Friday, November 29, 2013

Culture Slack in Black Friday Creep?

It's the great American holiday.

Most countries have a day of independence, or a day to commemorate their war dead.  And even Communist countries today make some acknowledgement of Christmas.  New Year's is a biggie around the planet, and Easter is celebrated at various times in various countries depending on the type of church calendar they follow.

But in the United States, Thanksgiving is unique, in that it's a day set aside by the government to give thanks.  And not just to give thanks, but to thank our holy and sovereign God for the bounty with which He's blessed our nation.  It may have originally taken place when the pilgrims celebrated their first successful harvest in the New World, but it was during the depths of our Civil War that President Abraham Lincoln, in 1863, officially called Americans to offer "Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens."

Not just "god," with a little "g."  Not the Allah of Islam, which does not recognize the patriarchal characteristic of the God of the Trinity.  But the God of the Bible.  It's to Him that we should offer our thanksgiving.

Time was, before the National Football League, television, and big-box retail stores, our country virtually shut down on Thanksgiving Day.  It was conceived as a family time around the dinner table, or for churches, the Communion table.  Today, of course, it's the rare church that bothers to meet on the fourth Thursday of November.  Mealtimes are arranged around the football schedule on TV.  And what had started out as the much-heralded launch of the Christmas shopping season, Black Friday, now creeps into the middle of Thanksgiving Day like an uninvited guest with an already-opened bag of empty-calorie Oreos as a contribution to the day's festivities.

A lot of us traditionalists grumble about all of these intrusions into what was initially intended to be a sacred day of family, friends, fellowship, and food.  But, frankly, football has become such a part of our American culture, it's understandable that American families, with our limited attention spans and regressive social skills, need to balance the day's reverence with a good old dose of gridiron gladiator worship.  Years ago, movie theaters began opening on Thanksgiving night, giving people who'd had just about enough fellowship and stilted conversation with their supposed loved ones the opportunity to actually have some fun, watching a first-run flick.

Indeed, giving thanks has become something we tend to ignore as much as we take for granted the abundance of stuff for which we should be thankful.  Many evangelicals - and even non-Christians - lament the lack of appreciation we spoiled Americans have developed the wealthier our country has become.  After all, even poor people in the United States are richer than most people on our starving, war-torn globe.

Nevertheless, it's with particular consternation that many Americans have been criticizing the Black-Friday-creep that is taking over more and more of Thanksgiving Day.  Many big-box stores opened at some point during the day, along with a few car dealerships, with most of them in full swing by 6:00pm last night.

But what about the employees at all of these retail outlets, some ask.  Don't they deserve a day off with the rest of their family?  One Pizza Hut manager in Indiana refused to open his restaurant yesterday, and was either fired, or quit, depending on whether you believe his employer's hastily-delivered press release.  The Pizza Hut story seemed to encapsulate this year the question many Americans are asking:  how much is too much when it comes to free enterprise hijacking our singular American holiday?

Actually, that's just the point, defenders of Black-Friday-creep argue.  America is all about capitalism, and what better way to express our love of capitalism than to give shoppers what they want?  After all, would all of these retailers bother to open on Thanksgiving if there wasn't any money to be made?  If nobody wanted to shop, or eat out, or go to the movies on Thanksgiving, retailers may have tried opening for a couple of years, but the trend would have died out on its own.

Instead, it's just getting bigger and bigger.  Before too many years, almost everything will probably be open all day on Thanksgiving, because apparently, enough consumers want it that way.

So, what happened?  Is America at the breaking point of completely selling-out to retailers?

Well, let's look at who is shopping on Thanksgiving Day.  Of course, this is not an accurate science, since retailers are loathe to publicize detailed reports of the characteristics of their consumers, believing that data to be proprietary information.  But a casual viewing of news reports last night, as reporters stood among throngs of excited shoppers, or online photographs of the shoppers crowding into malls, and even comments in social media, can give at least a glimpse into the types of people who apparently love Black-Friday-creep.

First, at least here in Texas, are Hispanics, who, in some videos and photos, appear to be the only people waiting in those long lines, or jostling in crowded store aisles.  Some photos from malls not identified also show large numbers of Asians, along with more Hispanics.  What's interesting, meanwhile, is the obvious lack of white faces and black faces. 

