Informal inventory of my email inbox: Black Friday ads outnumber Thanksgiving how-to articles and recipes by at least 6-1. At least. You’d almost think that American Thanksgiving is a commercial observance rather than a holiday conceived as a celebration of gratitude for opportunity and freedom in a pristine new land.
A recent story in the Guardian pushed me past my yearly surge of disdain for Black Friday and made me consider what’s really at stake in this annual retail free-for-all. The article looks past the usual economic explanations to ask why, instead of giving thanks for what we have, many Americans are giving the day short shrift to go out at all hours in pursuit of more material goods – more clothing, more electronics, more toys. More, ever more. They do this at the cost of a relaxing 24 hours with friends, family, and good food.
It’s our choice whether we want to subjugate a holiday to chasing our material dreams, right?
Not completely. The choice to shop on Thanksgiving night, or line up at 2AM to buy an X-box affects retail workers in a big way. With increasing pressure on the retail world to make up for marginal sales in the other eleven months of the year, retailers are pushing each other earlier and farther into what used to be a sacred 24 hours. Although employees of large chains such as Target or Walmart make extra money for working on Thanksgiving, those few more bucks do ultimately not translate into significant long-term gains for them. Plus, many employees, unlike shoppers, have no choice about whether to work on a holiday.
The digital world plays a strong role in this unfolding socio-economic experiment. If before completely surrendering to turkey coma from the depths of one’s armchair, a few taps on the laptop can lock in savings on Amazon on – say – a toaster with a warming compartment and umpteen settings at great savings – why shake off that pleasant lethargy to be at your local brick and mortar Walmart at 6 at night? The evening with family and friends may be intact, at least on a superficial level.
Shopping still remains a priority for many people here, though. Retailers are taking advantage of online convenience to stretch out the holiday buy-fest, with pre-black Friday sales in addition to Cyber Monday. So the push to infringe on what was once a universal American holiday intensifies, driving a cultural trend in this country farther toward consumerism.
The same people who shook their heads at stories of people in the former USSR lining up and standing for hours in the cold to buy bread now have no problem in stepping away from Thanksgiving feasts to form their own lines to wait for stores to open. Their prizes will be not sustenance, but electronics and plastic toys.
It may be that the digital world will help somewhat to mitigate this manic holiday retail season. With more pressure to compete with the 365 day, 24×7 internet marketing world, brick and mortars are increasingly going online and offering deals earlier.
Of course, there are other retailers who have a taken a family-first stance on Thanksgiving: native Washington retailers.
Nordstrom and Costco, as well as Home Depot and a host of others close their doors for the holiday. Altruism or pragmatism? Nordstrom’s biggest month is in July, and most people hosting Thanksgiving bashes have completed remodeling projects before T-Day or will postpone them. Plus, Nordstrom in particular has never been accused of competing on price.
Not everyone is willing to sell out their down-time–and that of some of the lowest-paid workers in the nation–for a 60 inch flat screen TV. The Internet has become a platform for large-scale campaigns protesting the increasing commercialization of a once-sacrosanct holiday. Move-on.org, Care2, and Change.org are again mounting awareness and petition campaigns this year.
A sort of free-form protest via Facebook and Twitter is unfolding. Facebook users have been commenting up a storm on Macy’s page about their annual Thanksgiving parade, which is to feature a SeaWorld float. PETA and other organizations who fault SeaWorld’s treatment of marine mammals are urging to boycott the parade, with celebrities such as Alec Baldwin reinforcing, if not leading the charge. Walmart employees–many of them working full-time and still finding themselves below the poverty line–will be mounting protests against Black Friday at Walmarts across the country.
Partly in opposition to the blatant commercialism, and partly perhaps as an opportunistic parlay, “Giving Tuesday”–a day to give to your favorite charity–is springing up.
In any case, it’s all about money. The same message continues to stream into our inboxes through every conceivable medium: Buy, buy, buy–or give. What will you be doing in the hours after Thanksgiving?