Just as the Iliad and the Odyssey may provide all one needs to know about Ancient Greek mores and the Trojan War, the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade and Black Friday may provide all one needs to know about the values inherent in 21st century American consumerism and the Walmart Wars.
Visiting my parents’ southern Californian home in Porter Ranch for Macy’s Day, I pull into a nearby shopping center after my two-hour drive north from mellow North County San Diego. There’s always tension here. It’s not just the holiday. Sharply featured women wearing red-lipped grimaces threaten me with their waxed, black, battle-ready humvees. They compete for the rare open spot in the vast parking lot that sprawls before Ralph’s, Best Buy, and Walmart. I park sheepishly half a football field away from my target, Starbucks. There, I grab a double latte and quickly make it back to my car before anyone checks me with a shopping cart.
I drive up the hill, sipping my coffee, passing the large California-style homes with their white stucco walls and red-tiled roofs. Parking in front of my parents’ house, I deftly avoid a black SUV whizzing by, only a red-lipped grimace visible beyond the sheen of the windshield. Finally, I step safely through the front door where my parents, my sister and her children wait warmly for me, relieved that I didn’t get hit by the holiday “crazies” on the way. In the living room, we sit as a family below a 42” television set, which my parents complain is too small. We watch the parade.
The name “Macy’s Day” parade, as most call it, is clearly a misnomer, as it celebrates much more than Macy’s alone. The annual parade began in 1924 as what it is now, a marketing stunt to draw publicity to the department store. That year, it drew a quarter of a million New York consumers. Today a staggering 3.5 million gather to watch it live on the streets of Manhattan. A stupefying 50 million watch from home.
The parade makes its way through New York City from Central Park to Macy’s Herald Square, where pop singers lip sync a few seconds of a hit, sparkling cheerleaders shout “Macy’s!” and militant marching bands salute the entrance to the store with blaring brass horns. Aside from the TV commercials, the real attractions are the giant, helium filled balloons representing some of our most powerful corporations. Adults cheer with fervor, children point wide-eyed, our heads tip toward the sky as these beloved characters loom over us, our powerful pantheon of Consumer Gods.
There’s the Nestlé Quik Bunny! And Ronald McDonald! How BIG! Oh, the Honey Nut Cheerios Bee is coming up behind him! Look! It’s the M&Ms! How cute! The Pillsbury Doughboy! Adorable! And here comes the Energizer Bunny. Don’t you love him?
Later that evening, after my family and I had stuffed ourselves silly and after we’d watched Miracle on 34th Street (such a heart-warming feature-length advertisement for Macy’s), we caught the eleven-o-clock news. That’s when we learned about the woman who—in order to get her hands on a brand new, discounted Xbox at the Porter Ranch Walmart down the hill—pepper-sprayed her way through the shoppers ahead of her.
“Shocking,” we said.
And with Macy’s Day at a close and Black Friday dawning early this year, we went to bed, listening to the high hum of a police helicopter hovering over the house, over the neighborhood, watching over us there in Porter Ranch during the days of the Walmart Wars.