It’s that time of year again: last Thursday, Seth Meyers went on a three minute and twenty-three second, closed-captioned “Thanksgiving-is-too-close-to-Christmas” rant. In the monologue, he claimed that “having two turkey-eating holidays within a month of each other is totally whack,” accused the fitness industry of being “in bed” with the holiday industry, and drank an entire bottle of window cleaner in an exasperated rage.
An interesting argument, but not likely to make its way into federal policy—we all know you can’t simply move Thanksgiving and Christmas. The third Thursday in November will only ever be so far from Jesus’s birthday.
Then again, this year, the third Thursday in November was actually 32 days from Dec. 25, giving us over a month to digest our Thanksgiving turkey in preparation for our Christmas one. Objectively, Thanksgiving is not all that close to Christmas: it’s actually usually closer to Halloween. Christmas, itself, does not demand that we decorate our trees on Dec. 1; Thanksgiving has nothing, traditionally speaking, to do with the rush of consumer-based holidays that follow. But with the subtle guidance of advertising—and the incentive of a great deal—we are pulled into the swarms of Black Friday shoppers, leading to a month-long adventure of shameless overconsumption that we call the holiday season.
Thanksgiving only seems so close to Christmas because business has made it so. Our overconsumption is only shameless for the same reason. Is it a surprise that consumerism’s biggest month lies between a holiday focused on family and giving thanks and one focused on self-will, fresh starts, and redemption? Advertising might play to our weaknesses, but it also plays to our strengths—our morality and our desire to feel “good.” The commercialization of the holiday season targets our desire to be good as much as our desire for more food, more stuff, more everything—it tells us that it’s okay to indulge our bad side just this month. Then, New Year’s will roll around, we’ll all make our new resolutions, and be absolved of our sins. It separates the materialistic self from the normal, everyday self.
It’s hard to blame ourselves for allowing this separation—we’re predisposed to compartmentalize and to dissociate our less-than-perfect actions from our usual value system. Compartmentalization, psychologists argue, relieves us from the guilt of holding one set of ideals and then acting according to another, as long as we can separate the acting self from the “real” self. Companies know this. When Seth Meyers accused the fitness industry of scheming with the holiday industry, he wasn’t that far off; the number of Google searches for gym memberships jumps up in the beginning of January, and gyms typically register significantly more new members in the first quarter of the year.
Also intentionally planned is the spirit of giving, sharing, and love that accompanies our ruthless spending. I love Christmas carols and fairy lights as much as the next person, but how much of the season’s holiday magic is manufactured to compensate for our guilt? How much of the feel-good and charity exists to distract from the fact that most of the month is devoted to the opposite? In a sense, Christmas consumerism acts as an externality of our actions the rest of the year, as a cost of our goodness that is clouded by holiday rhetoric and, therefore, unrecognized. We isolate material obsession to one sacrificial month just as we isolate the social and environmental costs of industrial production to sacrificial races, cultures, or segments of the world. We outsource our bad consumer selves to one season just as we outsource low-wage labor and unsafe factories to poorer countries. The process of compartmentalization has consequences far greater than the few pounds we might gain in December and lose in January.
There’s nothing wrong with holding hands and singing a few verses of “Silent Night.” There’s also nothing wrong with the holiday magic that starts Dec. 1, until we use it to cover up the decisively non-magical reality of our month of consumption. Unfortunately, too often that’s exactly the case. So, Seth, I agree: I love the holidays, but Thanksgiving is far too close to Christmas.