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The History of Black Friday and Where Does it End? - A Critical View
We old farts like to reminisce about the past. As we drive down the road with our bored spouse on the passenger side and bored offspring in the back seat, we will pass a store or a sign or something else that sparks our memory of days gone by. Then, as our family members yawn in unison and start digging desperately to find the ear buds for their cell phones, we'll start off on another tired story that we have told dozens of times in the past - one that; although we are aware of this because we're not so senile yet as they think, we are convinced needs to be retold, for emphasis upon important principles.
The holiday season is a great time for ranting about the good old days, and Black Friday especially is one of those themes that I won't shut up about short of a sock shoved down my throat and my mouth duck taped shut. Yes, there has always been mass marketing, media inundation, and crass commercialism, but back in my day (a line I repeat often as I launch upon these tirades), it just wasn't so crass as it is now. Back then, 45 years ago, about the time I first started collecting and collating memories, a few things were still held sacred. A few things were still declared "off limits" to the corporate machines that drive the American economy. Two of these things were Thanksgiving and Christmas. celebrations considered inviolate, untouchable, hermetically sealed off for reunions with the family.
So with nobody paying attention except me, I start off on my little story about how one day my Father stopped in front of a store with a hopelessly empty parking lot on either Thanksgiving or Christmas Day. It really doesn't matter because the results would have been the same in either case, but he was hoping to grab a can of Cranberry Sauce or some other such substance that, though nauseating, seems to be a necessary part of the holiday ritual, even if nobody eats it. The store was closed. I remember my Father shading his eyes, leaning against the window and peering through the glass, hoping desperately somebody was in there that could open the door, or maybe searching for potential eyewitnesses so he could break and enter. I'm not sure what his intentions were, but the moral of the story is that the place was shut, sealed tighter than Tupperware (that's another old fart theme for another day), and he was basically SOL. "That means Sure out of Luck!" I remind my eye rolling audience with a touch of hokey Dad humor.
These days, on the other hand, nothing is sacred, everything is for sale. If you need that can of cranberry sauce or turkey gravy at 8:45 AM on the fourth Thursday of November you can be sure you are going to get it. You might have to stand in a hella long line; but then again you might not because once one store set a precedent by opening on Thanksgiving now they all have to do it, so on second thought you'll still make it home by kickoff. If you're in desperate need of a new flat screen because your drunk Uncle Ralph threw a chunk of unused cranberry sauce at your TV when the wrong team ran back an interception for a touchdown, you can probably go out and get that too, without missing a snap of the evening game.
The point is, I guess you'll be enjoying your Thanksgiving holiday, with your family, but those unfortunate minimum wage slaves working the registers and holding back the hordes of the walking dead that are going to burst through the WalMart doors at 5 PM on Thursday certainly won't be.
Where did it go, people? At what point did we sell out everything that is sacred, gentle, reflective and peaceful in our lives, and for what purpose? In addressing this topic I will try to answer a few head scratching questions that might have been nagging at you. How did this Black Friday phenomenon get rolling? What is its ultimate end, and are we there yet? Finally, will one less shopping day on the calendar send our economy into an irrecoverable tailspin?
How Did It All Start?
My beef; if that particular animal flesh is an appropriate metaphor for a holiday associated with poultry, is not so much with Black Friday, but with how Black Friday has now invaded Thanksgiving, a family holiday that was once considered sacrosanct. The day after Thanksgiving has been a heavy shopping day ever since there was shopping, a fact that registers no complaints from me. A lot of people are off work, college football overload has set in, and people want to get out of the house quick before those creative turkey based concoctions start getting thrown together in the kitchen. What else is there to do besides fall into a Tryptophan-induced coma or go shopping?
The problem, really, is that roughly over the last decade or so, the greedy fingers of this phenomenon called Black Friday have been steadily entwining themselves around the soul of its older, more respected, but less aggressive brother Thanksgiving. This means that the holiday that once stood for relaxing family gatherings has been steadily losing ground, to the point where the two calendar days are now virtually indistinguishable from one other in terms of theme and purpose.
