Decadence on Parade

It’s a great privilege, I understand, to be able to see the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade at the point of its inception. A relative of mine lives at the hallowed intersection of 77th street and Central Park West where the parade begins, and he sends me and my family an invitation every year. We flash this invitation on our phones and it slips us through the barricades at the police checkpoint. The kids squeeze through the crowd to get the best view possible (they’re short, so we let them) and we stand there at the corner taking it all in. We each play our roles: the kids are excited; my husband is bored; I am appalled.

As the peacock display of corporate capitalism unfurls before our eyes and the crowd cheers (but a bit perfunctorily), I newly understand the word “decadence.” I’ve learned recently that “decadence” has two meanings: most commonly it connotes something luxurious, self-indulgent, and hedonistic. But it also encompasses the word “decay,” referring to something that is deteriorating and fading. This parade is both.

On one hand there’s the proud celebration of the corporate brands that capture the world’s imagination – Disney, McDonald’s, Pokemon, and of course Macy’s itself. Macy’s evokes a vague, hope-filled pseudo-spirituality with its one-word tagline, “Believe,” rendered in a whimsical script with a star as the dot of the “i.” These brands that make us misty eyed as they roll by represent billions in consumer spending, untold tons of petroleum extracted from the earth, the sweatshop suffering of humans, the factory farm suffering of other animals, and square miles of landfill piling higher each year. The giant helium-filled balloons in the shape of the beloved characters themselves – Mickey Mouse, Ronald McDonald, Snoopy, and so many others – cost Macy’s $190,000 each to make and then $90,000 per year to maintain. That makes this year’s balloon tab alone $1, 950,000. Decadence.

On the other hand, the parade has the smell of a food just beginning to spoil. As if its remaining vitality is just residual from a former glory. Granted, this could just be pandemic malaise, but the crowd is lackluster. There’s a smattering of applause; some cheering, more or less halfhearted depending on who’s rolling by. In a particularly galling attempt to whip up some energy, the announcer chants, “When I say Macy’s, you say Parade!” “Macy’s!” “Parade!” “Macy’s!” “Parade!” (If you’ve been to a protest lately, you’ll recognize this as a common chant pattern – as in, “When I say climate, you say justice!”) The announcer is straining to appropriate the energy of the resistance movement in service of the very thing it is resisting. But it doesn’t work. The energy remains flat. My son later tells me that he made himself hoarse cheering and yelling, trying to compensate for the spiritless crowds because he felt badly for the marching bands. Decadence.

Despite the subdued reception by the crowd, to suggest that the $1,950,000 spent on inflating corporate brands into balloon creatures might be better spent elsewhere – say, helping restore rainforests destroyed by those very brands – is heresy and folly in our culture. For one thing, a couple mil is a drop in the bucket for corporate America. You should see how much X corporation spends on Y, I’m admonished. This is nothing. Especially for a tradition that brings so much joy. Looking around I don’t quite see the joy, but okay.

More importantly it is unthinkable that this tradition should be abandoned because the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade is a high festival of the religion of corporate capitalism. It infuses the transactional shopping experience with meaning – an existential must for any brand. The cheering for the giant balloon characters is a rite of devotion. And the balloons are unmistakable as idols. The various characters are here before our eyes, timeless, larger than life, in their absolute Platonic form. Their sheer size as they float above us in the sky makes them awe-inspiring.

We invest our hopes in these corporate idols. We invest in them a lost vitality, childhood innocence, a capacity for play, nostalgia for a simpler time, a world where our differences dissolved in the universalizing river of furry bubbles of softness. (We may not have Walter Cronkite any more, but at least we have Pikachu.) These idols float – the balloons float, the floats float. There’s even, inexplicably, a giant floating acorn. They bear none of the weight of real life. But they also bring no actual vitality, innocence, play, moral clarity, or peace. They are empty and impotent, as are all idols. The balloons rise, not because they are filled with the ruach Elohim (the breath-spirit of God), but because they are filled with helium, literally lighter than air, less than nothing, utterly insubstantial.

Along the sidelines, parents buy normal-sized balloons for their children, hoping to take a piece of the magic home with them. And so bouquets of helium balloons get released, accidentally yet inevitably, and we all watch with vague regret as they drift in up into the sky, knowing that they will soon sink into the ocean and join the rafts of floating, choking plastic – perhaps the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, already twice the size of Texas. Decadence.

