. And, of course, being wholly American and emanating from the country’s cultural and commercial center, it is done BIG.
Thus, the parade has, in recent years, featured massive balloons depicting such legendary characters as the Pillsbury Doughboy, Ronald McDonald, Kung Fu Panda, Buzz Lightyear, Shrek, and SpongeBob SquarePants. And the bands, from high schools and colleges across the country, play a mix of patriotic tunes from the John Philip Souza collection and semi-religious ones like “God Bless America.”
Floats this year included these impressive titles: Mount Rushmore’s American Pride, Morton Salt Home Baked Goodness, Homewood Suites On the Roll Again, and Office Max Elves Raise the Roof.
This year’s performers, some of whom sang while others just waved, included Kanye West, Jessica Simpson, “America’s Got Talent” winner Michael Grimm, Miss USA Rima Fakih, the Power Rangers Samurai, the cast of “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon,” the Muppets, and the Big Apple Circus. At least four Broadway shows were in the parade this year: “Memphis,” “American Idiot,” “Elf,” and “Million Dollar Quartet.”
The television coverage of the parade is another staple of America’s celebration of the holiday. NBC and CBS both get into the act, with the former network owning the license rights, thereby limiting CBS to coverage of “New York’s Thanksgiving Day Parade” (no mention of the corporate sponsor allowed). But both networks cover all three hours of the extravaganza, with NBC’s “Today” hosts, Matt Lauer and company, doing their thing. Both networks load up on commercials, of course. HBO has not, as of yet, seen the value of providing commercial-free coverage.
The highlight of the parade comes at the end of the long line of floats and balloons and bands and singers and dancers, when none other than Santa Claus himself, regaled in all his glory on a giant sleigh, with elves and children frolicking all around him and with his reindeer leading the way, cruises by the excited children and their happy parents who line the parade route. Santa doesn’t do much in this appearance, other than to wave cheerily and utter an occasional “Ho, Ho, Ho.” But it’s enough to establish the point of the whole production.
And that point, perhaps this year more important than in many of its predecessors, is to shop ‘til you drop. For if Thanksgiving represents nothing else, it surely signifies the start of the biggest retail sales period of the year, epitomized by the now-traditional super sales day that is called Black Friday, when some 135 million Americans are believed to participate in the mad dash for all manner of things commercial.
This was surely the impetus behind the inauguration of the parade, back in 1924, when old Mr. Macy determined that his store needed a boost in holiday sales and devised the parade as a way to accomplish just such a result.
Macy’s hasn’t done badly for itself in the 86 years since that first parade, but it is probably hurting along with the successors to Gimbels (at the time, Macy’s principal competitor) and all the other retail stores and their on-line varieties in this prolonged economic slump that is now into its third year and counting.
By classic economic theory, the recession officially ended in FY ’09, but don’t tell that to Ma and Pa Consumer. They are still struggling to make ends meet, some of their kin hoping Congress will extend their unemployment benefits, others, more fortunate for the moment, hoping they will still have a job as the year turns in little more than a month.
Of course, it’s all relative. Those first celebrants, some four hundred or more years ago, were just happy to be alive. They knew nothing of parades or Broadway shows or Black Fridays. What they did know was that another cruel winter was imminent, that not all of them would survive it, and that, even so, they were glad to be in the new land that they were only beginning to settle and utilize.
Now, that same land is over-settled and under-utilized. Factories that once flourished have shut down, homes that once were lived in are now empty and in disrepair, and the people who populate the country are more restive and less thankful than their forebears, despite having much more in every respect.
But, yes, it is all relative. And so, while the parades and the shopping sprees and the holidays are full upon us, it may well be said: It is, truly, the best and worst of times.