Give Thanks…for Black Friday?

This was written for and posted on Scarritt Bennett Center’s blog.

Thanksgiving is almost here. Bring on the pumpkin pie…and the sales!

Now, before we start staking out Best Buy to get the newest iPhone and computer games and TVs courtesy of Black Friday savings, let’s think about how the day got its name. There are several origin stories to consider. One of the most popular ideas is that the Friday after Thanksgiving is named Black Friday by retailers because it’s the day their books go from being “in the red” to “in the black” due to the restorative profits of early holiday shoppers. Some sources say that idea did not gain traction until the 1980s, whereas the real origin of the term is thanks to the Philadelphia Police Department. By the 50s and 60s, retailers had started holding sales for those consumers hoping to get a jump on Christmas shopping, so much so that traffic was notably horrible and the PPD had to respond to much higher than average emergency calls. Thus, they coined the term “Black Friday” to note the policemen’s dark demeanor at their overworked status. A lesser known (and thankfully false) theory that goes viral around this time of year is that “Black Friday” has been a tradition for hundreds of years, since the slave trade, when slave traders supposedly placed lower prices on the bodies of people in bondage. It is a testament to the deplorable state of racial justice in this country that this idea regularly gains as much traction as it does.

Among some activists, Black Friday is known as “Buy Nothing Day,” where people are challenged to not spend any money at retailers that are open to stand in solidarity with people who are not given time off over the holidays. For every kitchen appliance or electronic item you buy, there are lots of people working tirelessly behind the scenes, working to get it to you at a discount price, the profits of which surely are not reaching the folks in the warehouses or driving the trucks, but slipping into the pockets of CEOs. By the way, guess who’s not working on Thanksgiving.

This brings me to my confession: I have shopped on Black Friday. While many people who work retail clock in at 10pm on Thursday night, getting ready to open the floodgates on Friday morning at 5am for those early birds hoping to get their hands on a new phone or tv, my Friday is much calmer. I sleep in at my grandma’s house, waking up in time to go to a Christmas parade the next day. I drink a lot of cocoa (I mean, a lot). I eat leftovers for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and prepare to take the rest of a ham in a cooler on my drive home. I have the luxury of not being pressured to work to make money for my family such that I have to give up my holiday time and be away from them. I am free to go find my new pair of boots or some cute sweaters with cats on them at my leisure, not worrying about the person on the other side of the checkout counter.

Black Friday revolves around the compartmentalization of consumerism for today’s busy families. Instead of all-in-one department stores as advertised in old Christmas movies, we have a million stops to make as we prioritize our shopping list among the specialty stores all over the metro area. And our shopping basket is not the only thing we compartmentalize during the holidays; we are also compartmentalizing the way we think and feel about the holidays and spending time with our families. For the past several generations, we have been socialized to think that we will be happy if we have more more more (The Story of Stuff is a great resource for understanding this trend). Does being happy mean having a lot of stuff around our home, to keep up with the Joneses or validate our own being? Maybe we accept the prevalence of shopping sprees in the name of buying gifts for our loved ones, but really we are looking for an excuse to spend time away from our family because we can’t actually buy love.

I am a product of this capitalist consumer culture, trained to respond to planned obsolescence and expect instant gratification. In my life I am always looking ahead to the next big thing, never pausing to notice what I have and give thanks. I am always wanting to keep moving and keep looking forward, maybe because it’s hard to recognize all of the privilege I have and properly give thanks for the material life and security with which I have been blessed. And we should be giving thanks, I mean, the whole holiday is centered around “Thanks” and “giving,” right?

Our culture has coined the term “retail therapy” and thought nothing of it. But what we actually need is consumer therapy, to help us relieve ourselves from the pressure of mixing our wants with our needs and worshipping at the altar of capitalism and profit. It is understanding our position in relation to having a throw away economy, where we can just buy and discard things at will. Consumer therapy cultivates an awareness of what being a consumer demands from the earth and from people.

So, I confessed about shopping on Black Friday. The deals are good, so sue me, right? No, it’s not the worst thing you can do, by far. Spending money on people we love is a way that we show our love, and that desire is to be appreciated. Many times in our transient and virtual culture, it is important to hold something in our hands. Let’s just take a moment to stop and think about what gifts are meaningful and what “having enough” might be like.

As a Belle Harris Bennett Fellow at Scarritt Bennett, I’ve come to realize that this year of intentional living and volunteer service is an experiment in “enoughness.” One of the values of our small community is simplicity, which we all approach in different ways. For me, it means trying to simplify the amount of material possessions I own. I’ve long held certain beliefs about consumerism and living simply and having a lot of “stuff,” but I’ve never had enough control over a homespace besides my dorm room to actually exercise my ideas of ethical standards of buying and selling and owning. Living in community is an exercise in learning how to love and live with each other while keeping a budget. This year is an opportunity to build community by exercising radical hospitality. I have been learning to give thanks for what I already have instead of seeking new material goods as well as finding places where I can support people who have less than me.

This Thanksgiving, let’s infuse some mindfulness into our holiday season. If you choose to shop on Black Friday (or Cyber Monday, or anytime this winter season), make a point to connect with folks in the shopping centers who are working tirelessly at their jobs. Think of those who have made it possible for you to buy gifts for your families and friends. At some point throughout the weekend, take a moment to connect with someone in your family. National Public Radio’s StoryCorps project suggests that you take part in the National Day of Listening (an alternative to Black Friday) and interview someone you love. You can record your interview using this handy do it yourself guide and share it with StoryCorps and the new SoundCloud Wall of Listening. I intend to interview my grandparents, my parents and my best friend, with whom I will be sharing Thanksgiving dinner.

This Thanksgiving, when gathering around the table, take time to share words of affirmation for your loved ones and gratitude for the bounty that blesses your time together. Each time we share food, harvested from God’s body the earth, we are participating in holy communion. By sharing bread and wine (and turkey or tofurkey or sweet potatoes with marshmallows) together, we are participating in the body of Christ and realizing the dream of the community of creation, where we all recognize our connectedness and interdependence with each other. The word “eucharist” itself means “thanksgiving.” Gather together and bless each other with your lives. Gather together and be mindful of the hands who prepared and harvested and grew and raised the elements of your feast. Gather together and give thanks for all these good gifts from the Earth.

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