Why Thanksgiving is More American than the Fourth of July

A gigantic balloon effigy of Ronald McDonald hovers ominously over sixth avenue in Manhattan, casting its massive shadow over the onlooking crowd. Don McClean walks out of a gigantic door built into the side of Mount Rushmore and sings just the final refrain of American Pie. There is a troupe of dancing ladies paying homage to Flashdance, a marching band dressed like robots from a dystopian science-fiction film, a float with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles dancing on top. This is but a microcosm of the spectacle that unfolds on Thanksgiving morning as over fifty million American viewers tune in to the Macy’s Parade.

The first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, “The Macy’s Christmas Parade,” took place in November of 1924 and (as Macy’s claims) was little more than a small collection of the store’s employees who took great pride in their company who organized the parade themselves. Of course, the parade featured live animals from the Central Park Zoo, so it’s likely that the Macy’s characterization of the event as impromptu display of employee dignity is, in some respects, a skewed romanticization of the past. The parade’s trademark balloons didn’t come into the picture until about 1927, and by 1934, it was drawing crowds of a million or more and Disney was participating. Its popularity steadily grew over the years, and it was featured more and more on television and in movies (Miracle on 34th Street comes to mind), eventually becoming what it is today—balloons and marching bands and corporations and confetti and everything that we see on television.

The thing about the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, however, is that it’s not actually a parade. Insofar as parades and marches can be considered a form of rhetoric en masse, the Macy’s Parade has no actual central thesis, no real takeaway message. It’s little more than a collection of advertisements held together by a hodgepodge of disparate references to American mythos and popular culture. Its purpose isn’t, say, to extol a victorious military or raise awareness about a human rights issue, or even to celebrate the harvest. Instead, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is simply there in order to foment excitement for Black Friday among the consumer class and build revenue for NBC and Macy’s upon a rickety scaffold of nostalgia and spectacle.

The balloons and floats and acts whiz by — Whoopi Goldberg entertains the crowd from the bow of a pirate ship, Cody Simpson sings a pop song surrounded by dancing spools of thread, Jenette McCurdy sings a Christmas song from atop the Pepperidge Farm Goldfish Crackers float. Spider Man floats by overhead. The commercial breaks blend in seamlessly: Don’t forget to tune into Sunday Night Football later this week. Shop at Macy’s and save forty to fifty percent. All the while, the hosts moderate the experience for the fifty million watching, feigning surprise at the parade’s scripted “unscripted” events, hoping that their commentary masks the true nature of their well-rehearsed task.

The French postmodernist thinker Jean Baudrillard became well known for his writing about simulations — their genesis, their place in society, and their inevitable propagation in the world around us. When these simulations begin to simulate themselves, they create a “hyperreality,” or, as Baudrillard put it, “a real without origin or reality.” I prefer to think of this as a world of references without true referents. This is ultimately what the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade embodies. After all, even in its earliest instantiation, the parade itself was a simulation — a scripted “unscripted” event that was meant to look like a show of employee pride, but one that really only had the simple aim of getting more people talking about Macy’s. Nowadays, the parade features celebrities and fictional characters and corporate mascots literally standing side-by-side, all equally real and tangible to the onlooking crowd, all recognizable characters from the patchwork pantheon of American pop-culture.

Although the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade reeks of corporatist inauthenticity and bears all the classic hallmarks of higher-order simulation, the event itself is nevertheless so popular that it has become our cultural reference point for what a parade should be, and maybe this is what makes the whole thing so positively American. Our cultural reference points aren’t actual reference points. Our primary reference point for a castle is a fake fairy-tale castle in Walt Disney World (as both Baudrillard and Eco noted), our primary reference points for real-world experience come from hyperreal “reality television” programs, and our favorite means of social interaction are hyperreal digital distillations of the social — platforms like Twitter, Instagram, and, of course, Facebook.

What many people don’t realize about the first Thanksgiving in colonial Plymouth in 1621 is that it actually was not the first Thanksgiving at all. Celebrations of thanksgiving were commonplace in the new world by the late 1500s. In fact, at least two historians have traced the first American Thanksgiving celebration to Spaniards in Florida in 1565. Even before that, there were celebrations of Thanksgiving throughout Europe, and particularly in England dating back to the 1400s. And finally, if we want to interpret Thanksgiving as simply a harvest festival, it’s likely that that tradition wasn’t invented too long after the advent of agriculture.

In a way, though, our skewed perspective of the history of Thanksgiving is fitting — perfect even. It fits with the skewed history of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, and it dovetails with the skewed syncretism of corporate icons by which we find ourselves surrounded as we tune in to watch the parade every Thanksgiving morning. The truth is that the Thanksgiving story that we have chosen to buy into is not one of harvest in preparation for the approach of Winter, but one of hyperconsumption in spite of it. Whether it’s a three-day feast in 17th-century New England or a stampede-inducing midnight Black Friday sale at a 21st-century Macy’s, it’s a time of year that is firmly rooted in consumption.

And what could possibly be more American than that?

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