Black Friday sales: The reason for the season

Christmas cheer at Walmart / Photo: edie, used under Flickr Creative Commons license
Christmas cheer at Walmart / Photo: edie, used under Flickr Creative Commons license

WASHINGTON, November 28, 2014 – Hundreds of millions of Americans kicked off the holiday season yesterday by eating enough food each to feed a Tanzanian family of six for a month. But that was just fuel to get them ready for the real kickoff: Black Friday.

Americans are the most devoutly Christian people in the developed world, and we Christian Americans take Christmas seriously. Nothing makes us madder than changing “Merry Christmas” to “Happy Holidays,” kicking Christmas crèches off of public property, or making them share the property with pagan drummers and Festivus poles.

According to the bumper stickers, “Jesus is the reason for the season.”

So how best to kick off a holiday devoted to the Prince of Peace? By trampling, screaming at, and body checking your fellow man in order to obtain cheap consumer electronic gadgets made in China, of course. After fueling their bodies with turkey, gravy and pumpkin pie, and fueling their aggression by spending a day with extended family, tens of millions of Americans lined up at Best Buy and Walmart last night and this morning to buy birthday presents for Jesus. (And since Jesus doesn’t have a wireless data plan, he won’t mind that we keep those iPhones and Androids for ourselves.) They stampeded into the stores like angry football linebackers on steroids and meth. If they had any patriotic spirit in them, they spent money until their credit cards melted.

There are alternatives. Some people did their Christmas shopping in July, when cashmere sweaters were even cheaper than on Black Friday, or during the post-Christmas sales last year. The internet lets you buy bargain electronics from the comfort of your easy chair. Some people, realizing that they and their loved ones already have enough “stuff,” opt for simpler Christmases with fewer gifts, or gifts lovingly crafted by their own hand. Every parent knows that a gift handmade by their children is the best gift of all, though I look forward to the day when my kids learn to make 70-inch ultra-HD TV sets.

Small Business Saturday is another option. This holiday event was created in 2010 by American Express. If you can get past the major corporate sponsorship, the idea is actually very nice: Avoid the box-store madness and shop at small local businesses on Saturday, promoting the local economy and getting to know your local shop-keepers.

The alternative your family chooses says something about you and your relationship to the Christmas season. Some of us value comfort, some of us love the thrill of hand-to-hand combat. Some of us expect loads of stuff, some of us expect or want very little. Some of us would rather die than turn over money to a large corporation, some of us love every-day low prices.

And if you’re Jewish, you’re telling friends at school that you get eight nights of presents, not just one, but you’re secretly bummed that none of them is likely to be an iPad, and everyone knows that Chanukah gifts are on the homespun side. You’re not fooling anyone with that “eight nights of gifts” spin.

We all know that it’s the thought that counts, not the actual gift. If your family is going the simple route, though, you might as well tell your friends you’re celebrating Chanukah. At least that way the pity is because your culture cheats you out of good gifts and not because your family is cheap. Small Business Saturday shopping probably means you ride in sensible cars, feel guilty for eating refined sugar, and get black beans and quinoa for your birthday dinner. And no one likes people who do their Christmas shopping in January.

All that said, I’d rather tell the kids we’re communists protesting capitalist consumerism than go out on Black Friday. Cyber Monday, Small Business Saturday, and homespun are all fine with me. My wife and I have gone the post-Christmas-sale-in-January route before, but then we forgot what we bought or it grew on us and we kept it. “Those are nice earrings. When did you get those?” “I don’t know. I just found them in the sock drawer.”

When I think of Christmas shopping, I say to myself, “Jesus!” A whole lot depends on just what kind of intonation you put on that name, though. Said one way, it’s a reminder of why so many of us celebrate the season. Said another, it can be an expression of dismay – dismay that so many people, Christian, Jew, atheist and Muslim alike, have abandoned themselves to a season of frantic buying, frantic decorating, and frantic celebration.

What it is we’re celebrating is anyone’s guess.


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James Picht is the Senior Editor for Communities Politics. He teaches economics and Russian at the Louisiana Scholars' College in Natchitoches, La. After earning his doctorate in economics, he spent several years doing economic development work in Moscow and the new independent states of the former Soviet Union for the U.S. government, the Asian Development Bank, and as a private contractor. He has also worked in Latin America, the former USSR and the Balkans as an educator, teaching courses in economics and law at universities in Ukraine and at finance ministries throughout the region. He has been writing at the Communities since 2009.