How Black Friday Got to Be Such a Downer
If Thanksgiving is America’s celebration of virtue, centered as it is around gratitude and hospitality, Black Friday is its evil twin. Originally given its bleak name in the 1950s by Philadelphia policemen dealing with post-holiday shoppers ahead of the big Army-Navy football game, the commercial extravaganza has always been characterized by chaos, greed, and confusion.
In 2009, a man was shot over a television he bought. A security guard was trampled to death by crowds in 2013. One woman injured 20 shoppers with pepper spray in 2011. Brawls, shoplifting, menacing words, mind-numbing traffic: this is what regularly characterizes our post-Thanksgiving day of gratitude.
What’s worse, Black Friday madness is increasingly encroaching upon Thanksgiving itself. Stores such as Macy’s and Walmart open around dinnertime on Thursday, no longer willing to set aside the holiday for rest and pumpkin pie. Many have tried to boycott such stores: Facebook groups such as “Boycott Black Thursday” urge consumers to put off their bargain hunting for a few more hours, in order to keep Thanksgiving sacred. Several retailers commit each year to stay closed on Thanksgiving on principle.
But their efforts don’t make a dent in retailers’ determination. Even though Thanksgiving openings haven’t been demonstrated to boost sales considerably over the holiday season, a plethora of stores fear their competition will take advantage of them; and even if only a small percentage of holiday shoppers show up, that still represents millions in sales. How do we argue with such a prospect?
Unfortunately, boycotting Thanksgiving openings is not enough; the only way to avoid Black Friday creep is to stay home from the mad rush altogether. Black Friday itself should become an afterthought during the Thanksgiving weekend—not because shopping can’t be fun, but because Black Friday itself offers only bleak pleasures to its celebrants. It presents holiday shopping at its worst: filled as it is with a mad glut of humans worried about discounts, charity and grace all too often fall by the wayside.
Should we really spend a day talking about what we’re grateful for, sacrificing time and money to set a bounteous table for kith and kin, only to spend the following day in a greedy and chaotic race for things? How can virtuous celebrants of family and harvest turn into clutching consumers in less than 24 hours?
The simple answer is they can’t. If we turn into marauding discount monsters as soon as the clock strikes midnight, we haven’t taken Thanksgiving seriously. The holiday is an empty one for us, more about the comforts of sweet potato casserole and football games than about gratitude and contentment. The alarming violence and rancor of Black Friday should prompt us to ask who we really are: grateful celebrants or voracious shoppers.
It could be that less of the blame for Black Friday lies with Thanksgiving than with Christmas. After all, the consumerist Christmas we’ve built up for ourselves here in the United States is focused more on presents, immaculate trees, and glorious light displays than it is on joy or peace. We’re often so worried about getting our son or daughter the perfect gift—that toy they’ve been wanting, or the latest iPad—that we lose perspective. Homemade gifts have become faux pas, small gifts (or no gifts) taboo. Advertisers convince us that we need the big, the flashy, and the expensive in order to make Christmas “special.” Their rhetoric is hard to resist, no matter the price tag. Thus, Black Friday offers us the opportunity to buy all the things, even when we don’t have the funds for them.
And there’s no denying that the discounts Black Friday presents are appealing. Not all Black Friday shoppers are greedy or belligerent. Many simply want to get affordable Christmas presents. For some families, the day has even resulted in its own set of fun traditions.
But the question remains: are these appeals enough? Black Friday isn’t our only opportunity to accomplish gift buying, after all. We still have Small Business Saturday, an excellent opportunity to particularize our shopping and root our dollars in the communities we care about. Small Business Saturday also provides shoppers with greater accountability: while some may be willing to wrestle over a new iPhone at a Best Buy 45 minutes away, they’re unlikely to exercise such belligerence at the local bookstore or gift shop where familiar faces surround them.
It would be wrong not to mention Cyber Monday, as well: while it’s the opposite of Small Business Saturday due to its displaced and isolated nature, it does offers shoppers the opportunity to do the dirty work of Christmas shopping without exhausting crowds or traffic. In the comfort of one’s own home, with a cup of coffee and a slice of leftover pumpkin pie, Christmas shopping can be finished in a single afternoon. For the frugal, the time-crunched, and the introverted, online shopping can provide a pleasing solution to Black Friday’s madness.
The best shopping options, of course, are less isolated—and less fixed to a single weekend. They extend beyond Thanksgiving into coming weeks: when Christmas lights cheer up downtowns, little children visit toy shops with their parents, and steaming cups of cider warm shoppers who stroll from store to store.
But it’s desperately important to remember what makes Thanksgiving so special: it’s not about giving gifts, or receiving them. It’s about a meal, about family, and about celebrating the gifts we’ve already been given. It’s about exercising gratitude and grace, regardless of the money in our accounts or the gadgetry in our homes. That sort of thankfulness and mindfulness deserves more than one meal, or one day. It should supersede Black Friday, and all the days that follow.
So this year, don’t worry about that new flatscreen TV. Go raid the fridge for Thanksgiving leftovers. Listen to some Christmas music, or play a board game with your family. And have a happy Friday.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. She’s written for The American Conservative, The Week, National Review, The Federalist, and The Washington Times, among others.