Don Cunningham: As Thanksgiving Ends, There Can be Joy in Simplicity

By Colin McEvoy on November 30, 2018

This column, written by LVEDC President and CEO Don Cunningham, originally appeared in The Morning Call and on the newspaper’s website on November 28, 2018. (Click here to read Cunningham’s previous columns.)

Don Cunningham

Don Cunningham

There can be joy in simplicity.

I’ve been witness to it for 20 consecutive years in Bethlehem on the day after Thanksgiving.

That’s when the Christmas City turns on its holiday lights and brings attention to the Dickensian decorations, streetscapes and architecture that transport a visitor back in time.

It all begins with the simple flip of a switch.

Each year, many thousands fill Payrow Plaza for a one-hour ceremony of short speeches, community sing-alongs and musical performances.

Some years, like this one, they brave the cold, wrapped in coats and hats, huddled together to block the wind.

In a high-tech world of surround sound movies, video games with lifelike graphics and constant entertainment on phones, iPads, and big-screens, it’s a very low-tech event.

The highlight is when the mayor or some other lucky person leads a short countdown and flips a switch on the podium. At that point, the massive, live evergreen tree in the middle of the plaza goes from dark to light.

The crowd roars as the eyes of young and old gaze upward at the tree.

Here’s a little secret from a former mayor: The podium switch is a prop. At the end of the countdown, a city electrical worker near the podium radios another city worker across the plaza, who throws a circuit in an electrical box.

It matters not. That simple act of turning on white lights brings joy and excitement.

In that magical moment, the holiday season begins in the Christmas City. The decorations on city bridges and hundreds of trees on light poles in the downtown and the South Side also come aglow.

Previously, Bethlehem turned on its holiday lights on the first Sunday of Advent. That traditional approach, however, forced downtown merchants to compete with malls and big-box stores for up to two weeks without their best marketing weapon: the decorations and lights.

For the last two decades, the ceremony has occurred the day after Thanksgiving, the unofficial start of the holiday shopping season. Crowds fill downtown Bethlehem as they do the malls.

I’ve always thought it odd that the two American creations of Thanksgiving and Black Friday flow from one to another with hardly a night’s rest between.

We’re expected to transition from giving thanks for our country, our community, our family and the essential gifts of food, shelter and each other to buying products with wild abandon, foregoing sleep, comfort and — often — security.

This Black Friday, two people died and six were injured in five shopping mall incidents in the U.S. and Canada. Twelve people have died and 117 have been injured in Black Friday shopping-related incidents since records began to be kept in 2006.

Shopping can clearly be serious business.

The first half of my life I don’t recall there being such a thing as Black Friday or people dying while shopping.

This is a recent phenomenon.

My memories of the day after Thanksgiving were more of pickup football games, visiting relatives and either generating or nursing hangovers.

Black Friday — a horrible name, by the way — did begin in a limited way in the late 1950s or early 1960s, apparently starting in Philadelphia. Retailers didn’t drive it into prominence until the early 1990s, however, when national chains began opening stores early with deep discounts to jump-start holiday buying.

The focus of Thanksgiving then began to shift from giving thanks to buying stuff to properly celebrate the upcoming religious holidays of Christmas and Hanukkah.

As with all things, the internet made Black Friday easier — and more complicated.

It started with adding Cyber Monday, the online retailers’ answer to store-based discount shopping. The two are now pretty much one. The retail world measures them together along with — wait for it — Thanksgiving. Adobe Analytics, which analyzes retail sales of all kinds, reports that Thanksgiving is now the nation’s fastest growing online shopping day. Online sales totaled $3.7 billion this Thanksgiving, up 28 percent from last year.

Online retailers have developed an ingenious new way for people all year to give themselves the excitement and quick endorphin blast that one gets when opening a gift. It’s called a subscription box, basically a monthly present in the mail.

Consumers can subscribe online with a favorite retailer to receive a regular box of surprise items, whether they need it or not, with prices ranging from $10 to several hundred, depending on the products. In 2011, the e-commerce subscription industry was worth $57 million. In 2016, it had grown to $2.6 billion.

It’s doubtful this is what President Abraham Lincoln imagined when he proclaimed the nation’s first national holiday of Thanksgiving in 1863 during the middle of the Civil War.

The National Retail Federation is forecasting record holiday shopping this year with a projected $715 billion in spending, up 4.3 percent from last year. The forecast is for every shopper to spend $1,007.24, with $637.67 on gifts, $215.04 on food, decorations, flowers and greeting cards and $154.53 to take advantage of seasonal deals and promotions.

While this is good for the economy, it makes life more complicated for many consumers, since the act of buying is much easier than that of paying. Retailers and marketers are good at what they do. With consumers, that’s not always the case.

Technology and innovation drive capitalism and consumerism, making it easier and harder to resist buying more. Your only defense is yourself.

Lao Tzu, the guiding figure in the creation of the spiritual practice of Taoism, wrote centuries ago, “to attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day.”

There is joy in simplicity.

Sometimes it’s OK to just marvel at a beautiful white light coming on and to enjoy a holiday with family or friends as your only gift to each other.

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