Black Thanksgiving

As Americans, 95% of our lives revolve around consumption and material goods, save one night of the year. This night is dedicated to giving thanks for what has already been provided rather than acquiring more. Ironically, for the past 60 years, another less sentimental annual occasion has followed immediately after Thanksgiving: Black Friday, the day of huge sales, massive crowds, and tremendous spending. 

The day became significant in the 1950’s, when a substantial percentage of workers would call in sick for work the day following Thanksgiving, while coincidentally, a curious number of people would pack into stores to jumpstart their Christmas shopping. Many people become excited for Christmas the second the mashed potatoes are gone, so they dive headfirst into gift-giving on what they consider ‘day one’ of the Most Wonderful Time of the Year. By the 1970’s, the day’s name had gained considerable notoriety among newspaper reporters and the general public. Merchants began using the term “black” to describe the writing on their daily balance sheets: they were now out of the red zone and safely in the black, making a profit. The tradition has only heightened over the decades: according to surveys, an estimated 152 million shoppers flocked to the malls this past weekend. This year, holiday season sales reached $9.7 million, 14 percent higher than 2010. Apparently no one was discouraged by the deaths that occurred last year as a result of Black Friday stampedes. Live or die, these people wanted to catch those sweet deals.

For decades, Black Friday kicks off one of the highest-grossing weekends for retail companies, so they want to make this day count—even if it means forcing groggy employees to clock in at 5 in the morning. Yes, this may seem extreme, but it has already escalated. This year, businesses decided to ditch the “Friday” part of Black Friday, and start the blowout at midnight, or in Toys R Us and Walmart’s case, Thanksgiving night. This, in my opinion, is a boldly disrespectful move. Yes, many people would have been online shopping during dinner anyway and there is no way to help those poor souls, but promoting tempting deals to everyone on a historically family values-oriented night is a little twisted.

“Great pie, Grandma, thanks. I would stay and play Scrabble with you but Walmart has a really great flatscreen TV doorbuster, I hope you understand.”

I am willing to bet more that a few families experienced more tension than usual this year on this materialism-contaminated night. 

Admittedly, I have always been bitterly cynical regarding this occasion—no, I refuse to refer to it as a “holiday”. Therefore, in an attempt to conduct an unbiased anthropological observation, I participated in Black Friday for the first time this year at around 4 in the morning. For all I knew, it was like sushi: it sounds unappetizing and slimy until you actually try it, then you realize what all the hype is about. Entering the mall, I felt like the only Wampanoag Indian at the pilgrim’s feast—there seemed to be a whole expert-shopper subculture of methods and routines that I was unaware of. Starbucks schedules, BOGO hotspots, designated meeting places, to name a few. After three hours navigating the herds with a dizzy, over-caffeinated mind, I concluded that Black Friday is nothing like sushi. In fact, it is much slimier. I learned it is possible to soak up others’ anxiety when the atmosphere is saturated in it, and found myself feeling like a failure if I left a store without buying something. Shouldn’t I be taking advantage of these price cuts? This is the kind of psychological reaction that merchants rely on, and I cannot blame them. The feeling of rushed pressure is quite effective.

When I came home after spending a grand total of $17, I collapsed back onto my bed and contemplated the specimens of humanity I had just witnessed. They are tough, dedicated, and often strategic, yet I can’t help but view them as victims. If it weren’t for the enticing commercials, obnoxious emails, and finicky economy, they would be peacefully tucked into bed, where they belong at 4 o’ clock in the morning. Perhaps for some it is exhilarating and rewarding. But what will family dynamics become if next year, sales begin at 7 on Thursday, then the following year, at 5? None of those adjustments would seem too absurd to me after my eyewitness account of customers’ thirst for deals and providers’ hunger for profit. I can only hope that if faced with the choice of a shopping bargain or family dinner, the latter wins out more often.

Maybe this is the most cost-effective way to go about holiday shopping, and maybe it can be enjoyable, but whatever happened to living life in the moment, taking one day at a time? This explosive sales day is fueling the flame of overconsumption like lighter fluid on a forest fire, and creating a discouraging juxtaposition of appreciating one’s blessings followed by excessive purchasing. It is true, you can save lots of money on Black Friday or Black Thursday, but you know how you could save even more cash? By playing Scrabble with Grandma.