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It’s the morning of the day after Thanksgiving, a day which has come to be known as Black Friday because retailers around the nation theoretically make so much money their yearly profit margins go from “in the red” to “in the black.”

Like everyone else, our home has been deluged by every available media source with offers of Black Friday sales. Yesterday’s newspaper was lauded as “the biggest of the year” due to ads that could best be measured by the inches they stacked up with page after page of glossy inserts screaming headlines to buy, buy, buy!

Somehow, this has become the message of Thanksgiving. But it wasn’t always like this. It used to be a national holiday when our hard-working populace was given time off from their jobs to enjoy a hearty meal and spend time with their friends and families giving thanks for the many good things that life in this country still has to offer.

How did such a simple and wonderful holiday become subsumed by consumption fever? How did humble thanks wind up being sidelined by capitalist greed so great that the big box stores now demand their low-paid employees work not only the holiday, but through the night before and after Thanksgiving? Does anyone really believe that Walmart, Macy’s, Target, Home Depot, Lowe’s or any of the other huge national retailers really need this level of extreme commercialism to make their projected profit margins?

Moreover, what happens when crass commercialism virtually eliminates what the holiday is supposed to be about? We know that income inequality is rampant in the U.S., with the top 1 percent far outpacing the rest of the populace in income growth. In fact, “growth” would be the wrong word to apply to the incomes of most of the country as our once-populous middle class dwindles, the “have nots” increase, and labor unions decline as the job market increasingly seeks pay and benefit reductions through the use of part-time employees so they won’t have to cover health insurance or paid holidays.

We are no strangers to difficult times here in Montana. Our per capita income still lurks near the bottom of the barrel – despite endless promises from politicians that they are “fighting for us” with every breath they take. And it doesn't seem to matter which political party they hail from; their stunning lack of success in raising Montanan’s incomes is universal no matter how many of our natural resources they extract, how many forests they denude, how many mini-malls and business incubators they laud.

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Perhaps, as a state and nation, it’s time to get back to something more closely resembling what Thanksgiving used to be about. Perhaps it’s time to put the insanity of the continuous ads aside to consider the more important things in our lives – and the lives of our fellow citizens.

Luckily, we have some fantastic organizations and their largely volunteer staffs that do take care of the increasing number of those who find themselves in need as winter comes on. Montanans are widely known for their kindness and generosity, and despite the growing challenges, do the best they can to get good, healthy meals to the less fortunate on Thanksgiving. Food banks, religious organizations and their secular counterparts do the hard but necessary work of getting the donated food from a variety of sources to the table for those who, for any reason, are unable to provide for themselves.

But emergency food from such sources is merely a treatment for the symptoms, not the illness, that currently assails our nation. While the Wall Street millionaires and billionaires roll in six-figure bonuses and stock options, the number of homeless in our major cities, and even in places like Montana, continues to expand. In numbers unseen since the Great Depression, it is not simply drifters and transients who now find themselves without a home or a meal to eat, it is entire families. Even our schools are now dealing with increasing numbers of homeless students and are struggling to make sure those kids get enough to eat each day at school, since there might not be much once they go “home.”

This is not how it should be in the wealthiest nation on Earth. A good start would be to put the buying frenzy aside and get back to what this dark time of the year should be about – enjoying our friends and families and being thankful for the many blessings of Montana. It couldn't hurt.

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George Ochenski writes a column for each Monday’s Opinion page of the Missoulian. He can be reached by email at oped@missoulian.com.

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