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Of Consumerism

We don’t have American Thanksgiving in Canada. Instead we have Canadian Thanksgiving, a few weeks earlier, as befits our more northerly clime. Some of us secretly celebrate the American one, too, judging from the excess turkey supply in a local supermarket. But we do have Black Friday, quite openly, I have noticed.

Let me try innocence, for a moment. Will the unsold turkeys be on sale, today?

A reader in Western Michigan has advised me that Chesterton took a dim view of our North American Thanksgiving customs. I was glad to read his link, because under the impression that the great man took a rosier view of almost everything than I did. Not true! I am more favorably disposed to our old thanksgiving customs, when I summon to mind the appropriate Norman Rockwell cover.

He (Chesterton) was aware of the origin in Puritan times. And he was the more aware of this when he visited America during the years of Prohibition, realizing that, while the Puritans were gone, their general obsession with prohibiting things was alive and well. The idea of a feast without “beer and burgundy” horrified him.

The Prohibition era is now over, too, but if Chesterton could return to any of the college campuses at which he once spoke, he would find that much worse has followed. The equivalent of teetotalitarianism is not merely present, but in control of life there and in every other public place, where our post-modern Puritans have been able to worm their way into power. Any public expression of Christianity itself is among the things they now try to ban.

But Black Friday they will give a pass. The doctrines change – many are inverted – but the spirit of prohibition is flourishing. Thanksgiving may be condemned for its Christian associations, but Black Friday is defensibly anti-Christian.

It might be the one day of the year to consult Drudge. I haven’t, but as I recall, this news aggregator did a good job in years past of documenting Black Friday chaos and outrages, in their inimitable tabloid way. They seemed especially well informed on savage fights among rival shoppers at Walmart and the like.

This year, absurdly low temperatures (caused by “global warming,” we are told) may have tamed the violence. It is something to be thankful for.

Quite apart from my notoriously Catholic affiliations, I have a tendency towards snootiness. It is almost the opposite of the Puritan tendencies, which lean to populism. When I see my neighbors carting home the goods they think they got bargains on, I sneer. I try to override this uncharitable disposition, but find it nearly impossible.

Yet I understand the shopping impulse – the psychological factors upon which the mass market has been built, cynically exploited by the advertising professionals. It originates with genuine needs, then is teased into something “aspirational.”


The desire to own things one doesn’t really need can become a fever. The possibility of detachment is lost. One comes to live in a gutter of decaying glitz, filled with things that will be of so little demand in the Salvation Army stores, that they will go into landfills.

The manufacturers and their designers understand how this works. It would be pointless for them to make anything that lasts. They focus on outward styling, and cut every corner they can. That’s what sells, today; the same customers will want something else, tomorrow. No point in hectoring those who not only see the “bottom line,” but live for it.

When I summon the Rockwell image, of the joyful, extended family gathered around the farmhouse table, having paused for prayer, I know that I am looking at an earlier iteration of the “sales job.” This nostalgia survives as a marketing technique, like the carefully de-Christianized carols that will play in all the shopping centers through Advent, then stop promptly when Christmas gives the signal for the “Boxing” sales to begin.

There is no concession to our heritage, whatever. (There was once some.) The sentimental drivel is there because, as survey after survey proves, people can be moved by cheap nostalgia to buy, buy, buy. The old lyrics are suppressed not only because our world is post-Christian, but because the same surveys warn against drifting off-message.

“Buy, buy, buy,” as distinct from the “come buy” of the Bible. The notion of Christ come into the world, while it may still appeal to some, might get others thinking. And if there is any vestigial Christianity in them, it is bad news for the retail chains.

The Christ who was born in a manger: THAT one. To whom the gifts given were from wise men afar. But whose little family had no possessions to speak of; only taxes to pay. (It is an old story.) If they had a dinner table in Nazareth back home, it was probably well made, however; for father Joseph was a skilled carpenter.

Chesterton, of course, had no objection to “thanksgiving” per se. Indeed, he was extremely grateful, himself, to his Maker. He even proposed that Britain declare a Thanksgiving Day, “to celebrate the departure of those dour Puritans, the Pilgrim fathers.” (I have this from my friend’s link, here [1].)

While it is easy to chastise consumerism, and to mock the behavior it sustains, I would not ban it, like a Puritan. Rather, by example, restore the religion that once celebrated poverty, rather than condemning it as an affliction.

For that is a measure of how deeply our consumerism stabs. The “welfare state” has become very much a part of it. The demand for minimum incomes is to enable us all to participate in the shopping binge. Even the pope in Rome now obsesses about this kind of “equality.”

Be grateful for what you have. Do not aspire to acquire more, unless it should be the Grace of that Lord, whom we have overlooked sitting among us. Let us each pray, less for riches and more for a good death.

*Image: The Holy Family at Meal by Adriaen Isenbrandt, c.1525 [Bristol Museum and Art Gallery, England]

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.