One of the darkest moments in American history came when the day after Thanksgiving was named "Black Friday".
What used to be a day with little to do but eat leftovers and hang out with family has become the day advertisers flog Americans to shop. It's not about Christmas or the spirit of giving. It's about a madness to spend as if it is for the national good. It's shopping as an act of patriotism. Television crews stake out the front doors of big box stores to catch the shoppers trampling each other. Business reporters track shopping trends as an index of economic health.
The Philadelphia Police Department claims to have coined the term Black Friday in the 1960s because the city was clogged with cars and pedestrians going shopping. "Black Friday" was the Philly PD's assessment of ugly behavior that is now encouraged across the country.
But the term Black Friday was made popular by the retail trade. Until just a few years ago, Black Friday was insider slang for the day when stores began to make a profit for the year. They were in the red until the beginning of Christmas shopping, hence, "Black Friday."
Then the press found out. With little else to cover on a sleepy day, reporters turned Black Friday into an event with the gravity of an election. They stationed their cameras at Best Buy like it was the Republican headquarters in a tight race. Then the retailers saw that the press was onto something cashable. They took Black Friday out of the marketing offices and advertised it as a public benefit. Black Friday!
Now we hear a relentless drum beat of Black Friday commercials. "Black Friday, Black Tag," is the slogan of a car dealer. A mattress store is having a 12-hour Black Friday sale. Target is proudly starting Black Friday on Thursday night. "There's only one choice! Kohl's Black Friday!" I even got a Black Friday promotional E-mail solicitation from a company that sells discount ski tickets.
The big box stores promise "doorbuster" prices. And some of them, like Wal-Mart, should be ashamed. Every day at Wal-Mart is a day in the black. They should let their employees finish dinner and watch a little football. Big business is stealing the day from its employees, and from people who stay home.
Tuesday night Piers Morgan on CNN had a guest who analyzed how big retailers use Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest to drive traffic to their stores. Why in the world would we care? Are we rooting for the people who want our money? No. It's just something to fill the airwaves.
Minutes later, Morgan and another guest were lamenting that Thanksgiving had become merely "gray Thursday", a day before Black Friday. But he had already spent time feeding the hype.
It's all pretty unappealing. It makes us all look ugly. For one thing, Black Friday is not an attractive name. It suggests gloom, like the infamous Black Tuesday of 1939 when the stock market dropped the US into a depression. It should be "Jingle Day" or "Holly Day", anything but a reference to profits.
It's not really a happy day anyway. One of my local television stations did a story about how to avoid injury in a Black Friday door-opening stampede. Shoppers have been stabbed and pepper-sprayed. They've stepped over a dead body. There's actually a Black Friday death count website. Four dead, 63 injured, if you're interested. We have come to the point at which shopping is to die for.
The terrible things is that a lot of Americans have bought into this. People have already camped out for days to get a good deal on a television Thanksgiving night. I'm at home rooting for Wal-Mart, Target, and Best Buy to go bankrupt.
The salesmen among us have insinuated Black Friday into a national tradition. Thanksgiving is about our national roots, but it's getting trampled in the rush to Christmas. We are forgetting the Pilgrims because they didn't come to America to shop.
Christmas is one of my favorite things. I like giving good presents and getting them. But there's plenty of time to shop later, so please, stay at the table, have a little more turkey, argue with your cousin. And whatever you do, don't give me a mattress you bought at a Black Friday sale.