Our Unholiest Holiday

Columbus Day SaleAmerican commerce is so powerful it can suck the holy out of any holiday. We shop to celebrate the birthday of our most revered presidents; we shop to celebrate those who have served in the armed forces; we even shop to memorialize those who have died in battle.

Word to the wise: Memorial Day is a great time to get a good deal on a mattress.

Which reminds me of a radio promo I read about in January, in advance of Martin Luther King, Jr., Day: “I have a dream . . . of a better night’s sleep.” Moving, isn’t it? To honor the Civil Rights hero, Honda has featured a “MLK Drive Away” special. And Hennessy cognac sent out a press release titled, “Mixed Drinks MLK Jr. Would Be Proud Of.”

Yuck. Or, as LA Magazine opined, “Epic PR fail.” But it’s a bit rich to criticize companies for capitalizing on King’s legacy, given what they do every Christmas to the God that Dr. King worshipped.

Ah, Christmas, the apotheosis of shopping. The shopotheosis of the U.S. calendar. The day—no, the season—when we celebrate the birth of a man who said,

“Sell everything you have and give to the poor” (Mark 10:21)

and “You cannot serve both God and money” (Matthew 6:24)

and “Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions” (Luke 12:15).


As an atheist raised Jewish, I probably shouldn’t care whether Christmas is commercialized. But I’m a bit of a stickler about meaning. It’s why I can’t join a synagogue, despite appeal of community and collective good works. If I belonged, I’d have to participate, which would entail regularly saying things I didn’t mean. I could fake it, as so many do, but I’m a bit of a romantic about meaningful things—like prayer and holy days. I think they should mean something.

That’s why I’m bothered that we celebrate Memorial Day with deep discounts on patio furniture. It’s just . . . demeaning.

Look, I like to shop. And I definitely like a deal. And since consuming is our national pastime, maybe we could agree to July 4 and Labor Day as meaningful days to buy stuff, with the stipulation that everything we buy be union made in America.

Now, if you want full license to shop non-union, sweat-shopped items from big box stores that do not pay a living wage, well, I have the holiday for you. The one time our national avarice meaningfully aligns with a national holiday: Columbus Day, during which we celebrate a man motivated by rapacious greed and characterized by callous indifference to human beings.

(Oh wait: you thought he discovered America and proved that the earth was round? Didn’t you read last year’s Columbus Day rant?)

There is no way to suck the holy out of this holiday; it begins bereft of anything we should revere. Christopher Columbus explored some, I suppose (although he got lost a lot), but mostly he enslaved, tortured, robbed, and generally brutalized native peoples in his quest for gold. A representative sampling of the gospel of Columbus:

“Gold is most excellent; gold is a treasure, and he who possesses it does all he wishes to in this world, and succeeds in helping souls into paradise.” (letter to Ferdinand and Isabella)

and, “But in truth, should I meet with gold or spices in great quantity, I shall remain till I collect as much as possible, and for this purpose I am proceeding solely in quest of them.” (journal entry)

and, “These people are very unskilled in arms… with 50 men they could all be subjected and made to do all that one wished.” (journal entry)

Subject them he did. At one point, acting as Governor of Hispaniola, he demanded a monthly tribute of gold dust from each local tribesman; he who did not produce it had his hands cut off. And that’s among the least gruesome things Columbus did. In fact, so viciously and cruelly did Columbus rule that Spain sent someone to arrest him and strip him of his governorship. Imagine how badly you’d have to behave to render a 16th-century colonial power indignant on behalf of an indigenous people!

Here in the 21st century, you have to behave pretty badly to your foreign workforce in order to capture the attention of the American consumer. But it can be done. As in that Bangladesh textile factory collapse that killed 1,219 back in 2013.

Occasionally we even take notice of the workers who live.

The children report being routinely slapped and beaten, sometimes falling down from exhaustion, forced to work 12 to 14 hours a day, even some all-night, 19-to-20-hour shifts, often seven days a week, for wages as low as 6 ½ cents an hour. The wages are so wretchedly low that many of the child workers get up at 5:00 a.m. each morning to brush their teeth using just their finger and ashes from the fire, since they cannot afford a toothbrush or toothpaste.

Labor Abuses Christopher Columbus Would Be Proud Of.

That was from 2006 National Labor Committee Report. JCPenney, Hanes, and Wal-Mart have doubtless switched suppliers since then. Surely there’s something more recent, maybe something from the tech industry. How about conditions in the Chinese factories that supply Apple?

An undercover investigation by China Labor Watch at the Suqian plant [which makes iPhone parts] last month found that fire exits were locked and that flammable aluminum-magnesium alloy dust and shavings filled the air and littered the floors of some workshops. Investigators also found that employees were forced to work as many as 100 hours of overtime a month. (New York Times, September 4, 2014)

Shop on, my friends. In fact, to celebrate Columbus Day properly, to honor fully the great man’s compulsive accrual of shiny objects at the expense of human beings, you should probably get an iPhone 6s. It’s pricey, I know—especially given that you already have a smartphone—but on our unholiest of holidays, it would be deeply significant.


  1. Come on, Kate. Quit holding back. I agree with you with the exception that any of these holidays deserve to be celebrated in any way. They are all about wars, oppression, conquest and abuse of our fellow men. Wrapped up in a shiny package and slanted in favor of the victors. I always thought it was a shame we fought the British. Just think, we’d all still have those lovely manners and cool accents. If July 4 isn’t worth celebrating, what is? So that’s that.
    Now let us remember that according to those quotes from the Gospels, we are supposed to give to the poor. That is what we are doing by wasting our money paying full price for things that are “on sale” when their usual double full prices are halved. By buying their stuff we gave so much to the once poor that they are now the rich. Now there’s a conundrum for you. No way around it, Kate. The nature of the beast. But it’s good to vent. Breathe in….breathe out.

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