Just some candy canes

They’ve started already. Actually, they’ve been arriving for quite a while already. We received our first “Holiday Gift” ad in the mail the first week of October – a full week before Canadian Thanksgiving. One local retailer had Christmas displays up the same week they put out their Halloween displays. And it has not been without effect: two of our kids took it upon themselves to pull our Christmas decorations out of storage and liven up their bedrooms with the seasonal decor. Twice now, another one of our kids has turned on a selection of our Christmas music. And in the interest of full confession, I have already purchased and (mostly) consumed the first 12-pack of candy canes.

There is all sorts of attention to this phenomena in the States this year. The invasive move by retail giants into the sacred space of Thanksgiving Day has brought about many (and somewhat obligatory sounding) objections and laments. The traditional gathering festivities, music, and dance of the Macy’s Parade to the eucharistic meal of family gathered around  a common table of turkey, gravy, potatoes, and wine all the way to the closing message of a classic football game, proclaiming all is well with the American Dream – all of this has been threatened. Not so long ago these liturgical movements were held so sacred that even the almighty dollar and those irresistibly enticed by it’s siren-like song were forced to take a day of rest. But this year, the singing dollar with its distinctive vibrato of “retail fear” that allegiance-less consumers will devote their limited dollars elsewhere refuses to allow anyone rest.

Those who have been watching have seen this day coming. It was announced a few years ago with special “online only” sales starting the night before Thanksgiving and running in the background throughout the hours of Thanksgiving Day. But not many complained. After all, traditionalists could still have their Day with little disruption.

The last two years, the giants have rolled back their hours ever closer and then slightly across that midnight boundary between the sacred and secular movements of American civic religion. But no one really minded, at least not too much. The football games and family functions have usually deteriorated into their predictable outcomes by that point in the day anyways. Only a few claimed any harm in doing a little late night shopping.

This year, though some appear shocked, it really ought not be a surprise that the physical stores have extended their alternative liturgy further and further into that once-sacred space of Thanksgiving Day. The transition is not yet complete but an older American civic religion is giving away to the newer global religion of consumerism. I suspect it won’t be long before we will abandon the Thanksgiving Day tradition of giving thanks for what we already have and in its place embrace a new chorus that gives thanks for how the retail gods lavish sales upon us, allowing us access to those things, and a way of life, that previously seemed out of reach.

What’s catching me is more substantive than a wistful longing for Thanksgiving Days past. I could just as easily object to the blatant consumerism marketed through the Macy’s parade, or the culturally condoned gluttony surrounding the Thanksgiving meal, or the distorted view of identity packaged in our allegiance to professional sports teams. My concern about the store hours intrusion into previously sacred time within our culture is a shift in ethics that has accompanied the new hours. 

Access is quickly becoming the only necessary justification for our consumption. “The stores are open and they have huge sales; why wouldn’t I go shopping?” “The candy canes were in the store; why not buy them?” “My phone is in my hand; why wouldn’t I play Candy Crush, Temple Run, 4pics and a Word?” And if we listen to those of us caught up in porn, sampling illicit drugs, or indulging in a multitude of other previously taboo behaviors, this pattern of access-based ethics is quickly becoming the new standard. “Because I was there and it was there” is justification enough.   

I even wonder if our participation in charitable giving is falling into this ethic of accessibility. We’re giving to recovery efforts surrounding super typhoon Haiyan. It’s in front of us, the means of giving are accessible to us through simple online forms or by sending a text – and so we give. But if responses to Katrina, Fukushima, or Sandy are any indication, our ongoing response will diminish as the accessibility afforded by persistent media coverage gives way to other stories, stories that are less urgent and less in need of our response. We give because it is in front of us to give. And when we don’t have direct access to the need or the opportunity to give, we don’t give. The primary factor impacting our decision to give is the accessibility of need and the ease of giving. Whether an organization will be able to utilize the resources we entrust to it or how it distributes those resources to the people on the ground scarcely crosses our mind. 

Even in churches, we look to increase giving by allowing parishoners to set up automatic withdrawals from their bank accounts, through clear and repeated communication about needs in the community, and special collections accompanied by compelling videos and personal testimonies. While not bad on their own, they certainly represent a trend toward this underlying ethical view point where a lack of access is the only barrier. And as such, the only solutions are ones that increase accessibility. How long before there is a credit card transaction point in each pew or more likely a QR code projected on the screens during the offering? I wonder. Discipleship conversations about how a relationship with Jesus Christ transforms financial decisions and lifestyle patterns are seldom presented or considered. 

Admittedly, buying candy canes in early November really is not a big deal. And I don’t have a problem with shopping on Thanksgiving Day. However, in a certain way my candy cane indulgence participated in this emerging accessibility ethic: “They were there. I was there. So why not?” Perhaps what is really catching me short is that the same ethic I used to justify my candy canes and that informs the expanded holiday shopping hours is also impacting the shape of our charitable giving and Christian discipleship around money. Something of the deliberate and sustained participation in a community – whether by devoting a day for leisurely engagement with family, or by ongoing charitable giving to an development agencies or our local church – is being rolled back this year. And as I sit with a candy cane in my mouth, I am finding myself feeling a bit uneasy about that.

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