But could it be argued that it’s not all counterfeit – that the feeling of shared celebration surrounding the parade can be a legitimate spiritual experience? Sure, in the sense that any time a group of people gather for a live event (a sports game, a concert) it can evoke a rapturous sense of communion. This is no different. And as a further concession to those who love this parade, I will admit that I love the marching bands. Despite their militaristic past, hearing the music approach from the distance, then fill the air with that warm brass sound, the talented young musicians from around the country playing their hearts out, and then watching and hearing it recede down the street – it is moving, even for me.

And even for me, the yearning for normalcy in a world upended by Covid and disintegration of every kind is strong. Many of us are hungry for signs that “normal” still exists; that everything will be okay; that we’re still living on the same planet that we lived on in 1924 when this parade began (which we’re actually not). So a shared event with all the familiar symbols of continuity, including even Santa Claus, can be deeply satisfying. It meets a need and brings comfort and enjoyment.

But that enjoyment requires denial and so it comes at a cost. In the words of a Hasidic elder from the TV show “Shtisel,” it’s like lighting a cigarette off a burning Torah scroll. We have to remember that this parade is not Macy’s act of altruism, rolled out for our uplift. It’s a vital diplomatic mission for corporate capitalism itself – so vital as to be worth millions of dollars and to need defending by police snipers and bomb-sniffing dogs. I can’t help but think that to gather in celebration of an economic system that lays waste to people and planet helps perpetuate that system. And the group exercise in idolatry helps buttress the power of the idols for everyone.

Better to let the parade die the death that it may already be beginning to die. The culture of consumption embodied by the balloons and floats has failed us, and we know it. It’s all beginning to deflate. The decadence is becoming visible. And in what feels like a bit of wry cosmic humor, apparently the world’s natural supply of helium is running out. (The helium shortage has become so severe that Party City has had to close dozens of its stores.) Even the great idols, inflated with less than nothing, turn out to be unsustainable. The jig is just about up.

This is a good thing. It’s a great thing. The time is at hand for us to rediscover something real to “Believe” in. If we want to recapture our spirit of innocence and play, great – let’s invite Shabbat into our lives and play for one whole day out of seven. If we want the joy of communion with others, let’s build community where we live, connecting with people not through brands, but through shared faith, heritage, work, or music.

If we want magic, instead of a floating, plastic acorn, find a real acorn. Go out and find one. Though a thousand times smaller, it dwarfs its balloon imitation. It is a miraculous thing – a compact, elegant form encasing the seed of the majestic oak tree, all its potential energy pulsing inside it. A being so small and so potent; bursting with life like a divine clown car. When I hold an acorn in the palm of my hand, it is real. Nothing decadent. Integrity. Durability. The force of transformation. It is vibrating with the ruach Elohim. An acorn is something in which we can truly Believe.

5 thoughts on “Decadence on Parade”

  1. Brilliant. No surprise coming from you. I spent my youth in marching bands and it was a thrill at the Cotton Bowl Parade in Dallas. Let’s keep the bands and lose the balloons. Who knew there is a helium shortage? Maybe that’s the answer. Fill them with hydrogen and blow them up? Thank you for this and all the ones to come.

  2. I entirely agree with your sentiments about the parade. My only regret is that it is associated with my favorite holiday. I think the parade really is all about buying stuff for Christmas. My question is, When did Thanksgiving go from being a time to sit down with your neighbors and share the common bounty, to “are we going to your mother’s or my mothers?” Despite invitations to my family’s Thanksgiving at a penthouse on 77th Street overlooking the balloons, I created and hosted the communal All Souls Thanksgiving for 20 years. In that time only Rev. Alison Miller came once to officiate, despite my many invitations to many Ministers over the years. Thanksgiving has the potential to be the most UU holiday. Not withstanding the parade, it is the least commercial holiday, with the least religious baggage, and the most to do with the interdependent web of life called community.

  3. Rev. Ana I really appreciate this. I don’t think I ever enjoyed watching the parade. I never saw it in person but would watch it on TV from my parents’ home in Stony Point, NY in Rockland, just north of NYC. I remember thinking I was supposed be impressed but never was. It’s a running joke in my family that I am unfazed by the spectacle of commercial Christmas like the Rockefeller tree. And, what you write about, the decadence, with both meanings, is resonant.

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