Once again, this week will see our society at its best and at its worst. On Thursday, most Americans will gather with friends and family to celebrate Thanksgiving. Then later that same evening a large subset of Americans will participate in the grotesque spectacle known as Black Friday, a national frenzy of materialism and bad behavior that seriously undermines a holiday designed to make us pause and give thanks for our many blessings, both personal and national.
What makes Thanksgiving so special, so worthy of protection from the corrupting character of Black Friday? In a word, it’s the perfect American holiday. Unlike Christmas and Easter, Thanksgiving has a universal appeal that cuts across all religious traditions. Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists are just as likely to gather together on Thanksgiving as Christians, Jews, and non-believers. The same is true for Thanksgiving’s appeal regardless of one’s ethnic or racial background, an aspect to the holiday that has been so important in our remarkably diverse society. This year, along with turkey and mashed potatoes, tables across America also will feature pupusas, samosas, and jollof rice.
Thanksgiving also achieves its central purpose better than most other American holidays. Few Americans spend Labor Day contemplating the importance of collective bargaining rights or the eight-hour day. Even fewer devote much time to pondering the genius of democracy on President’s Day. And Columbus Day? Practically the only people interested in that holiday’s meaning are those trying to rename it Indigenous People’s Day to honor the millions who died following the arrival of Columbus and European colonization in the Americas.
But Thanksgiving? It’s a day unambiguously focused on that most important of virtues: gratitude. We stop what we’re doing, gather with friends and family (often after traveling long distances), and share a meal celebrating what President Abraham Lincoln termed when establishing Thanksgiving in 1863, our “blessings” and “gracious gifts.” And we should take note that its placement on a Thursday creates a four-day weekend that allows us to extend our enjoyment of the people for whom we are thankful.
For most of its history, while other major holidays grew increasingly commercialized, Thanksgiving seemed incorruptible, immune to the wily schemes of Madison Avenue and the merchandizing industrial complex. That is, of course, until the early 2000s when the first symptoms of the scourge that is Black Friday appeared. Early on there were special store openings at 5 AM on Black Friday, but by 2010 major retailers began opening on Thanksgiving Day. Implicit in the endless ads about “doorbuster” deals was the message that one should ditch the family gathering as early as possible in order to get to the mall. These ads also encouraged a frenzied fever of acquisitiveness (consider how many urge viewers to “grab” great deals).
As it grew, Black Friday gained a new feature: endless video footage of people smashing in store doors, assaulting retail staff, and occasionally killing people in their quest for 50% off a giant television. And then there’s the dirty little secret of Black Friday: this retail madness requires several million Americans, many of whom would prefer to stay home, to leave their Thanksgiving celebrations and head off to work in the malls.
Black Friday, in other words, beckons us – within just a few hours of giving thanks – to cast aside our gratitude in favor of a greedy lust for more, more, more. Think about it. Following Thanksgiving with Black Friday is the equivalent of establishing July 5 as British Empire Day.
But Black Friday is not merely offensive for the way it tarnishes Thanksgiving. It also violates two core, often overlooked, American values. First, the republican ideals that animated the Founding Fathers and their successors included a rejection of materialism and luxury. They associated those things with decadent European societies. In contrast, they insisted that true republican citizens exerted self-discipline and shunned showy displays of wealth. Second, our republican tradition also called upon citizens to consciously set aside time from the hustle and bustle of the market. One needed time to worship, to study politics, to be with friends and family, to volunteer at church and charity—in short, to contribute to the common good of their republican society. These traditions call upon Americans to think and act as citizens, not merely as shallow, venal consumers.
So this Thanksgiving let’s unite as American citizens in our rejection of Black Friday. Instead, let’s dedicate the day after Thanksgiving to pursuits that reflect well on our society and our values by augmenting our sense of gratitude. Take the advice of the #OptOutside and #GreenFriday movements and take in some fresh air with a walk or maybe a little touch football. Or stay inside in your pajamas and be thankful for a much-needed day of rest, leftovers, naps, crossword puzzles, and conversation. Call it Slack Friday. Or maybe dedicate some portion of the day to advancing the common good by volunteering in your community. Call it Give Back Friday. Above all, avoid the senseless stampede of spending at the malls. That can wait until another day (or never).
Edward T. O’Donnell is an associate professor of history at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA and the host of the history podcast, In The Past Lane (www.InThePastLane.com). His most recent book is Henry George and the Crisis of Inequality: Progress and Poverty in the Gilded Age (2015). More info: www.EdwardTODonnell.com. Find him on Twitter: @InThePastLane