Among the biggest complaints I hear about the early November onset of the Christmas season (the music, the decorations, the commercials, the candy, the seasonal aisle in every drug store) is that it causes people to forget about Thanksgiving.
I don’t think I totally buy that complaint, though. Sure, there are certainly bad things about the early rollout of Christmas, but few of them actually, truly encroach on the celebration of Thanksgiving. One of the exceptions to that rule, of course, is the extension of the Black Friday craze into Thanksgiving night. I think there’s a discussion to be had about this craze in particular that hasn’t quite been addressed: many people recommend protesting the early sales on Thanksgiving night, but that seems to me to be ever so slightly classist in its assumptions.
Sure, nobody needs to buy those sale items, but what about those individuals or families who are barely scraping by, and who might participate in Black Friday in order to buy certain near-necessities without obliterating their checking accounts, like microwaves, or coffeemakers, or printers, or GPS devices? What about those parents who want to buy a few nice Christmas gifts for their kids but need to save all the money that they can in order to put food on the table on Christmas day? Can these people really afford to just roll their eyes and scoff at the 8 pm (or even at Walmart, 6 pm) Black Friday deals on Thanksgiving night?
Sure, some people might stand up and leave their family gatherings tonight just because they enjoy shopping in the Black Friday rush, but others might face a truly difficult decision about whether or not to stay with their families, who they might not see very often throughout the year – and if they make the decision to stay and to pass up on these sales, they might have to do so knowing that such a choice may, in an indirect way, impact their bank accounts. So are the ideological protests of these sales inherently classist? I’m not sure. It’s just something I’ve been thinking about. I’m not trying to say that protesting these sales is a worthless act, or anything like that. I just think there might be another angle to this conversation that most people are overlooking.
But forgive my tangent – that debate is not what I sat down to write about this morning. Is Thanksgiving overshadowed by Christmas simply because Christmas has more accoutrement than Thanksgiving? It’s difficult to decorate the outside of your house or your yard for Thanksgiving; there aren’t very many limited edition foods or kinds of candy for Thanksgiving, or specialty aisles in drug stores; and as for music, does Thanksgiving music even exist? Most people probably say no. But I disagree.
This year, my favorite Thanksgiving album is Left and Leaving by The Weakerthans.
No – there aren’t any songs on this album about turkeys or pilgrims or football. But it struck me recently when I listened to this album that many of its lyrical themes and subjects are absolutely relevant to Thanksgiving. Let me explain.
The first song on Left and Leaving (the second album by The Weakerthans, released in 2000) is “Everything Must Go.” John K. Samson sings about a garage sale; “I need to pay my heart’s outstanding bills,” he says. Among the items listed for sale is “a wage-slave forty-hour work week (weighs a thousand kilograms, so bend your knees) — comes with a free fake smile for all your dumb demands.” Throughout the album, the struggles of the working class are laid bare. In “Aside,” the narrator remarks that you can see his ribs through his t-shirts, and that the shoes that he’s wearing were given to him for free. The subject of “Exiles Among You” is “barely coasting into a paycheck, stuck on empty, her blue eyes frozen green in the low-lit ATM.” Later in the song, “she shoplifts some Christmas gifts, and a bracelet for herself, and considers phoning home.” The people Samson sings about are tired, and beaten down – and in “My Favorite Chords,” the protagonists have to deal with the fact that “the mayor’s out killing kids to keep taxes down” – but they’re portrayed as everyday warriors, holding out for better days. All of the items listed for sale in “Everything Must Go” can be obtained for merely “a sign that recovery comes to the broken ones.” And in “Aside,” even though the narrator is rail thin, wearing free shoes, and “unconsoled and lonely,” he nevertheless proclaims, “I’m so much better than I used to be.”
Another relevant theme that bubbles up repeatedly in these songs is that of returning home, apparently only for a short time (aka, nearly every college student in the country, and even a large number of post-grads and adults who return to their hometown for the holidays). “I’m leaning on this broken fence between past and present tense,” Samson sings in “Aside,” also mentioning a fear of telephones (calls from relatives!), shopping malls (Black Friday!), and a tendency to “rely a bit too heavily on alcohol and irony” (family gatherings!). The narrator of these songs describes his hometown as “still breathing (but barely)… buildings gone missing like teeth” (“Left and Leaving”) and notes that “they’re tearing up streets again, they’re building a new hotel” (“My Favorite Chords”). In what has always been my favorite track from the album, “This Is A Fire Door Never Leave Open,” a cathartic five-minute reflection on “forty years of failing to describe a feeling” winds to an end as Samson pleads: “And I love this place; the enormous sky, and the faces, hands that I’m haunted by, so why can’t I forgive these buildings, these frameworks labeled home?” For myself and for a lot of my friends, returning to our hometowns for Thanksgiving and for winter break is a strange and unsettling experience, for reasons not entirely evident; this album captures every bit of that odd discomfort.
“Elegy for Elsabet” paints the picture of a girl who has fallen deaf for reasons unknown to us, and who has grown tired of reading her father’s lips, and can no longer hear the sounds of horses braying, crickets ringing, the swishing of grass, or the creaking of doors. When Samson played “History to the Defeated” at a 2009 solo show in Germany, he gave the following explanation to the audience: “I was in a border town in Texas. I was walking around and I saw a man weeping in a phone booth and I thought that was strange. And then I noticed almost everywhere all the storefronts around the center of this town were Bail Bonds. And you don’t have those here, and we don’t have them in Canada. But it’s where people go when their loved ones are in prison and they give over anything they own in collateral to get their loved one out of jail. This song is about that man who was weeping the phone booth.”
We hear these songs, we meet these characters, and we simultaneously feel pain and sorrow for them while also recognizing that we are very fortunate to live the lives that we do – even if we think we have very little, we are able to recognize that our own “very little” may be desperately lacked and desired by others. We might be temped to wish these faceless people well, or to pray for them and their lives, as does the narrator in “Exiles Among You.” However, immediately after he prays that his old friend remains “proud and strange and so hopelessly hopeful,” a set of background vocals kick in, as if to provide an aside to the listener: “Wishes and prayers are the way that we leave the lonely alone and push the wounded away.” Wishes and prayers don’t suffice. Wishes and prayers come from the privileged or the more fortunate, and they do absolutely nothing for anybody else. In order to truly communicate your thankfulness, you need to spread it to others in real, tangible, personal ways.
Even inside the bleakness, there is recognition of privilege, optimism, and hope. Even in “Watermark,” a song that appears to be about a couple experiencing a miscarriage or an abortion, the narrator finds a feeling worth keeping: “Hold on to the corners of today, and we’ll fold it up to save until it’s needed.” The characters in “My Favorite Chords” create their own kind of Thanksgiving: “When you get off work tonight, meet me at the construction site, and we’ll write some notes to tape to the heavy machines, like, ‘We hope they treat you well. Hope you don’t work too hard. We hope you get to be happy sometimes.’ Bring your swiss-army knife, and a bottle of something, and I’ll bring some spray paint and a new deck of cards. Hey, I found the safest place to keep all our tenderness, keep all our bad ideas, keep all our hope. It’s here in the smallest bones, the feet and the inner ear. It’s such an enormous thing to walk and to listen.”
Left and Leaving by The Weakerthans might not have been written with Thanksgiving in mind, but it’s the best Thanksgiving album that I’ve managed to find so far. Do yourself a favor: stop complaining about the early onset of the Christmas season, give this album a listen, and then go out and do something good for somebody else, and be thankful that you’re capable of doing so.