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Holiday or Work? Thanksgiving and Social Class

Is Thanksgiving a four-day weekend for everyone? What does social class have to do with how Thanksgiving is experienced? In this post, Stephanie Medley-Rath explores how not only is Thanksgiving day classed, but how the three days following the holiday are experienced is also shaped by class.

Family All Together At Holiday Dinner

How holidays are experienced is class-based. Shamus Khan articulated this point with regards to Thanksgiving in a recent Time article. Khan’s focus is on the popular trend this Thanksgiving of stores opening on Thanksgiving day rather than waiting until Black Friday.

Most would agree that at least some people working in essential jobs (e.g., emergency room doctors or police) should work on Thanksgiving. There are more questions, however, when it comes to whether people working in non-essential jobs (e.g., retail) should work on Thanksgiving.

One consideration left out of this debate is that a class-based experience of Thanksgiving extends beyond whether or not you have to work in a non-essential service job on Thanksgiving day. It extends to the entire four-day weekend.

Note my use of the phrase “four-day weekend.” I work as a college instructor and my husband also works in a middle-class job where most of the employees do receive a four-day weekend. His company provides essential services, so some employees do work over the four-day weekend.

For us, this means that all four days can be treated like both a weekend and a holiday. We spent Thanksgiving day with extended family. We put up the Christmas decorations on Friday. We shopped a little bit on Saturday. On Sunday, we took it easy. As an instructor, I checked email, graded homework, and completed a few other work-related tasks, but I could have left it all for Monday. We could experience the time as holiday in this way because none of us had to work over the weekend at all.

Those in the lower-class experience the holiday a bit differently. Instead of having Thanksgiving dinner at whatever time the family wants, the mealtime has to accommodate multiple work schedules for the multiple family members working on Thanksgiving in non-essential jobs. As a teenager, I worked fast-food and had to put in a shift on Easter Sunday. In my middle-class household, mine was the only work schedule that had to be accounted for when determining the time for Easter dinner. I was the only family member who had to leave and go work that day, rather than all of the working-aged family members.

Instead of preparing for Christmas by decorating or shopping over the rest of the weekend, multiple family members in a lower-class household have to work. In other words, as a member of a middle-class household, I get to experience Thanksgiving as a four-day weekend rather than as something that has to be squeezed into multiple work schedules.

Moreover, for me, working over the holiday weekend is a choice. Is it a choice for those working in non-essential lower-class jobs? In sociology, we talk about about something called structure and agency. For most retail workers, working on Thanksgiving or over the four-day holiday is a choice. They have agency. But then that pesky social structure gets in the way. Their choice to work is structured by things like income. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 2010 median income for retail workers is $20,990, with median hourly pay of $10.09. The four-day holiday for the middle class and upper class, then can mean picking up extra shifts and perhaps a little overtime pay. When your income hovers around $20,990 a year, you do not really have a choice but to work on Thanksgiving. Your agency (or choice) to work on Thanksgiving is structured by the poverty-level pay provided retail workers.

Dig Deeper:

  1. How is Thanksgiving experienced differently by the lower, middle, and upper classes? Try to give examples beyond those examples pointed out by the author.
  2. Is Thanksgiving a day or a four-day weekend holiday? Explain.
  3. Retail workers earn poverty level wages. Watch this video about how far poverty level wages go in covering basic necessities like housing, transportation, and child care. Is working on Thanksgiving really a choice for retail workers? Are they really volunteering to work? Why or why not?
  4. The author does not address how Thanksgiving is experienced differently depending on our race or gender. Knowing that race and gender intersect with class, how do you think Thanksgiving is raced or classed?