Today is Black Friday, the day which has for over a century marked the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. It is the day when stores across the country try to outdo one another in the sales and deals they offer to attract customers to their stores.
The term “Black Friday” dates back to the 19th century, when two wily Wall Street financiers started a serious financial crisis one Friday in 1869 when they tried to corner the gold market. By the early 1900's though, the term began to be applied to the Friday after Thanksgiving in major cities in the U.S.
It marked the time when, from an accounting point of view, department stores came out of being in the “red” from low summer sales, and moved into the “black” with a huge surge in sales as people started their Christmas shopping. Hence the name “Black Friday.” By the end of the Great Depression and WW2, the day became ensconced in American culture as the post-war boom years saw an increase in living standards, wages, and of course consumer spending.
Department stores and other retail chains would continue to come up with more and more creative ways to attract customers to their stores. Thus the 80's saw the emergence of “door buster” sales, as stores started opening at midnight on Thanksgiving day, and shoppers started camping out in front of the store so they could be the first in when the store opened.
The Dark Side of Black Friday
However, Black Friday has not been without its critics, as many have complained that Black Friday events tend to cut short the Thanksgiving holiday for families who either have someone who has to work at one of those retail stores or who had to leave early so they could wait in line at one of these stores.
An even bigger sticking point concerning Black Friday was how over the years, the behavior of those door-busters became increasingly riotous. Incidences of violence and mayhem first came to national prominence during the 1983 Christmas season when there was a rush to get the then must-have item, Cabbage Patch Kids. Eventually, the behavior of these yule tides of shoppers grew worse and worse, as Black Friday sales events witnessed serious fights breaking out, shoppers being pepper sprayed, and even a person getting trampled to death in a Walmart back in 2008.
The emergence of e-commerce and Cyber-Monday along with the closing down of many brick and mortar stores across the country have put a damper on the levels or mayhem at a lot of Black Friday sales. Nevertheless, morally speaking, it is still a day when so many people still readily partake in this secular “holiday.” A holiday that celebrates the antitheses of the Christian virtues, such as greed, coveting, anger, pride, and lust. Certainly, a holiday that is a “wholly” day of obligation for those who choose to observe it, since it demands the whole of so many people's time, efforts, and money (or available credit) to buy stuff that most of them will end up throwing out or giving away.
So what’s the appeal? On one hand it can be said to just be the twisted but logical conclusion of the post-war success of American capitalism that has given us a standard of living unknown in all of human history. One that has made life so comfortable for us that we have come to see our success as a kind of inherent superpower that we all have—all the while forgetting the work and sacrifice that went into creating that success. As Lex Villena of 1791L has commented, this is “the cult of market success overtaking our previous moral foundation. The notion that raw economic gain is what nourishes the human soul rather than something higher.”
On the other hand, it is simply a love of novelty that has become its own object of desire for its own sake. Aa social commentator Juliet Schor, author of The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need, once quipped, “if necessity is the mother of invention, then invention is the mother of necessity.” Thus, with every scientific advance or invention comes an expectation that the “new” thing is now the standard against which we will measure all future advances. A standard that far too many Americans feel entitled to, and are wholly unwilling to accept anything less than what they already have.
Together, these two factors, combined with an advertising industry that strives to appeal to the basest desires of the human heart, have brought us a consumerist culture where a day like Black Friday is seen as a benchmark for consumer confidence. Worse still is that it’s reported on as though it represents the strength of our nation's economy, despite the fact that credit card debt in the US has now topped $1 trillion. It is as though getting more cheaper higher tech consumer goods is supposed to offer us some kind of deeper meaning about how far we’ve come.
However, it seems that this insatiable desire for more stuff has left so many Americans stuck in an unfulfilled consumerist mindset reminiscent of an old song from the affluent 80's, “I used to do a little, but a little wouldn't do it, so a little got more and more. I just keep tryin' ta get a little better, a little better than before.”
Responding to the Pressure of Black Friday
Thus, it would seem that the solution to this vicious cycle would be to stop participating in anything having to do with shopping on the day after Thanksgiving. In fact, since 1992 a Canadian non-profit called Adbusters has pushed Buy Nothing Day, which is now observed internationally on Black Friday. Over the years it has included all manner of public events such as dressing up and walking like mindless zombies (consumers) at shopping malls and organizing bike rides or walks, all as a means of offering people an alternative to our consumer culture.
Perhaps it is time for those of who can see the problem, and are willing to pray for the grace to really deal with it, to start reforming their lives so that they can live in a way not controlled by consumption. To work harder or longer on other days, so that it is possible to take the Friday after Thanksgiving off to spend with family and loved ones. Or perhaps, just to rest and do nothing. Whatever it is, the key is to find a golden mean between “market worship or ingratitude for its fruits is the answer” so that we can all live more deliberate and balanced lives.