War on Thanksgiving seems bigger threat

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When alarmists bleat on about a so-called "war on Christmas," it is all one can do to keep a straight face.

The fact that sales clerks are encouraged to greet customers with the more generic "Happy holidays" as opposed to "Merry Christmas" isn't evidence of a war against anything, except possibly bad manners.

As usual, the American Civil Liberties Union will file lawsuits against perennial attempts by local governments to erect creches on municipal property. Though civil libertarians and atheists are typecast as Scrooges for insisting that the Constitution be taken seriously, most people are grateful that somebody is patrolling the murky dividing line between church and state, even during the holiday season.

That's why I'm astounded that many of the loudest voices against the watering down of Christmas have given some of America's biggest retail outlets a pass for making their underpaid, non-unionized employees work on Thanksgiving, the biggest family-oriented day of the year.

If you're looking for ways to engage your Tea Party-loving brother-in-law in an argument that actually means something, ask him what he thinks of the fact that several relatives and quite a few friends aren't having dinner with their families because they have to work Thanksgiving shifts at Kmart, Target, Sears and Wal-Mart.

In fact, Kmart is staying open 41 hours straight to accommodate what it hopes will be a horde of shoppers eager to ditch their families to search for that perfect blue-light special before the tryptophan takes effect. Macy's, Kohl's and numerous other retail outlets have joined Best Buy, the original "bah-humbug" retail establishment, in extending Black Friday into what was once the family-friendly bosom of Thanksgiving Day.

Duncan Mac Naughton, Wal-Mart's unrepentant U.S. chief of merchandising, has a ready answer for those who engage in sentimental appeals to family togetherness when the corporate bottom line is waiting to be fattened at the world's biggest retail chain -- turkey dinners will be served on site during the employees' lunch breaks.

"We appreciate each of our associates and the time they dedicate," Mr. Mac Naughton said with the mustache-twirling aplomb of a boss whose workers' pay comes nowhere near what most people would consider a living wage.

What could be more Thanksgiving-like than a group of colleagues, who would rather be anywhere but there, consuming canned cranberry sauce and microwaved vegetables under the flickering lights of the break room? Surely this is what the holiday is all about -- scarfing down company-supplied turkey slices in styrofoam containers and counting the hours until you can punch the clock with barely suppressed rage, after having spent the day with customers who pity you for being compelled by economics or bad karma to wait on them on that day of all days.

The one indelible, idealized image of Thanksgiving for many Americans, kitschy though it may be, is Norman Rockwell's iconic illustration of a family gathered around the table, drooling with anticipation as the matriarch and patriarch deliver an uncarved bird the size of Bolivia to the center of the table.

No one was engaged in the business of mythologizing the American experience more than Norman Rockwell. He was entrusted with the thankless task of translating our Platonic ideals from the realm of the spirit to the cover of the Saturday Evening Post.

And even though the practical reality of the American Thanksgiving fell far short of his image, it was an ideal most considered worth striving for. In his wildest dreams, Rockwell never imagined that several seats at the table would be empty one day because the boss at the local Sears & Roebuck ordered workers to come in to fatten the corporate bottom line.

Several major national chains have resisted the temptation to make the pursuit of profits the only god that matters during the holiday; Costco, Apple, Home Depot, Radio Shack and Nordstrom's are among the retail giants that have granted their employees the dignity of staying home. Even so, most retail employees are expected to report for duty bright and early on Black Friday, if not even earlier.

It appears that Thanksgiving, like Christmas and other holidays, is destined to find itself sacrificed on the altar of rapacious capitalism. The exploitation of low-wage workers who can't afford to tell their bosses to go "stuff" themselves will continue until compulsory Thanksgiving shift work is recognized for what it is -- a war on equality, fairness and decency that puts the war on Christmas to shame.

Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1631 or on Twitter @TonyNormanPG.


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