(Originally posted in the Stratford Star newspaper on November 23, 2011, and in the Fairfield Sun on December 1, 2011, both in my “Walsh’s Wonderings” column.)
The first Thanksgiving was celebrated in the fall of 1621, when the Native Americans inadvertently got the Pilgrims thinking about their first holiday buying opportunity. Over the next 300 years, they brokered a series of “deals” that netted Pilgrim descendants about 3.1 million square miles of prime real estate. The Native Americans got pox-infested blankets and the colonial equivalent of a continental timeshare. Is it any wonder that Americans have been obsessed with finding bargains around Thanksgiving ever since?
The National Retail Federation released forecasts last week predicting up to 152 million people plan to shop on the weekend after Thanksgiving, higher than the 138 million people who planned to do so last year. For men that enjoy shopping as much as they enjoy bamboo chutes under their fingernails, it’s no surprise that the day after Thanksgiving is called “Black Friday.”
Some believe the origins of the term stem from the rush of crowds pouring through the malls, reminiscent of the craziness that resulted from the Black Friday stock market panic of September 24, 1864. For others, the name derives from the fact that this major shopping day can push many retailers from red ink losses into the black ink of profit for the year. Growing up with four sisters, I have come to believe it’s based on the 1940 movie Black Friday, where Boris Karloff replaces part of the brain of his dying friend with that of a dead gangster, resulting in his friend’s feverish hunt for that gangster’s hidden treasure trove. Seems to capture the day nicely, right?
In our family, Black Friday was primarily an estrogen-fueled exercise in commercial exchange. While my brothers and I would still be sleeping off the effects of that second helping of Grandma’s corn pudding (how could we forget that Grandma didn’t believe in expiration dates on dairy products?), my sisters would be up before the sun to make the switch from stuffing themselves to stuffing their shopping bags. This made sense in the time before the internet, when things like store hours and banking hours still mattered. Opening stores at 5:00 AM had the appeal of novelty, and my sisters used it as a bonding experience.
Now, like most things American, it’s been super-sized into a three-day event. For those lucky enough to make it through the traffic, a trip to the mall now comes with a mandatory mile hike from your parking spot—one you probably had to risk car damage to secure from other desperate drivers who prowl the lots like sharks in search of a closer spot.
Where Black Friday used to mark the start of the Christmas season, now it’s just another rest stop on the retail highway. CVS was selling miniature reindeer the day after Halloween, and Santa’s been popping up on television ads since the leaves turned color. Still, Black Friday is the first time many retailers throw themselves fully into the holiday season without shame. It’s a great time to indoctrinate your children into good ‘ol American consumerism at its finest—store owners bring their “A” game to every window display in the unending competition for limited consumer dollars. All kids should have their “Ralphie” moment, where they spy their own equivalent of the Red Rider BB gun with a compass in the stock and “this thing that tells time.” If you don’t understand the context of that reference, chances are you never had your “Ralphie” moment—or you just don’t own a TV.
As much as Black Friday confuses me, I’m grateful that retailers have this opportunity to recover in this tough economy. While not daring enough to brave the stores myself, I applaud my wife for wading into those waters. I’ll stand on the shoreline and cheer, enjoying the holiday decorations even as I note one glaring absence: Even on the day after Thanksgiving, there are no decorative references to the Native Americans who saved our bacon four centuries ago. Not surprising, really—depictions of that first meal always seem so forced, as if you can actually hear the Pilgrims wrapping up the party with, “So, thanks for the food. Mighty fine land you have here. You, ah… mind if we take it?”
Spending the next two hundred years systematically killing and relocating your hosts to get their land is not the best way to say “thanks.” Besides, if only the Pilgrims had waited, it probably would have been on sale the next day.
From my family to yours, we wish you the happiest of Thanksgivings. If you’re lucky enough be in a position to help, donations of old clothes, linens, blankets or money are needed year-round at homeless shelters like the Prospect House in Bridgeport (203-576-9041), Spooner House in Shelton (www.actspooner.org), the Bridgeport Rescue Mission (203-333-4087), or Operation Hope in Fairfield (www.operationhopect.org). Soup kitchens run by organizations like Hunger Outreach prepare and serve over 1,000,000 meals a year through a network of over 34 food kitchens in Greater Bridgeport, pantries and mobile units made up of mostly volunteers working seven days a week, 365 days a year. (For more information, please contact Byron Crosdale at firstname.lastname@example.org.)