Thanks, but No Card

By Richard Cohen
Thursday, November 24, 2005

My friend -- my very nice friend -- has sent me a Thanksgiving card. It is an e-mail card, but a Thanksgiving card nonetheless. I think it is the second Thanksgiving card of my life. With any luck it will be the last.

I hope my friend does not take offense. But the one thing I cherish about Thanksgiving is that it has remained commerce-free. Almost all the other holidays, especially Christmas, have been corrupted by commercialism. Even Thanksgiving is threatened by its proximity to Christmas -- with the sinisterly named "Black Friday," when shoppers arrive before dawn to save a buck or two. But as they stampede through the doors, as they elbow one another out of the way, as their greed distorts their faces, I have to remind myself that this is about the Christmas that is coming and not the Thanksgiving that has passed. I also have to remind myself that no matter what some conservative commentators say, something other than liberals has despoiled Christmas.

Other holidays have suffered accordingly. Halloween was once a golden opportunity to run amok -- to wish for no treat so that the trick could be performed. Now it has been corrupted into a sweet national costume party, an event without menace or meaning, an excuse to dress as something you're not, which is what most of us do most of the time anyway -- i.e., middle-aged people in tight jeans, kids in tight jeans, Al Roker in jeans of any kind, and all sorts of people with studs in their noses and rings in their lips. What do they wear on Halloween?

Armistice Day, which once marked a real event -- the end of World War I -- has been amorphisized (Okay, I made up the word) into this thing we call Veterans Day. It celebrates veterans, which means it celebrates something so amorphous it's hard to say what or who is being celebrated. Heroes? Not really. Combat experience? Not that, either. A lifetime of military service? No, too restrictive. So it's just anyone who was ever in the military. Yes, that's it. Is it any wonder no one much pays any attention -- or, for that matter, notices that the day lacks an apostrophe?

George Washington and Abraham Lincoln's birthdays have become one event. Feb. 22 and Feb. 12 have been squished into a single day, the third Monday in February. The tragedy and greatness of Lincoln, the aloofness and majesty of Washington, have been subsumed into some grand excuse to dress up an actor in a wig so that cars can be sold. The reality of these men has been erased, smudged into something meaningless: another wretched shopping day. Every time I see a commercial with someone dressed as George Washington hawking a Toyota, I want to bomb Tokyo all over again. Cut it out!

Only a few holidays remain more or less sacrosanct. July 4, although widely disrespected by auto dealers and other such criminals, retains a vestigial meaning as Independence Day. In some places the Declaration of Independence is still read, a document so radical that if it were introduced into the current Congress, Republicans would bottle it up in committee. Memorial Day, too, manages a fading dignity, although it is mostly marked as the beginning of summer. As for Labor Day, it merely ends the summer, its original meaning almost totally lost.

But Thanksgiving -- it is still home and family and turkey and a moment wondering about the wonder of it all. It is above all about my mother, Pearl, a remarkable 93, and the family she has gathered around her. It is a moment to honor the memory of my father, who lives long after his death in the occasional dream and the odd moment when I remember to call him -- and then remember there is no one to call. It is about the words my sister always says when we sit down to eat. She always gives thanks.

So I say to my friend, Thank you for thinking of me on Thanksgiving, but, please, no more cards. This is a very rare day. It celebrates a concept -- not a person, not a group, not an event. It is wholly and entirely about gratitude -- about the dumb luck that befell those of us who are Americans and were raised, whether in comfort or not, in a land of feisty, free people. Keep the day free of commercialism. When you really care enough to send the very best, please, for Thanksgiving, send nothing at all.

Thanks.

cohenr@washpost.com


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