There are many beliefs in circulation about the origin of the Black Friday name. Googling the topic results in a few dozen articles from so-called legitimate news outlets that appear to have all copied the same information from the same source, so perusing three or four of these is enough to become acquainted with the most popular theories.
The most bizarre of these ideas, now debunked, is a Twitter rumor that the Friday after Thanksgiving was the day that slave owners sold off their excess slaves at a discount. Although the concept of slavery and Thanksgiving still seem to walk hand and hand for millions of American workers, and it certainly would be satisfying if this origin story was true, there is no historical basis for the report. The date for Thanksgiving wasn't even fixed by Presidential proclamation until 1863, when slavery was in its death throes, so this one is easily dismissed.
A second proposal is that the day after Thanksgiving has always generated an inordinate amount of sick calls to the office, causing a gloomy, perhaps black atmosphere in the business community. When half the work force is ill and they can all prove it with doctor's notes, it sends the boss into a dark mood. Again, this one causes some eye rolling, as it appears to be the product of a fanciful imagination fixated on the idea that Americans are lazy and need to get their butts into work.
A third idea, one that at least sounds more credible, is that Black Friday is the day where businesses finally turn the corner from red ink losses and start writing the balance sheets in black Ink profits. In other words, in this case the word "black" is a happy thing, a veritable boon to the economy! I believe this one was propagated by corporations to make it appear that they are the real Black Friday victims, not the cashiers and stockers they bring in to work on Thanksgiving evening to deal with obsessed, rampaging shoppers. The truth is that very few legitimate businesses have enough cash to operate at a loss 10 months out of the year, and the stockholders of that corporation would most certainly have that failed CEO's stuffed and basted head on a platter, instead of your holiday bird.
The most viable idea, and the one that has the most supporting documentation, is that the "Black Friday" name came into popularity in Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love, to describe the traffic snarl that occurred in downtown Philly on the Friday after Thanksgiving, when the shopping inundation was compounded by the crowds generated by the Army-Navy game. The term seemed to be the exclusive property of Philadelphia for several decades, before finally achieving escape velocity and propagating outward to the rest of the country a little after the turn of the 21st century, when the term Black Friday gained fame and momentum.
Where Has it Gone?
Commercialism is not necessarily a bad thing. Commercialism signs the paychecks that fill the holiday shopping basket. I'm okay with that, I'm down with that. All of the left-leaning news sites I looked at when researching this article were inundated with Black Friday ads from all the top retail corporations, just as I am hoping this article will be, and my heartfelt holiday prayer is for you to click on these ads. So let's not be hypocrites, but let's also realize that too much of a good thing turns us into obsessed, heartless zombies. Too much opium or any other drug will turn you into a soulless shell, and so will too much shopping.
People going Christmas shopping the day after Thanksgiving has been around pretty much since there has been a Thanksgiving. It is the day that has traditionally signaled the start of the Holiday shopping season. Heck, supposedly worker friendly President Franklin D. Roosevelt changed the Thanksgiving holiday from the last, to the second to the last Thursday in November for a while to placate retailers who wanted a longer shopping season. It has now been re-codified as the fourth Thursday, regardless of what day that falls on, but the point is that Black Friday is the starting gun that sends us sprinting off the blocks to the shopping mall.
What gets under my crispy roasted skin, akin to a thermometer being poked into cooking poultry, is that hungry, greedy Black Friday wants to completely absorb its gentle calendar partner, swallow it up like some sort of ravenous, life sucking amoeba. An unwritten rule that existed for decades prior to the current holiday shopping circus, was that the Friday after Thanksgiving retail rush began began on 6 AM, on Friday. In the late 2000s many retailers moved this up to 4 or 5 AM. People camped out in the cold to be the first in line for the promised deals and I say if they want to, let 'em. Then, in 2011, Wal Mart, Target, Macys, Best Buy, Kohls and other department stores started opening at midnight between Thanksgiving and Black Friday. A year later, this became 6 PM on Thanksgiving. At present writing in 2015, Black Friday has now completely gobbled up Thanksgiving, devouring it like some insane, infectious, carnivorous, cannibalistic Turkey rampaging through the barnyard. Now stores open up early on Thanksgiving for your shopping convenience and enjoyment.