Now, this is not a racist observation, but it is a racial observation, and a cultural one.  As I perused Facebook this morning, looking at the photos and comments from friends who celebrated Thanksgiving yesterday, it was obvious that my friends - both in predominantly white families, and black families - who enjoy strong marriages, and who still have kids at home, tended to demonstrate the most traditional patterns of observing the holiday.  Tables heaped with food, group shots of smiling relatives, and, yes, the photos of guys in living rooms watching a football game on big televisions.  In conventional families of both black and white races, across the country, this was how yesterday was spent.  At least, among people I know across a broad swath of middle-class America, from coast to coast.  I found no mention of shopping on Thanksgiving Day, although I have no idea how early some of these friends woke up this morning to hit the stores.

Contrast this tableaux on Facebook with the images I saw yesterday on the news.  Yes, there were some fights, stabbings, and shootings in stores across the country that makes one wonder how emotionally balanced Thanksgiving Day shoppers might truly be.  But besides the sporadic violence, discounters everywhere seemed to be packed.  Plenty of photos and videos out there for you to look at for proof.  Are Americans that desperate to save a buck that they're willing to go through all of that on the vacation day they've been given to avoid life's hassles?

Might it be that for people who are relatively new to the United States, and who thus have far fewer connections with the Thanksgiving holiday, the notion of staying at home on this particular day with family and friends is not as significant?  After all, why have our immigrants come to the United States?  They've come for political freedom, as well as economic and materialistic opportunity.  And what better way to exercise both, in a purely objective context, than getting as many bargains as you think you can when native-born Americans are at home for the day?

It's also likely that the poorer a person is, and the newer to America they are, the more challenged their grasp of the English language may be, and the more likely their lack of a credit card may be, which means that shopping online - something that many middle-class whites, blacks, and native-born Hispanics do regularly now - is not a realistic option for them.

Now, obviously, there were whites and blacks out shopping on Thanksgiving, too.  A fight that was caught on video by a customer at a North Carolina Walmart shows aisles packed with gawking white folk, perhaps wondering what great deal they missed that could have provoked the brawl.  And I'm sure plenty of Hispanics and Asians celebrated Thanksgiving at home with family and friends.  But I still wonder how many of them are native to the United States, and more rooted in our Colonial traditions, even if they feasted on cuisine more popular within their respective cultures.  There's no law that says you have to eat turkey on Thanksgiving, and in fact, incorporating foods from one's country of origin represents an entirely appropriate way of expressing the holiday's purpose.

Nevertheless, if Black-Friday-creep has become so popular in large part because recent arrivals to this country don't really know much about Thanksgiving itself, might that simply point to the reality that we native-born Americans aren't doing a very good job of enculturating folks who are far newer to this American experience than we are?

Of course, retailers aren't going to sacrifice the almighty dollar to help train new arrivals to our shores about why Thanksgiving is a uniquely American holiday, so simply complaining about Black-Friday-creep won't solve anything.

Indeed, how likely might it be for our post-Christian culture at large to decide it's going down too unorthodox a path on these Thanksgivings, and attempt to reclaim more of its heritage?  Our culture already seeks to undermine any opportunity to give credit to any deity - let alone God - for the abundance many of us now think we've earned for ourselves.

So to the extent that Black-Friday-creep may simply be yet another manifestation of the sloppy, and indeed, insular ways believers in Christ - both white and black - are being salt and light to new arrivals in our country, perhaps the extent to which we lament about the desecration of the holiday by retailers is at least as much our fault as theirs.

Then again, maybe it's not that big of a deal that the traditions of Thanksgiving are either shrinking or evolving.  Traditional forms for observing Thanksgiving certainly are being honored by fewer and fewer Americans, at least in proportion to our country's growing population.  But die-hard capitalists are correct in observing that replacing the faith-based, food-based, and even football-based traditions with shopping, movies, and eating-out traditions isn't exactly un-American, either.  In fact, one would think right-wingers and neo-libertarians would be rejoicing at all of the crass commercialization, even if they're stuck inside with relatives with whom they're not crazy about communicating while, apparently, new arrivals to America are out engaging in raw commerce.

The reason Black-Friday-creep is as popular as it is, of course, is because retailers want consumers to think they're getting the best possible deals.  And the more penny-pinching a retailer and its customers are, the earlier they think they have to open to perpetuate this savings illusion.  Yes, some of the deals being offered are worth a considerable amount of money, relative to the product's full price, but retailers have a bad habit of rigging what's considered "full price" so shoppers think a lower price is truly a bargain.

Everybody still thinks "a penny saved is a penny earned," but discount retailers, in particular, have honed the art of marketing loss-leaders to cover up more conventional pricing on other aisles.  So, really, that maxim works best for the retailers themselves.  Stores earn the pennies customers think they're saving further down in other products that aren't discounted as much.

So, does the early bird also catch the worm, as another Black-Friday-creep saying goes?

Maybe, but I still prefer pecan pie.

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