Monday, 28 November 2011

Thanksgiving in New York

During my first Thanksgiving in the US, I set aside my usual cynicism about retailers using the holidays to boost revenue.

A wise man once said: If you’re not a socialist at twenty, you have no heart. If you’re not a capitalist by the time you’re thirty, you have no brain.

Inflation night with cousin Thea, in front of Tim Burton's balloon

Well into my thirties, I embraced my inner capitalist and kickedoff the holiday by hotfooting it to West 77th Street in Manhattan, where inflation night was underway. No, this is not when the Reserve announceskey economic data, which would hardly be a cause for celebration. It’s a New York tradition to witness the spectacular balloons take shape the night before the Thanksgivingparade. What fun! How surreal to see an oversized Snoopy, smurf and Spiderman lined up on the street, noses on the concrete, as if they were getting their beauty sleep before the big day.

The first balloon on the parade is emblazoned with the logo of Macy’s, the department store that has sponsored the parade since the 1920s, when the retail sector was going gangbusters. For a foreigner, it’s one of many elements of Thanksgiving lore that inextricably link the holiday to consumerism.

The origin of Thanksgiving is mooted, but it is generally agreed that celebrations were held by both the Native Americans and Pilgrims to celebrate a good harvest. During the Depression, Franklin D Roosevelt moved the date of Thanksgiving earlier for the benefit of retailers, giving them a longer lead time to Christmas. (Back then it was considered distasteful for stores to market Christmas before Thanksgiving.) The public generally disapproved of the change, and the day became known mockingly as Franksgiving. The people won and the date was restored to the fourth Thursday of November.

Around two-thirds of the United States’ gross domestic product comes from retail spending. No wonder marketers are so innovative andcompetition so cutthroat here. The retail sector has learned to work within thetime limits and milk the holiday for what it’s worth. The day after Thanksgiving is branded Black Friday, when prices are slashed by as much as 70 per cent. Then there’s Cyber Monday, when shoppers are encouraged to shop online. Presumably we’re all exhausted from the cardio exercise gained from physically traipsing through the mall on Black Friday, so we resort to the Internet.

The shopping frenzy in fact began late on Thursday night. Atthis point the dining table had been cleared, friends and family who haven’t seen each other in months have had a chance to catch up. Time to walk off the feastand get ready for the next holiday on the assembly line … Christmas shopping! Most stores opened at midnight, though some tried to get the edge on their competitors by opening at eleven.

I question the extreme measures of retailers (who cut prices below cost but only for a limited number of items) and shoppers (who elbow each other out of the way to claim the last bargain-priced flat screen TV), but as an avid consumer I appreciate the benefits of consumerism on steroids. Being in the US during the holiday season is a feast for the senses. Shopping in my local grocery store is like being in Homer Simpson’s shoes when he dreamed about being in a land of chocolate and sweets. Never have I seen such a variety of upscale, fresh, gourmet groceries at reasonable prices. I am gaining a few kilos not necessarily from eating bad but from trying the mindboggling range of food, glorious food.

The master chefs - Ash, Ann and Lenie

My New York family – my cousins who in fact lived on the same street as me, an era ago in Manila – went to impressive lengths to make Thanksgiving special for their extended family. The sit-down dinner for fifteen people featured the necessary centerpiece, the turkey. I’m not much of a meat-eater so, for me, the sides and desserts deservedly stole the limelight from the bird. On the menu were: pumpkin soup, sautéed mushrooms, steamed beans and asparagus, salad with artichokes and leaves, brussel sprouts with bacon, brie ,yams with marshmallow sauce, roast potatoes, macaroni salad, French bread, Italian bread, pannetone, pineapple upside down cake, chocolate dipped strawberries, poached pears, apple pie, pecan pie and mini-cupcakes.

And yes, I did top it off with some bargain shopping last Friday. My best buy – a Diane von Furstenberg trolley bag for seventy bucks.

As a fan of American-style consumerism, I hope that, especially for the sake of the ‘99 per cent’, the December quarter economic figures get a healthy boost from the retail sector, to help stave the US from a still-dreaded double-dip recession. Strong spending in the previous quarter put retail sales data firmly in positive territory. Fingers crossed it stays that way.

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