By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.
Two years ago, at about this time of year, I asked a group of my Freshmen students what traditions they looked forward to most during the holidays. Not surprisingly, I got a good number of responses centered on the food and feast of Thanksgiving. Some were most excited to be home with their families. Still others were just looking forward to relaxing during their couple days off of work and school. I expected about as much.
But, then, a couple young ladies shocked me. They stated with great excitement that they could not wait to go shopping on ‘Black Friday’. I think I frowned, mentioning that this was not really a holiday ‘tradition’, in the purest sense of the word. Of course, I was wrong to doubt the traditional basis of their shopping excursions. As many additional students pointed out, at 18 years old, they had been participating in ‘Black Friday’ madness for as long as they could remember. All traditions are invented at some point in time, and for these folks, ‘Black Friday’ was timeless.
I will admit, this was upsetting to me because, I, like many others, despise ‘Black Friday’. Now, I don’t hate the idea of shopping for presents on the day after Thanksgiving. I actually enjoy Christmas shopping for, and with, my family. But, I think what happens on Black Friday is a different exercise altogether, corrupting the meaning of gift buying.
Holiday shopping should be about spending time with family and friends, and thinking about how to make them happy. For example, in the couple weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas, my wife and I use a few Fridays to meander our local shopping community, searching for gifts for my daughters and friends. We take our time to think and discuss long and hard about what gifts would make those we care about most happy. There is not much in this world better than finding that perfect present that will make your youngest daughter yell for joy on Christmas morning (to be honest, it is pretty easy to make her yell for joy); perhaps the only thing that can beat that is discovering a stuffed hamster that your oldest daughter will proudly exhibit for her 1st grade, wholly self-created, hamster club. The purpose of such shopping is to enjoy the shared thoughts of our loved ones’ future happiness. We are consuming to give, not consuming to take.
Black Friday has another purpose altogether, and it is a symptom of a larger cultural disease in American life today. Friday’s storm of shopping is not really about finding a gift that will make others happy (of course, some shoppers have this intention). For the majority of consumers, Friday’s shopping madness is more about competition. Storming the ramparts of our local big box store in order to win the holiday. Who will be the first one in line at 2AM? Who will be the first into the store? Who will grab the best deal? Who will fight hardest for the latest toy/electronic gadget that their child/husband/wife can’t live without? The winner walks away with the cheapest merchandise, at whatever the human cost. In order to win, contemplation towards what would be a wonderous gift is unlikely; action is the most important response. It seems ‘Black Friday’ enjoyment comes not from the thoughts of Christmas morning joy, but from an individual, selfish desire to defeat other consumers. Not surprisingly, the competition can get nasty. We see it each year when mobs of consumers break down doors, stampede workers, and sometimes attack others that stand in the way of their material victory.
This is why it should come as no surprise that Black Friday is now being moved back 24 hours, into what retailers and media have dubbed ‘Brown Thursday’ (Thanksgiving, of course). Since consumers will line up at 4AM, 2AM, or 1AM to win the shopping world series, it only so obvious that they will take any advantage they can get. If that advantage is leaving our homes and families on Thanksgiving, then so be it. We want to win, whatever the cost to our families, or to the families of those who must serve us at our retail palaces.
There is no shortage of tragic irony that our individualistic desires of consumption and victory are encroaching onto one our diminishing sacred days of community. If ‘Black Friday’ is all about desire and struggle, then the ORIGINAL Brown Thursday holiday was created to symbolically overcome wrenching strife. In 1863, during the height of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln proclaimed Thanksgiving as a national holiday, obviously intending the day’s spiritual message of reconciliation and togetherness as a counter to the death and destruction scarring the nation. With this in mind, the idea of ‘Brown Thursday’ reeks of sacrilege.
And so, as we sit down this Thursday to enjoy family and friends, and our mind wanders to the flat screen TV on sale for only two hours at Wal-Mart, it may be good to pause and reflect on Henry David Thoreau’s words:
I am grateful for what I am and have. My thanksgiving is perpetual. It is surprising how contented one can be with nothing definite – only a sense of existence. My breath is sweet to me. O how I laugh when I think of my vague indefinite riches. No run on my bank can drain it, for my wealth is not possession but enjoyment.