So you're going to have your fun watching football, drinking champagne, and loosening your belt for a post-feast nap on the couch, but what about those millions of Americans for whom the Thanksgiving holiday has basically ceased to exist, the ones who have to scarf down their giblets in a frenzy of indigestion before rushing off to work? In 2013, before the Thanksgiving holiday had been snuffed out completely by the corporate shopping plague, one million workers were called in for the holiday at Wal Mart alone. Now that the stores are opening early in the morning, that number can probably be doubled for this single mass retailer alone, and if we extend this across multiple retailers, the dreary fact is that a significant portion of the American work force is going to work on Thanksgiving, whether they choose to or not. The pro Black Friday argument I always hear from people, mostly avid shoppers, is that the companies only take volunteers to work on Thanksgiving day, and they are well compensated. While this may have been true back in the nascent stages of Black Friday's midnight intrusion upon Thanksgiving, I find it impossible to believe that it remains the case when stores remain open around the clock on Thursday and Friday.
So while the billionaire members of the Walton family are having a wonderful time toasting and relaxing beside the fireplace, probably with a few of their conservative Christian supporters who extol the virtues of "family values" even while ignoring the disruption of families this disgraceful profanation of the Thanksgiving holiday has created, multiple millions of Moms, Dads, and their offspring are going to be slaving away to make them more multiple millions or dollars, so the Waltons can continue to celebrate family values with their friends, uninterrupted by the stress or complications created by the Black Friday shopping crowds.
Was It Worth It? What Can be Done?
I suppose the question that really needs answering is whether our Black Friday fixation delivers as advertised? Do all the empty seats around the Thanksgiving table pay off for the country, kick starting the shopping season for an economic boost that will trickle down a bounty of monetary benefits for those masses suffering through the chaos at the shopping mall?
Contrary to its overblown legend, Black Friday is not the busiest shopping day of the year in terms of sales. A lot of the Black Friday crowd consists of bored holiday, "looky-loo" revelers seeking to participate in the grand spectacle, but many of these folks aren't really that interested in buying anything. In recent years, Black Friday always ranks between fourth and eighth on the top holiday shopping days list, with the Saturday before Christmas still kicking everyone's butt, hands down. In recent years Cyber Monday has been gaining in popularity too - this being a peaceful activity in which shoppers stay quietly at home, ordering gifts on the Internet, meaning nobody gets trampled to death in a mad rush for the Xbox that is 20 dollars off. The Cyber Monday windfall further cuts into the Black Friday sales, which begs the question - why do they keep ruining Thanksgiving even more, every year?
So the answer to my earlier query, the one about whether eliminating Thanksgiving from the holiday shopping day list will send the economy into a disastrous downward spiral is most certainly - no.
I am not the only one busy ranting about Black Friday's deleterious effects upon the human soul, there are entire movements dedicated to taking back Turkey Day. Facebook communities exist dedicated to the proposition of ending Black Friday slavery. There is a "Buy Nothing" movement that protests mass consumerism in general, and directs its diverse forms of shopping disobedience to Black Friday in particular, which it declares to be "Buy Nothing Day." One of my favorite protests organized by this movement is the zombie walk, in which non shoppers stumble around department stores with a blank stare, bouncing off merchandise maybe but buying nothing, or they form a conga line of shopping carts, which parade their way through the stores without putting anything at all in the baskets.
"Back in my day," this old fart's Thanksgiving Holiday was still sacred. Yes, there was a rush of advertising build up prior to the celebration, and people went to the stores in droves on Friday, but Thanksgiving itself was considered sacred and above profanation. It was a time to give thanks for our bounty and blessings, not a time to bemoan the fact that Junior had to force swallow his Thanksgiving feast down whole, like a boa constrictor, to be at work by 4 PM.
So this year, instead of just drinking a toast to those empty seats that couldn't be with us, why don't we stay home on Thanksgiving and boycott the entire soul sucking ordeal? Will enjoying a little bit of quiet dignity once or twice a year kill us? Let's build our own Great Wall between Black Friday and Thanksgiving, and woe to the marauding Mongols that try to cross it.