Since its name sake and origin—the 1869 financial crisis—it seems fitting that Black Friday has become the unofficial holy day of consumerism. What used to be a single day, now extends to a week, often beginning on its eve, encroaching on the soon to be forgotten Thanksgiving Thursday, and encourages shopping to such extremes that it is often sadly associated with images of stampeding consumers trampling on brave sales associates and breaking out into fist fights over flat screen TV’s. Certainly, its name is not the only ironic aspect of the cultural observance. One part ominous, one part historical, the name really is just a name, as it is the numbers that say it all:
Time recently reported that “Black Friday Sales [are] Down More than 1 Billion.” Apparently, shoppers spent 10.4 billion in stores on Black Friday this year, which is 1 billion less than 2014’s 11.6 billion spent. Moreover, the NRF reported that 74.2 million people took part in the event this year, which is relatively low, considering the 99.8 million projected and the 87 million who shopped in 2014. To put these numbers in perspective, on this particular Friday, people spent an average of $140, compared to 2012’s, average of $423. Come on, people, Black Friday needs you!
What’s most ironic about this billion dollar international “holiday” is its seemingly arbitrary link to the less marketable official holiday, American Thanksgiving. The Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, however, provides a good explanation for the pairing. On a day where distant relatives fly across the country to visit with each other, try to pack into a full house, share and enjoy kitchen duties, watch football, drink beer and stuff themselves with turkey, it seems only natural that there exists an event of some sort, perhaps a parade, to bring all these American families together in celebration of… well, I’m not quite sure, but a parade sounds perfect! Sponsors of this traditional event commission floats of known children’s characters, lovable cartoons, and brand mascots, while families stand around cheering for Clifford the Dog, Kung Fu Panda, Spiderman, Ronald McDonald, Mickey Mouse, Smurfs, Santa and let’s not forget, the giant Turkey.
Without a doubt, this annual joy filled parade held in New York City, is a site to see (the google image search I did certainly intrigued me), and an atmosphere to experience, but the overwhelming and arguably meaningless presence of popular culture icons should definitely call us to question the origins and purpose of Thanksgiving. While Thanksgiving is undoubtedly the most celebrated holiday in America, what does Spiderman have to do with it? Perhaps his attendance suggests that everyone is invited. It’s common for schools to perform plays during Thanksgiving depicting the peace made between First Nations People and European Pilgrims, singing “this land is our land,” further emphasizing the historical aspect of Thanksgiving. Perhaps then, Thanksgiving is a day in which Papa Smurf, Ronald McDonald and Snoopy can coexist in celebration. But in celebration of what? Isn’t Thanksgiving a time to give thanks for health, wealth, food, and family? And though at its roots it may have some religious tradition, who am I kidding, does it matter? At its heart, Thanksgiving is truly a wonderful secularized and universal tradition, and who wouldn’t want to hang out with snoopy?
With no official religion monopolizing Turkey day, it is quite understandable that Thanksgiving is celebrated by the majority of Americans, but even more understandable that the biggest religion in the world—Consumerism—lay claim to this beloved secular holiday. Could it be that these floats are the idols and gods of this religion of consumption?
You could say that The Macy’s Parade is simply an advertisement campaign for its retail sponsors, using the ethos of the aforementioned beloved cartoon characters ominously floating above our heads to help us all transition to the internationally best selling “holiday,” Black Friday, a day that celebrates our world’s favourite pastime, shopping. What’s most ironic (and tragic) is how this overwhelmingly celebrated Friday seems to be consuming its all too humble, older sister, Thursday. People now begin to see Thanksgiving Thursday as a day for shopping, as well. Apparently, retailers made 1.8 billion dollars on Thanksgiving this year.
It has become more and more expected that instead of spending time at home with family, one head to the malls on this particular Friday, and in some cases line up on Thursday. With more and more following the common practice of starting their sales the day before black Friday, some advertise their events as “Gray Thursday,” neglecting to even mention Thanksgiving, Black Friday’s predecessor and antithesis. While Thanksgiving is meant to be a time of giving thanks and focusing on family, Black Friday is a time of pondering what might be lacking from one’s life, and focusing on seeking out these material items. And as some studies are showing, instead of sitting down to dinner with the family, individuals run to the mall to take advantage of the best deals of the year to beat the hoards that come on Friday.
And if you don’t buy the anti-consumerist argument (no pun intended), or are of the mind that people have a choice and can stay home if they want, this may be true. But tell this to the sales associates who are needed to host the millions of consumers lined up at 6pm on Thursday. Tell this to the sales person who must work on Gray Thursday and Black Friday, and aren’t given much of a choice at all. What happens to their Thanksgiving? Must it be spent at the food court before clocking in, awaiting the stampeders in fear that this may be their last shift…ever? In all seriousness, the fact 16% of retail workers–approximately 1 in 5 workers–have to spend their thanksgiving with coworkers and not their families, should make us consider the impact of this “holiday,” beyond the crazy deals it offers.
The Church of Consumerism, however, would have us believe that these sales people are simply playing their part and that they belong to something bigger than themselves, something, in fact, that we are all called to.
With Black Friday as it’s day of obligation, it seems safe to say that Consumerism is the leading, universal and culturally transcendent religion of the 21st century. With its satisfaction guarantee of providing its followers with purpose and meaning, it has more practitioners than any other system of belief. What’s most appealing is the variety one can find within it’s temple of worship, the mall. Each store appeals to different styles and tastes, while the goal remains unified: Make your sacrifice at the altar, err… cash register counter, and purchase your new item for consumption. Thanks for shopping, we’ll see you again, soon!
The high priests, also known as advertisers, will be sure to let you know, “Black Friday extends to Tuesday!” so if you missed out last week, head on down to your nearest mall, there’s bound to be something for everyone!
What I find most interesting, however, is that this wonderful celebration has not only taken over Thanksgiving; it marks the beginning of another big “holiday,” the “Christmas” season, that time of year when shopping will actually bring you joy and cheer!
To be continued…
Part 2: Consuming Christmas