Black Friday and American-style Materialism

I’m appalled at how Black Friday has evolved in recent years. Truly appalled.

From an economic perspective, I understand why stores market the way they do. Corporate number-crunchers in fancy suits worry about how stores will perform between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, when retailers attempt to make up for lackluster sales throughout the rest of the year.

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I listen to Marketplace on NPR enough to know that retail numbers are considered to be very important for our economy. Whether or not that’s how our economy should be measured, the reality is that this is the way we do things here in the US.

Our grandparents rationed. We shop.

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So it’s only natural that Black Friday has become what it is. A chaotic day in which hoards of people rush to the stores and literally fight over who can get out alive with the cheapest “Made in some country on the other side of the world where factory workers get paid less than a dollar a day and might even get trapped inside during a fire and die” merchandise.

‘Tis the season for fist punches and gun shots. Deck the hall…or deck your fellow shopper.

Walmart is ground zero for the War on (for?) Christmas. Or, at least, it looks like a battleground. Yes, other stores are complicit, but none seem to exploit violent shoppers as some sort of bargain-branding strategy.

People of Walmart indeed.

Wait…Friday isn’t soon enough. Now Thanksgiving evening is the new trend, because the pre-Christmas shopping season can’t get here soon enough. Yes, we’ve become accustomed to seeing Christmas decorations on display in July, but it’s not truly the season of buying until pre-post-Thanksgiving sales are upon us.

So this is Christmas. I hope you have fun.

As for the brave employees who leave their families on a national holiday to work these sales? Most of them are getting paid next to nothing for enduring the mayhem. How else can Walmart make a profit while selling electronic tablets for $29? Certainly not by cutting executive pay, even when the company’s performance is less than stellar.

“You shop at Walmart.”

That’s what kids said to each other when I was young. It was the worst insult you could possibly say. The only comeback I could think of at the time was, “How would you know? Did you see me there?” This was before the 24-hour super-duper-centers and Black Friday madness. Aah…to be young and picked on again…

We’re living in a material world

As I’ve been reflecting on what Black Friday has become, a particular childhood memory has come to mind. We didn’t have much money when I was growing up. Out of sheer budgetary desperation, mom considered putting my sister and me on the school free lunch program at one point, but I told her that I would rather starve than be subjected to such a horror. The reason was simple: everyone knew who was on free lunch, and given that I was already a bit “different” from my classmates, I just knew that I would be ridiculed for it…because we all know (or thought we knew) that kids are directly responsible for whether or not their parents can earn enough money (yet kids pick up on what they hear their parents say, which contributes to bullying and mockery).

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Because of my stubborn willfulness, my mother struggled to buy food for us. Sometimes this meant going without electricity for a couple of days, or walking around in bathing suits in the summer when the air conditioner was out for an extended period of time. But kids are cruel, and I didn’t know how much more cruelty I could handle.

If your doll’s butt doesn’t have a factory-stamped autograph on it, it’s not good enough for the playground.

As if the lunch situation wasn’t bad enough, I also had to deal with the fact that we couldn’t afford an “authentic” Cabbage Patch Kid. 5th grade. Back when 5th grade wasn’t the start of puberty for half the kids. My classmates brought their expensive dolls to school, and I was so happy when Mom bought me a lovely handmade Cabbage Patch knockoff. Mom couldn’t afford the real deal, but this one was actually nicer with its hand-stitching and one-of-a-kind clothes.

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I excitedly took my faux-CPK to school, feeling that I would “fit in” that day, only to discover that my doll was yet another source for me to feel inferior. You see, it didn’t have the official Xavier Roberts stamp on its tush, which meant that I definitely should not bring it back to school. I went home in tears, angry at my mother for not being able to afford the more expensive foreign-factory-made version, and I couldn’t even look at the doll for a month. I still have it, as it’s been something of a symbol of my childhood, keeping me in check whenever I start to feel pulled toward a more materialistic bent. Mom didn’t place a high value on expensive things, and now that I’m old enough to have a better perspective, I’m so thankful for that.

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“I live to shop.”

That phrase was plastered all over t-shirts, coffee mugs, and whatever other cheap merchandise was popular during the materialistic ’80s. And it’s still with us to a certain extent. There have been times when I’ve felt really judgmental toward those who become absorbed with the stuff of the world, but I have been trying not to be so judgmental about it. I could easily slip into an anti-consumer elitist mentality, looking down on those who rush to the big box stores and malls on Black Friday.

Change begins with me.

The thing is, though, that smugness, superiority, and disdain are not compassionate. I’m saddened by what this time of the year has become. I grieve when I read about the fights and the gunshots in retail stores. But I might also “get it,” just a little bit. I’m thankful that my mother taught me not to place so much value on objects, but I also remember what it was like to want to be included. “Stuff” is one of the ways we bond as humans. For better or worse, it’s a big part of our world. Only through intention can we change course. We can decide to live life differently, modeling to children that the stuff we accumulate is not what defines us. Perhaps then the media won’t be consumed by reporting on the latest toy, gadget, or fashion trend…and the people who are willing to physically assault each other in order to consume it.

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Reconciling the Holidays

I originally intended to write this blog for Thanksgiving, but that didn’t happen. Rather than wait another year, I’m going forward with it now and extending the ideas to include other holidays and observances as well.

One thing I’ve struggled with over the years is how to celebrate holidays that are meaningful for my own family upbringing while staying mindful and respectful of those whose experiences are different. I want to honor my cultural traditions, but I’m also aware that the very events I’m celebrating can be painful for those who have been marginalized, discriminated against, and abused by the predominant cultural powers-that-be. 

