This is the fourth installment of a continuing series in which American events are described using the tropes and tone normally employed by the American media to describe events in other countries.
WASHINGTON, D.C., United States—On Wednesday morning, this normally bustling capital city became a ghost town as most of its residents embarked on the long journey to their home villages for an annual festival of family, food, and questionable historical facts. Experts say the day is vital for understanding American society and economists are increasingly taking note of its impact on the world economy.
The annual holiday, known as Thanksgiving, celebrates a mythologized moment of peace between America’s early foreign settlers and its native groups—a day that by Americans' own admission preceded a near genocide of those groups. Despite its murky origins, the holiday remains a rare institution celebrated almost universally in this ethnically diverse society.
During the holiday, more than 38.4 million Americans will make the long pilgrimage home, traveling an average of 214 miles over congested highways, often in inclement weather. The more prosperous citizens will frequently opt for the nation's airways, suffering through a series of flight delays and missed airline connections thanks to the country’s decaying transportation infrastructure and residual fears of foreign terrorist attacks.
Once home, the holiday’s traditions encourage Americans to consume massive quantities of food centered around the turkey, a flightless—and some would say tasteless—bird native to the American continent. All in all, 46 million of these animals will be slaughtered for the feast, nearly 20 percent of those raised each year. The average American will consume an almost unbelievable 4,500 calories, despite ongoing warnings about dangerous obesity rates nationally.
Virtually the only break from the eating comes when Americans gather around the television to watch a special presentation of football, the country’s most popular sport. If the brutal violence of the game seems at odds with the holiday’s emphasis on thanks and good will, no one seems to mind.
Though rooted in America’s ancient history, the celebration of Thanksgiving today also reflects the transforming values of American society. One relatively recent tradition is the head of state’s public “pardoning” of a turkey—a sop to animal rights activists made somewhat moot by the fact that the country’s president simply dines on a different turkey. To outsiders, it can also seem like a somewhat macabre gesture since the United States is one of the last developed countries to employ the death penalty for humans.
Traditionally, the Friday and weekend following Thanksgiving have been set aside for another American institution—intense consumer activity and bargain shopping. (The availability of deeply discounted goods is increasingly beginning even sooner, sometime on the holiday itself, angering some purists.) More than $59 billion will be spent over these days, though the exact figure will be watched closely by economists looking for clues about the country’s national mood and economic well-being. The event is known as “Black Friday,” though contrary to popular belief, this is not due to the injuries and deaths that periodically occur during retail stampedes.
In recent years, some experts have questioned whether the hidden costs of the Thanksgiving holiday have become excessive; whether the celebration is worth its massive environmental impact and the increased health risks due to traffic accidents and overeating. Still, the majority of the population holds fast to these pastimes. For them, they are part of a rare, quintessentially American tradition in a modernizing society that finds itself increasingly under the influence of the outside world.