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The Three "Family Values" Behind Black Friday

What if we spend Advent lounging around like laid-back country shepherds instead of anxious, competitive Christmas shoppers? It might feel lazy.
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As I was reading several interviews with people standing in line for this year's Black Friday, it hit me that we're misdiagnosing Black Friday if we think that it's merely a reflection of America's greed. Greedy people don't need to put the dishes in the sink after a Thanksgiving lunch and rush over to Best Buy. They can be greedy any day of the year and spend as much money as they need doing it. The problem with Black Friday is that it feels like something you're supposed to do to show that you're a responsible middle-class American because it's rooted in three key "family values."

1) Focus on the family

The nuclear family is the core engine of American capitalism. Why? Because it's the basis for the moral expectations that drive our behavior as consumers. We're supposed to buy presents for our family members for Christmas, just like we're supposed to remember Mother's Day and Father's Day and Valentine's Day and all the other holidays by spending money. Christmas is our most important opportunity each year to prove that we're "focused on the family" by putting our money where our mouth is. I realize that pastors all around the country are preaching against this and reminding their congregations that Christmas is Jesus' birthday, not your birthday. But it's important to recognize that the Christmas shopping season is based not upon greedy self-indulgence but on the seemingly "moral" obligation to show your family members that you value them through the trinkets that you buy for them.

2) Look for bargains

One of the most important values that defines middle-class America is our thriftiness. It doesn't feel greedy to shop for bargains. It feels virtuous and self-sacrificial because it's time-costly. What seems greedy is allowing yourself the indulgence of grabbing the first can of beans that you see on the shelf at the grocery store rather than taking a couple extra minutes to compare the prices of all the beans on the aisle and buy the cheapest one. So when a sale comes up where there are going to be amazing bargains and you've built part of your identity as a virtuous person on the way that you sacrifice your time in order to save money, then standing in line in the cold outside of a store for six hours is a form of martyrdom that you're going to embrace.

3) Don't wait till the last minute

Responsible middle-class Americans do not wait till the last minute to do anything. They show that they are good at managing their time by eagerly taking care of their obligations the first opportunity that they get. The first two things to check off the list for the behemoth of obligation known as the Christmas season are buying your Christmas tree and getting presents for all your family members so they can be wrapped and under the tree for a solid month before they get opened. It's just like when I tell my son to do his homework right after he gets home from school so he can have the rest of the evening to play and relax. Do your Christmas shopping as soon as you've put the last bite of turkey in your mouth so you can have the rest of the Christmas season to play and relax.

In any case, I imagine that everyone out in a store today is there at least partly because they feel obligated to be there. They have been shamed by the demonic, false moralism of our capitalist society into being there. So if preachers like me try to shame people moralistically out of shopping on Good Friday, then our congregation will nod their heads and say how appalled they are at all those other people who are being greedy and buying giant flat-screen TVs for themselves when what we're doing at the stores on Black Friday is trying to be thrifty and timely in buying Christmas presents for our families.

The Christmas season should not be about obligations. It shouldn't be a fast-paced frenzy at all, but rather a time of waiting and reflection. The people who got to hear about the baby Jesus first were not the busy, responsible people rushing around checking off all the items on their list and fulfilling all their expectations. They were shepherds who spent all day and night out in a field just sitting and watching. What if we spend Advent lounging around like laid-back country shepherds instead of anxious, competitive Christmas shoppers? It might feel lazy. Others may judge us. But maybe we'll experience something like a sky filled with angels singing glory to God in the highest. Maybe the people who get to the stores last and pay full-price for everything because they weren't more "responsible" will be the ones who get to the manger first.