I couldn’t help feeling a little sheepish sneaking away Thanksgiving Day from preparing food with family to purchase that needed lime from Wal-Mart. But my sheepishness turned into discomfort when I found myself among hundreds shopping that afternoon. Somehow I mistakenly believed I would be one of a few just grabbing the last items before heading home to spend long hours connecting with loved ones.
When I reached the cashier, a middle-aged woman, she poignantly responded to my apology for her working on Thanksgiving, “Yes, we should all be home. … I guess we just have to bow to the almighty dollar.” Feeling even more uncomfortable, I quietly wished her a “Happy Thanksgiving,” and walked out amidst hundreds of other shoppers streaming in and out.
Why was I so uncomfortable? Because she was right. We should all have been home, enjoying and protecting the real purpose of holidays with their attendant family rituals, especially on Thanksgiving.
Social scientists have long understood that traditions and rituals are a critical component of healthy family life. For children, rituals like roughhousing and reading stories at bedtime are associated with better social behaviors, academic achievement and self-regulation. For adolescents, decades of research have found that consistent family dinners (the prototype, it seems, of “connecting” rituals) predicts a host of positive outcomes ranging from stronger identity and closeness with parents to less anxiety and depression and substance abuse. In the words of renowned family therapist Bill Doherty, family rituals and traditions are “the glue that holds families together.”
We should not be surprised then that communities and nations also need rituals of connection and remembrance, binding us together through a shared sense of our humanity, heritage and history. Holidays are the gift passed on from generations before us to help create exactly that. Without them we are left with few, if any, sacred cultural spaces, protected from our apparently insatiable materialism.
Sadly, that insatiable materialism, captured in a viral blog post by Matt Walsh who describes our culture as “Just buy it!” is eating us alive. Jean Twenge, who has done extensive research on the striking increases in anxiety and depression among American youth, concludes that at least one major cause is that “we have become a culture that focuses more on material things and less on relationships.” And materialism makes us unhappy, while strong relationships are the lasting source of happiness and well-being.
As explained by researcher Tori DeAngelis, “Today we own twice as many cars per person, eat out twice as often and enjoy endless other commodities that weren't around then — big-screen TVs, microwave ovens, SUVs and handheld wireless devices, to name a few.” But as David Myers writes, "compared to their grandparents, today's young adults have … less happiness and much greater risk of depression and assorted social pathology. … Our becoming much better off over the last four decades has not been accompanied by one iota of increased subjective well-being." Indeed, it seems, as researcher David Kasser argues, “The more materialistic values are at the center of our lives, the more our quality of life is diminished.”
In contrast, the incredibly thorough, 75-year study of 238 Harvard students confirmed that beyond a certain point, IQ and academic achievement do not predict a successful and happy life. But warm and strong relationships do. After 75 years and $20 million for the study, lead author George Vallaint now famously concluded “happiness is love. Full stop.”
Holidays and the family and community rituals that are part of them give us a unique opportunity to come together and nurture our relationships. And if we protect them, they can push against the strong forces of materialism and politicism that often divide us from one another, reconnecting us by reminding us of what binds us together.
Last year’s efforts by religious centers in Minnesota to counter the “spirit of Black Friday” provide a model. Their purpose in “protesting” by offering alternatives including service projects, free meditation classes and religious services was not to “attack shoppers,” but to “remind them of the love, charity and peace the holidays are intended to inspire.” That year, of the hundreds of stores at The Mall of America in Minneapolis, only three remained open on Thanksgiving.
This Thanksgiving, I was part of the problem. A cashier, who might have been home having dinner with her children, was away from them so that people like me could buy things we don’t really need. Which means individuals like me can also be part of the solution. But we have to decide that protecting the sacred cultural spaces of holidays from the consumerism that would consume them is worth it.
Jenet Jacob Erickson teaches in the School of Family Life at Brigham Young University.