Monday, November 30, 2020

Thanksgiving, Christmas and Commerce



(I originally wrote the bulk of this newsletter back in November of 2017. In the three years since I became aware that I had included incorrect information about the origin of the term, “Black Friday.” I apologize for that; the other info here is correct, but it was important to correct the misinformation. Today, especially when so much about history is being re-thought and re-examined, it is important to get things as accurate as possible. So with that in mind, here is a slightly revised version of my November 2017 piece.)

 Last week was Thanksgiving a day, in theory, of family coming together, home prepared food, and expressions of gratitude. While family and together time can be rough for some folks, traditionally it was a good time for family and friends. People saw folks they had not seen for a while, a few welcomed children and new in-laws into the extended family, and others simply enjoyed being together and expressing feelings of warmth and gratitude.  That is the way that holiday was intended to be observed, but things in our culture have changed mightily this year. We had to find new ways of being in touch with each other this Thanksgiving and we had to consider the possibility of setting up of new traditions. For some of us this worked out fine, with SKYPE f ZOOM gatherings, video messaging, etc. For others it was hard as they missed the old ways and were not able or ready to embrace a new way. One important thing remained the same, though. Whatever warm, fuzzy Thanksgiving feelings we had last Thursday were quickly overrun by the rush of commerce and constant appeals to buy, spend and consume. “Black Friday” was different this year, but it still happened. The winter shopping season has begun.

There have always been links between seasonal changes and commerce. Early human groups traveled across different places at different times in the year and found different things available for both consuming and trading. In the ancient world, spring meant hunting and trading for more plants and seeds, going to where the herds of animals and schools of fish were in order to get more. Autumn meant increased hunting, trading, gathering and traveling to get ready for winter. Most hunting-gathering people already saw religious and mythological links between changes in seasons and their lives, so the special importance of different products at different times became natural. The original autumnal “thanksgivings” were literally the “giving of “Thanks” to the gods for a good harvest or hunt, and hope for surviving the winter.  As cities and the lifestyle known as civilization developed, more extensive trading happened, and many more things became available. New products came from different parts of the world, and having of lots of products became associated with everything from class levels to social wealth to religious worth to personal worth, to political power and more. And when civilizations developed into empires, the importance of having, trading, giving, and owning products exploded exponentially. Civilizations kept producing and developing more products at an ever increasing rate.

Commerce is at the heart of civilization,, and we are no longer shy about that. We have developed systems for coming up with new products: Research and Development, planned obsolescence, and upgrades. We have come up with more ways of putting products in front of people-signs, advertising campaigns, product placement, pop-up ads embedded in web articles, celebrity endorsements, and more The bazaars and marketplaces of the old days have become shopping malls, warehouse outlets and online commercial hubs such as Amazon and E-Bay. After the 1924 debut of the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade, this post-Thanksgiving weekend quickly became the start of our “winter shopping season.” The gift giving associated with the Christmas story became more and more the focus of Christmas, and the Friday after Thanksgiving was the time to get it started. This became the time when stores and shops ran special sales and campaigns to get people into the stores. And opening up the wallets and pocketbooks.

The term for that time is now “Black Friday”, and the origin of that term has a dark side to it. In the 1950s, police in Philadelphia used the term to describe the chaos that ensued on the day after Thanksgiving. hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists flooded into the city to take advantage of the sales and in advance of the big Army-Navy football game that used to be held here every year on the Saturday following Thanksgiving. Suburbs were relatively new and expanding, and the new highways and freeways made it easier to get into the city to shop as well as go to sporting events. So suburbanites added to the mess. Philly cops had to work extra-long shifts dealing with the regularly increasing mess of huge crowds and miles of traffic problems. Shoplifters also took advantage of the bedlam in stores to make off with merchandise, and pickpockets endlessly worked the crowds. To police, then, the Friday after Thanksgiving was not joyous at all. Instead it was “black.”

By 1961, “Black Friday” had become the local term for that day in Philadelphia. Retailers tried unsuccessfully to change it to “Big Friday” in order to remove the negative connotations of the term, but that term didn’t take off. “Black Friday” was what it was called, and Black Friday it remained. So retailers did the next best thing. They changed the meaning and explanation for the term. They turned it into a story about businesses on that day suddenly making a profit-going into the black. This new story of what Black Friday meant caught on, and the term’s true origin was forgotten.  Not only did the phrase catch on across the  nation, but what was originally a one-day event slowly morphed into a four-day event that spawned other “retail holidays” such as Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday. COVID made changes in those days this year, as most sales moved online. Nonetheless, there were many brick and mortar stores open last weekend.

Cyber Monday” came into being in 2005 as an idea to encourage people to shop online and build online business. It has been very successful, taking in some 9.4 billion dollars last year. With the amount of online shopping increasing this due to COVID, it is estimated the weekend will bring in some 12-13 billion dollars. Clearly this seasonal urge to spend is quite powerful in our culture. It even applies to charities and non-profits.

     A 2012 survey found the some 50% of charities and non-profits reported that most of their individual contributions came in between October and December. The ideas of holiday gifting, seasonal calls for thinking of others, and tax deductions has combined to drive more charitable fundraising these last two months of the year and has resulted in “Giving Tuesday.”. Giving Tuesday is a day for making donations to fund good causes following Black Friday and Cyber Monday. The founders wanted people to focus on giving after their weekend shopping spree, and to see a seamless link between spending for family and self and giving to help others. The idea quickly took off, and it is now an international movement.  It even has its own website- which serves as a conduit connecting groups, causes, organizations and individuals. The website has history, tools to get organized, and connections to local movements from around the world. Given the widespread challenges presented by the COVID pandemic, support for charitable institutions is critical. Giving Tuesday is one way of making that possible.

So the “Black Friday” phenomenon can, and in many ways, has definitely overwhelmed the intended sense of the original autumnal thanksgivings. It can be about things and about consumption above all else. But it can also lead to a “Giving Tuesday” if we allow ourselves to get beyond the products and onto to something more meaningful. We can find another way to extend the notion of gratitude by giving back and giving to. I hope more of us can move to that this year. If you are so moved, please go to


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