Many retail employees will have to miss Thanksgiving this year because some stores are now starting Black Friday on Thursday night. This is an inevitable development in our consumer-based economy. I doubt I am the only one who has noticed that Christmas decorations seem to apppear on store shelves earlier every year. For me, Christmas is sacred, but business sees this time of year as a source of revenue. I would be embracing the retail redefinition of this season if I were to join the consumer stampede in the pre-dawn hours of Friday morning. Thus the most devout (and sane) thing I think we can do on Black Friday is to stay home and begin to disentangle ourselves from the maddening, ever-accelerating rhythms of consumer culture.
Black Friday is pretty sacrilegious if you think about it. Christians believe God became a human being, taking flesh from a virgin mother, and spent his first hours amidst the sounds and smells of farm animals. Yet to celebrate the incomprehensible mystery of God's birth, we rush to fill our homes with the latest assortment of plastic crap (only this time in the most fashionable colors and possibly with kung fu grip)!
Apologists for the "free market" will insist that consumers have free choice. They will say I am wrong to blame business for turning my holy season into a consumer orgy. They are partly right. Consumers make choices, but they are not entirely free.
Businesses exist to sell us stuff -- as much stuff as humanly possible -- and the really sick thing is that, in our ultra-capitalist system, there will never be enough stuff! Markets must always spread, like a virus. Thus we deem an economy "healthy" when strip malls spread like a rash over the body of once pristine American countryside. But suburban sprawl is only a symptom, not the disease. The real invasion happens inside each one of us. There is a reason the clerk at the checkout line offers you a 20 percent discount to apply for a store credit card, just like there is a reason the grocer puts the candy at a child's eye-level in the checkout line. They are traps! A haggard mother may choose to buy her whining child a candy bar, but let's not kid ourselves into believing that choice was anything but manipulated. (Let's also not get on our high horse. It can be easy to blame the mom, at least until we are the ones hoping for just a few minutes of caramel-covered silence on the drive home.)
Retailers spend millions of dollars on marketing, bombarding us with ads, full of exposed flesh and fine print, designed to manipulate every psychological weakness we have. The job of advertising is to short-circuit the parts of our brain that can make rational choices, getting us to buy on impulses that are both intense and frequent.
The problem of excessive consumption has little to do with free choice. Nor does the solution have much to do with willpower. If willpower were that powerful, we would all probably be a bit wealthier and a lot thinner!
Christian theology has always recognized that our wills are "damaged." There has never been consensus over how damaged it is or where it comes from, but the Christian tradition (and any dieter who has ever lost a staring contest with a cupcake) recognizes that just because we know the right thing does not mean we can muster the willpower to do it. The fact is that we are more than just minds and wills. We are beings with desires -- lots of them -- and retailers know it.
The good news is that the same desire business exploits in its incessant drive for infinite profits can be harnessed in a more positive direction. In the Orthodox Church, we mark the beginning of the Christmas season (Nov. 15) with the Nativity Fast. For 40 days we have a little lent; we regulate and reduce what we eat and drink. Hedging back our most basic and demanding desires for instant self-gratification helps refocus our attention on what the Christmas season is really all about: love. John 3:16 can be so cliché, but some clichés are worth repeating. "For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life" (KJV). Much later, as his life was drawing to a close, John reflected on the significance of these words and wrote to the church, "For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another" (1 John 3:11, NKJV). Christians believe God's love for us makes us able to love God and each other for God's sake. Deep and abiding love can be infinitely fulfilling, infinitely satisfying, which makes it a serious threat to consumerism.
The fourth century theologian and saint, Gregory of Nyssa, saw desire as a powerful force in our lives. It can bring about union with God, the source of our life and happiness, or it can make us eaters of dirt. After all, a consumer is often just a regular person, possessed of an insatiable desire for what will shortly become garbage. "For dust you are, And to dust you shall return" (Genesis 3:19 NKJV). We desire what does not last, and so our desires are never fulfilled. Could that be why, despite many Oscar-worthy performances of gratitude on Christmas morning, Dec. 26 often leaves us feeling so empty inside?
But St. Gregory of Nyssa also said that our desires can be focused, flowing like a river into the infinite God who (to borrow an image from Fr. Sergei Bulgakov) is like an infinite ocean without any shores. Because our infinite God is infinite love, then the more we love God, the more we are capable of rightly loving others, ourselves and even our stuff. Of course, if we truly love our plastic bobbles, then we are less inclined to throw them away or upgrade to the next new thing. That can be a problem for our consumer-driven market, but when businesses force their employees to sacrifice family time so that we can have a few more hours to buy what we do not need, maybe the consumer market could use a few more problems.
We all have an inner toddler inside of us, demanding immediate satisfaction of all its desires. It is this toddler that consumerism exploits, and it is this toddler that a little Christmas Lent can help discipline. Our inner child is prone to throw fits when it does not get immediate satisfaction. During this time of year, my inner toddler often demands a cut of steak so rare it is practically mooing. When I feel that desire rise to the surface, I am supposed to pray. I am hardly an exemplar of spiritual discipline, but the idea over the long-run is to make moments of impulsiveness into opportunities to step back, slow down and nurture a deeper and more lasting love for God and others.
I am not suggesting that the answer to consumerism is to start obsessing about food and drink. Most Orthodox priests would say that misses the point (they would also add that fasting requires priestly counsel). But there are some practical steps we can take to wriggle free from the grip of our consumerist impulses. We can seek spiritual advisement, we can pray, we can be more deliberate in how we spend our time and money, and we can stay home on Black Friday. We can take those hours that we might otherwise spend in line, plop down on the living room floor and teach our kids how to string popcorn instead. Our time is a much greater gift than our purchases, most of which end up in the back of their closets by late January.
Shopping -- even on Black Friday -- is not a sin. I do give my kids gifts. But our quasi-official start to the Christmas season sets the wrong tone. Rather than delivering us to the peace and fulfillment of a love that will never end, the Black Friday ritual hollows us out, leaving us only with a hunger that can never, ever be satisfied.
David J. Dunn is an independent scholar, doing public and political theology from an Eastern Orthodox perspective. His views do not represent any official position of the Orthodox Church.