Every Thanksgiving season seems to provoke a new round of lamentation over the fact that many people enjoy shopping the Friday after the feast. “Black Friday,” this day is called. But what’s so black about it? Stores and city streets glitter with holiday lights. Shoppers, often in bright-colored clothing, chatter with excitement among family and friends. Apparently Philadelphia police coined the title “Black Friday” due to the traffic and crowds, but just because the police don’t enjoy working on holidays doesn’t mean others should view the day through dark-tinted glasses. We should call it “Exuberant Friday,” a day for celebrating prosperity, shopping for gifts, and enjoying friends.
Lisa Wirthman contributes to this year’s hand-wringing over the day with an article for the Denver Post. “Holiday commercialism crosses a new line this year as Black Friday sales encroach on Thanksgiving,” meaning that some stores will offer shoppers the chance to drop by Thursday as well. “Black Friday and Thanksgiving Thursday don't mix well,” she warns. “Thanksgiving is a time to be grateful for what we have and spend hard-earned time with family and friends. Black Friday, on the other hand, is a chance to get as much as we can for our hard-earned dollars.” So, according to Wirthman, although it’s okay “to be grateful for what we have and spend hard-earned time with family and friends” on Thursday, to go bargain shopping with our hard-earned dollars on Friday is somehow less than noble. What does she consider more worthwhile? She tells us: Occupy Wall Street’s “protest against corporate greed and income inequality.”
Even setting aside that last absurdity, Wirthman and other shunners of so-called “Black Friday” are effectively Thanksgiving’s equivalent of the Grinch.
Wirthman ignores her own lessons about expressing gratitude. Where is her gratitude that, despite the economic slump and encroaching economic controls, Americans enjoy the greatest prosperity in human history? The fact that we can buy abundant foods from around the world, clothing in virtually limitless designs, and labor-saving kitchen gadgets is a wondrous marvel of productivity and relative economic freedom, not a cultural blot. That the average person can afford to buy cameras, pocket computers, televisions, video games, and other electronic equipment—things that Medieval kings could not have dreamed possible—signals the glory of modern America. And the fact that Americans still retain significant freedom to live, produce, and trade as they see fit is a cause for celebration.
Wirthman also concocts conflicts where none need exist. Many people enjoy shopping with friends or family, just as many enjoy seeing a movie together or dining at a restaurant. True, some shoppers get out of control or simply lose their manners, just as some sports fans do, but that does not damn shopping any more than it damns soccer. Similarly, the fact that some people devote their time over Thanksgiving to berating relatives hardly justifies a blanket condemnation of the holiday. Most holiday shoppers retain a friendly attitude and enjoy their Friday (or Thursday) excursions immensely. In fact, for many people shopping is a preferred way to “spend hard-earned time with family and friends.”
Further, many people enjoy using their purchases together as much as they enjoy buying them together. Think of all the holiday photographs people will snap with their new digital cameras, all the football games families will cheer on their big-screen TVs, and all the intimate messages people will share through their computers and smart phones. That is not to say that quality time together requires big-dollar purchases; even something as simple as a new deck of cards (a rarity until the industrial era, when they were mass printed) can provide hours of social enjoyment.
Those who condemn “commercialism” or “materialism” tend to paint products as the enemy of human well-being. But such criticisms completely miss the point of producing goods and services: to enhance human life. Properly we pursue the values we need to live and to thrive, and our values range from the basics of sustenance, such as food and shelter, to the heights of spirituality, such as friendships and literature, to the peaks of science and technology, such as iPhones and artificial heart valves. While some of our values are more directly material in nature (e.g., warm sweaters and pumpkin pies), all of our values require some material expression. For example, to dine with friends we need food, cooking tools, and shelter to protect us from the elements. To enjoy literature we need ink and paper or a digital text reader. And to receive a heart valve or the like, we must rely on someone’s vision, intelligence, and long-range planning.
The point is that we should neither obsess over physical objects at the expense of our broader values, nor denigrate physical products as somehow lowly by comparison, but rather purchase and use commercial goods to live longer, healthier, happier lives.
Whether you like to shop over the Thanksgiving holiday or do other things with that time, do not let anyone make you feel guilty about enjoying the prosperity of our commercial society. Instead, celebrate that prosperity with exuberance.