Ironically, those who have the most cultural privilege can at times be the ones speaking out the loudest about how they are somehow being oppressed. Take the “War on Christmas” for example. Christmas is everywhere, almost all year round, and yet when religious minorities ask for public representation and inclusion, it’s somehow turned into an assault by the “secular left” that allegedly wants to turn our nation into a bunch of godless heathens

A couple of days ago, I stumbled upon an article that points out an important but inconvenient truth: Christians (including those who feel they are being oppressed and victimized when some person innocently says “Happy Holidays”) have had a lot to do with the secularization of the Christmas season. 

Think about what Thanksgiving used to be like. It was a day for family to gather together, try not to argue for several hours, eat a big meal, and maybe watch some football. But due to ever-increasing consumer demands to get a jumpstart on seeking out stuff that we don’t really need, retail stores have started opening on Thanksgiving in order to stretch out Black Friday like a belly that’s had too much turkey and dressing. 

Reports about this year’s “Black Thursday” frenzy were disheartening. In one Texas store, a man actually pulled out a gun. Even if he perceived it as self-defense, innocent others could have been killed if he’d actually fired the weapon.

This is a far cry from the nativity story in which Jesus was born not in a luxurious home with a big-screen TV and gaming console but in a place that sounds more like a homeless encampment. So if we’re going to talk about a War on Christmas, let’s look at ourselves before pointing fingers at others. We are our own worst enemies when it comes to consumerism and the secularization of holidays. 

All of that aside, I am excited when someone wishes me a “Happy Chanukah” or a “Festivus for the Rest of Us.” I don’t take it as an insult or a means for others to impose their spiritual practices onto me, but rather, as a reminder that not everyone is exactly like me. And that’s a good thing. Trust me on that one.

Furthermore, I could technically choose to get offended if someone wishes me a Merry Christmas before December 25th. After all, we’re currently in the season of Advent, a time of anticipation. How dare we pretend like Christmas is already here when, from a spiritual standpoint, we should be practicing rituals of solemn preparation. “Happy Holidays” is indeed appropriate right now because it’s not yet Christmas. We might also do well to reflect upon the way that the word “holiday” derives from “holy day.” 

Rather than alienate those around me by demanding that they adhere to my interpretation of various holidays, I find that it’s more beneficial to celebrate with others regardless of the different ways that we choose to do so. If I’m at an event and a friend tells me that another tradition is personally significant, I’d like to honor that tradition. I enjoy learning about other cultures. It’s fun and often deepens my understanding of my own heritage. This year I attended a party for the Muslim festival Eid. I tried to imagine what it would be like to be celebrating after a month of fasting during Ramadan, and food tasted better than it would have otherwise.

That brings me back to Thanksgiving. You see, not everyone experiences Thanksgiving as a positive day. Some find it painful because it brings up memories of dysfunctional family dynamics, while others can recall specific sad experiences. I almost lost my mother on Thanksgiving in 2007, and while I could go on to celebrate the fact that I was able to resuscitate her, I spent the remaining holidays during her lifetime worrying that another crisis would occur on a supposedly festive day and haunt me for years to come.

Then there are those who see Thanksgiving as an annual reminder that their own cultural heritage is not being respected or valued. Indigenous peoples are subjected to comments that basically send a message of “Native Americans should just accept that we [of European heritage] won.” “Deal with it.” “They should be more like us.” Rarely are those actual words uttered, but the implicit attitude is still present, sometimes preceded by “I’m not a racist, but…” (Note: When someone feels the need to qualify a statement in that way, it indicates at least a slight awareness that the following remarks might indeed be racially insensitive.) 

For a long time, a part of me felt guilty for continuing to celebrate holidays that caused pain for friends (and complete strangers) whom I love. But as I’ve continued to mull on this notion of cultural privilege, I’ve found that guilt doesn’t serve me well. It causes me to respond not from a place of sensitivity but one of obligation. And that’s not where I ultimately want to be. Yes, I do feel certain obligations toward others, but those duties are consciously and freely chosen.

I still celebrate Thanksgiving with my family but try to do so in a mindful and humble way. I don’t sit down at the dinner table and launch into a rant about oppression, but I might mention it at other times if it feels appropriate and non-confrontational. I’m not always successful in my efforts to be graceful in how I frame discussions, but I’ll keep working on it.

And yes, I’ll celebrate Christmas. I might even do a little shopping, although I’m trying to make more gifts myself and spend my money at locally owned small businesses instead of corporate mega-stores where employees are coerced and intimidated into working for minimum wage on holidays.

I think that the secret to observing holidays in an intentional way is to recognize the “both/and” places in between instead of automatically dividing the world into “this-or-that.” I can celebrate Christmas and yet still pay tribute to other religious and cultural traditions. There is room for all of us, if we are willing to make the effort. It’s worth the effort. Love is not finite, and when we expand our horizons, we’ll find that the holy-days can be a time to honor the many traditions that people observe in this world.

At the end of this, if anyone is thinking, “That would be great but only if people would stop trying to destroy Christmas,” I have one request. Please stop making yourself a victim. The only way you are going to lose Christmas is if you personally choose to focus on the consumerism of the holiday season and ignore the spiritual aspects of this time of the year, when the days are shorter, the nights are longer, and we have more hours to contemplate our relationship with the world around us. Let’s honor the miracle of an impoverished baby born in a stable (no crib for a bed) who went on to share a message of love and humility. That’s what Christmas should be about, and that love is worth sharing with others in whatever guise it appears. 

Happy Chanukah! 
Festivus for the Rest of Us!
Merry Christmas!
Happy Kwanzaa!
Seasons Greetings!
Peace on Earth!