Black Friday, in a lot of ways, is like the Christmas holiday it precedes. It has been around for so long, we forget why we are even performing the rituals we use to celebrate it.
When Scott Walker was having a Twitter meltdown earlier this month over his successor going back to having a “holiday tree” instead of the “Christmas tree” Walker changed the moniker to when he was in office, he apparently had no idea that sawing down pine trees and putting them in our living rooms didn’t originally have a damn thing to do with Christmas, Christians, or Christ. Go ahead and go on Google Maps and look up Bethlehem. It’s near Jerusalem. They have versions of evergreens there, and a lot of pines in Israel now were brought in by the Jewish National Fund in the twentieth century. But I’m sorry to break it to you: During his life, Jesus never encountered a blue spruce. Neither did the pagans from whom we stole the tradition of putting evergreens in our houses around December (blue spruce is native to North America, as is the absolutely most popular type of Christmas tree, the balsam fir). Starting around the fourth century, European pagans decorated their homes with evergreen branches local to, you know, Europe, so as to brighten their joints up during the drab winter season. Romans also used evergreen branches to decorate for their December 17 to December 23 Saturnalia festival. It was not until much, much later that Americans embraced their pagan predecessors’ pine-based seasonal decorations as a Christmas tradition. Early puritanical American Christians, in fact, loathed the winter tree-decorating tradition as a “heathen” ritual and “pagan mockery.”
My point is not just that Scott Walker is intolerable (though he clearly is). My point is that not even our traditions are our traditions. They are things we inherited from earlier generations, bastardized, forgot why we did them in the first place, and tragically put on a pedestal just because they’d been around so long. A tradition is hard to change, but traditions were spun from whole cloth in the first place, often for reasons that no longer make sense, and they can and should be changed when they’ve outlived their usefulness.
Which brings me back to Black Friday. Black Friday is a relatively recent tradition but a tradition nonetheless. The most oft-repeated Black Friday origin story is that the day after Thanksgiving was the day that struggling retailers went from being in the “red” for the year to being in the “black” for the year, as multitudes of Christmas shoppers swarmed the mall on their day off to get deals on presents.
Well, that’s a nice story, but not exactly accurate. While the term “Black Friday” itself has been used in a lot of other historical contexts, its first known use to refer to day-after-Thanksgiving shopping was in 1950s Philadelphia, when Philly cops used it to describe the melee that swamped the city’s shopping centers before the big Army-Navy football game held there on the Saturday after Thanksgiving every year (and yeah, the use of the phrase was about as racist as you’d expect). Calling the day after Thanksgiving “Black Friday” went on for years in Philly before it finally caught on in the rest of the country. Starting in the late 1980s, retailers all collectively breathed a sigh of relief as the nation as a whole pretty much swallowed the more positive (and fabricated) “red to black” accounting books origin story of Black Friday.
So, as you go to trample your fellow citizens this Black Friday so that you can maybe pick up a $150 TV, ask yourself why you are doing this. You can put up a Christmas tree and enjoy it with pure motives, just like you can go shopping for Black Friday deals without evil in your heart. But if you’re doing the former, know you’re ultimately doing it because a bunch of people who did not believe in Jesus did it a long time ago, and if you’re doing the later, know you’re ultimately doing it because a bunch of racist 1950s Philly cops got together to crack jokes.
Speaking against my own interests as someone who owns mutual fund shares with a lot of retailers in them, maybe just don’t Black Friday this year. I haven’t been in a home with kids in the past ten years in which there wasn’t a room where I wasn’t ankle deep in toys. Not to pick on the youngest Americans; I have three brown leather motorcycle jackets. Three! We all have so much stuff. We don’t really need the stuff we already have, let alone more of it.
Black Friday started as a garbage holiday, and its transformation from racist cop lingo to materialistic retail orgy hasn’t improved it all that much. I’m going to be doing my best this year to not buy anything on Black Friday, and to the extent I do ultimately give people seasonal gifts, to make them Science Museum memberships and comedy tickets and nice dinners out. I’d rather give a gift that helps build a relationship than just another thing to throw on someone’s treasure pile. This year, buy something intangible that’s going to force you to spend time with good people. Maybe try it again next year. You might just develop a tradition actually worth hanging on to.
Jonathan Wolf is a litigation associate at a midsize, full-service Minnesota firm. He also teaches as an adjunct writing professor at Mitchell Hamline School of Law, has written for a wide variety of publications, and makes it both his business and his pleasure to be financially and scientifically literate. Any views he expresses are probably pure gold, but are nonetheless solely his own and should not be attributed to any organization with which he is affiliated. He wouldn’t want to share the credit anyway. He can be reached at email@example.com.