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Putting the ‘giving’ into Thanksgiving

It’s Thanksgiving weekend in America, four days about which I often feel ambivalent because, though I love any excuse to eat pumpkin pie and watch movies all day, I’m not exactly sure what we’re celebrating. Besides maybe being quite good at self-indulgence.

The weekend starts with Thanksgiving Thursday, a day with troubling colonial associations, strangely sanctioned for stuffing ourselves full of an excess of food until all we can do is sleep the afternoon and evening away. That is followed by Black Friday, the biggest shopping day of the year, officially set aside for going out into obscenely crowded stores that open at the crack of dawn, and waiting in long lines to spend money buying a range of things we probably don’t need but can’t resist because they are 50 per cent off. Then the four-day holiday is followed by Cyber Monday, the biggest online shopping day of the year. It’s not just in the US. Black Friday and Cyber Monday are global phenomena now.

But almost two years into the global pandemic, many people’s financial circumstances have changed, and many of us have also been reconsidering what is worth our time and energy. I can’t help but wonder what the data will look like on consumer spending after this weekend. But even if we still find ourselves heading to the shops or clicking “Complete Purchase” on our computers, it seems a fitting time to pay extra attention to what happens after this holiday weekend.

Giving Tuesday, the one day globally recognised as a day of generosity, is always the Tuesday after Thanksgiving. It came about because nine years ago, in the autumn of 2012, Henry Timms, a British man living in New York, was sitting at his kitchen table reflecting on the cultural phenomena of millions of people around the world committing these particular days entirely to consumerism. He wondered if, given the opportunity, people would also commit an entire day to giving to others, to being generous. No one had claimed Tuesdays, so Timms did. He came up with “Giving Tuesday”, the idea that the Tuesday after Thanksgiving could be focused on generosity.

At the time Timms was working as the head of innovation at the 92nd Street Y, a cultural centre renowned for its programming in the performing, literary and visual arts (today, Timms is president and chief executive of the Lincoln Center, New York’s largest centre for performing arts). He shared the idea with his team and co-workers, and the seed for a day for philanthropy was planted. The 92nd Street Y elaborated on the idea and, to their credit, agreed not to brand Giving Tuesday specifically to the organisation, in the hope that other organisations and individuals would grasp the notion of radical generosity and create their own version of the day. What happened next is an inspiring testament to the other sorts of things to which we are capable of giving our time, resources and energy.

Individuals, communities and organisations around the world took the idea, tweaked it, and created generosity campaigns that could meet the particular needs of their locations. And in 2019, Giving Tuesday spun off from the originating organisation and became an independent non-profit, supporting other campaigns worldwide

For Giving Tuesday 2020, during the pandemic, the health organisation Amref Health Africa launched “Fund Her Future” as their Giving Tuesday campaign for Kenya, “to support girls at risk of FGM [female genital mutilation] and child marriage”. In the US, people gave $2.47bn in donations and support, a 25 per cent increase from 2019. This year, organisers in the Philippines, who joined the movement in 2020, have two campaigns — “#passthebread” and “#ReadTogetherPH” — focused on making a small dent in hunger and literacy, dire issues in the country.

I may be uncertain about Thanksgiving and the days following, but a global day of generosity is a thoughtful and powerful movement to celebrate and participate in. Especially in times of adversity when our tendency may be to worry about our own little pods of people and things. We may hesitate to give because of a number of fears we have about our own wellbeing. But I do believe that in a healthy natural state, people understand the value of generosity and want to be giving to others. I like to think it’s connected in some way to our instinctive sense that we really do need one another to survive. I also like to think that practising generosity shapes us towards trust in an economy of abundance rather than one of scarcity.

Living in Côte d’Ivoire in the early 1990s, one of the phrases I heard endlessly from my mother, much to my childish chagrin, was: “No matter how much you have, you always have enough to give to someone who has less than you.” She would say this each time she stopped the car along the road and handed money or food to one of the many people we saw asking for help daily. She would say it each time we saw her trying to figure out a way to make life a little easier for one more person from Liberia, someone she’d met in church who’d fled the civil war.

Capitalist societies don’t school us in the art of communal care, or steer us towards any true understanding of the idea of “enough”. But to give freely to others, whether it’s our money, or our time, or our skills, is also a way of expressing gratitude for what we do have. And it’s a powerful witness to the type of world we want our children to live in, and the type of people we want our children to become.

Email Enuma at [email protected]

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