Commercialization Is Giving Thanksgiving A New Meaning

Ming Wei Yeoh, Copy Editor

What is the meaning of Thanksgiving? To many families, it is a time for expressing gratitude, gathering with loved ones and showing appreciation for friends and family. To America’s big companies, however, the significance of the holiday lies more in the vast profits that are raked in each year, from overpromoted turkey brands to the extravagant Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. The underlying motives behind Thanksgiving often go unnoticed. As much as its true historical context has been forgotten in modern times, the commodification of the holiday is widely accepted as something natural and inconsequential. 

Liesl McCallum, ‘24, shared her family’s Thanksgiving routine. 

“Usually my grandparents come to my dad’s house. It’s typically just [them], me and my dad and his girlfriend,” she said. 

After spending the day snacking on various appetizers, the McCallums partake in a traditional Thanksgiving feast, including the classic turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy and pumpkin pie. They also have a few customs special to their family. In the morning, McCallum and her dad take part in the 5K Tonka Turkey Trot. Dinner comes pre-made from Kowalski’s, while the pumpkin pie and snacks they enjoy throughout the day are always homemade. McCallum’s family also makes sure to watch A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving every year. 

When asked what Thanksgiving means to her, McCallum took a moment to think. 

“It’s a time to be with each other,” she said. “That’s really it. It’s just being with family and friends. I see my family throughout the year, but I feel like there’s just something special about being together on a holiday that makes it more meaningful.” 

One star attraction of the holiday is the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, which is widely adored by all different groups of people. McCallum revealed that her family has never been especially enthusiastic about it. 

She said, “Sometimes we’ll watch a highlight reel or, like, a summary, but we never really watch the whole thing. It’s just never really been a thing for us.” 

McCallum admitted that the idea of the holiday developing a more superficial and capitalistic side has never really crossed her mind—in relation to the parade or anything else. She feels more sensitive about its historic origins. 

“I think the history of it should be taught more than to just third graders, one day a year,” she said. 

In her opinion, Thanksgiving is not an objectively bad holiday, but she believes that the conversation surrounding its many flaws should be embraced rather than avoided by everyone who celebrates it. 

Alex White, senior director of marketing at Mayo Clinic, gave his two cents about American corporations’ interest in Thanksgiving. 

“I think the reason why there’s such a good opportunity there [to profit] is that you have a holiday that, one, leads into a long weekend, and two, [includes] people getting together,” he said. “[Companies] build strategies and sales opportunities around culture and people getting together rather than targeting individuals.” 

White went on to describe people’s tendency to buy products to impress those around them, as well as the higher likelihood that people buy products when they are gathered in big groups. He also touched on Black Friday, an event which he personally enjoys immensely. 

“It’s interesting to see the ads, and just see deal, deal, deal, deal,” he said. 

People will naturally spread the news of specific deals and sales they have seen to their friends, neighbors and colleagues, he observed, thus convincing those people to seek out these products as well. 

White also shared his thoughts on the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade. When asked why he believes it became such a big deal over time, he said it resulted from a few factors. 

“Firstly, what can you provide to families across the world that becomes a part of their tradition?” he said. 

Historically, many tight-knit towns and communities had their own local parades; Macy’s used Americans’ familiarity with the concept of the parade to their advantage. In addition, with the growth of the middle-class population over time, almost everyone came to have a TV. 

“Mass marketers are trying to think of something to get into everyone’s home,” said White. From that point on, it was a rapid development. 

“Sponsorships and ad revenue make the money. Then [the company] make[s] [people] want to watch it with all these balloons and floats,” he said. 

However, White does have a personal attachment to the holiday, even after recognizing the commercialization of it. 

“I love Thanksgiving,” he said. “Probably the thing I love the most about the holiday is that I can truly bring my family together. We get to eat really good food and watch football, and just hang out and be really carefree.” 

Thanksgiving is far from a perfect holiday. It can be argued that it has lost much of its original meaning due to the widely ignored historical context and its increased profitability. But many people still enjoy the holiday each year. While celebrating, it is important to remember the true meaning of Thanksgiving as well as recognize its imperfections.