This is a time of year for giving thanks. I see lots of posts on FaceBook about who and what people are thankful for. I know I have a lot to be thankful for too, I’ve led a pretty fabulous life and have a remarkably close knit and loving family and community. There isn’t anywhere in the world I’d rather live than Maple Corner, and I’m thankful that I grew up a part of this fabulous place. But is Thanksgiving only about being thankful for what we have? I’m a fairly cynical person and tend to refer to holidays by a name reflective of their – generally not so glorious – history. For instance I’ve been known to refer to Columbus Day as “Genocide Day” and joke about Thanksgiving being the perfect season to share small pox blankets with your neighbors. So this year I had to ask myself, how did Thanksgiving, the holiday for being thankful for what we already have, come overlap Black Friday, the day America goes crazy at Walmart and stampedes each other to be the first to buy the cheapest toaster oven? Where did that come from? How did the two days with seemingly opposite values become one and the same?
I’ve always been disgusted by Black Friday and have intentionally never experienced it first hand. Therefore, my first wave of research needed to be hands on. It happened on the evening of Thanksgiving, quite by mistake. We’d had a fabulous family dinner at which my grandmother, Nanny, had come home from the Woodridge Nursing Home for the first time since her August 31st stroke. I got out of cooking anything for our Thanksgiving dinner by agreeing to be Nanny’s wheels for the day. I picked her up around two so she’d have an afternoon at home. She smiled broadly the entire drive home and kept commenting on the beauty of the snow. She hadn’t seen much other than her room at Woodridge in nearly three months. Immediately upon arriving at her house her cat and my uncles dog, Twiggins, both jumped into her lap. They’d missed her and she’d missed them. It was an afternoon and evening filled with good cheer and laughter. By 7:30 Nanny was exhausted from a combination of over-stimulation and her first bourbon in months!
The drive to town was snowy but uneventful and the smile never left her face. Upon turning into the Woodridge drive we both noted the heavy traffic leaving the Berlin Mall. Odd for 8 PM on Thanksgiving Day. Isn’t everyone supposed to be home with their family giving thanks for what they have? Doesn’t Black Friday happen, well, on Friday? I got Nanny settled in for the night and headed for home. Only I couldn’t make myself turn right out of the parking lot. Instead my deep seeded morbid curiosity got the better of me. I went straight into the Berlin Mall….
The road leading past the Subaru Dealership to the mall was lined with parked cars on both sides of the street. The mall parking lot, which I haven’t seen at more than a quarter capacity in my entire life, was packed and overflowing. I couldn’t drive at more than walking pace because of the sheer number of heavily loaded shopping carts piled high with TV’s and Microwaves that were crossing the street. While stopped to let a family of five (each family member pushing a full shopping cart) cross the street I peered into the windows by JC Penny. The hall way was shoulder to shoulder packed with people. At first I thought they were caroling the mall, kicking off the Christmas Season with holiday cheer – then I realized they were just standing in line to enter the store, jostling one another to get in first. I continued down the road still planning to exit the far end of the lot and head straight home. However, luckily (or perhaps unluckily) a parking spot opened up just as I passed the crowded entrance to Walmart. Once again my morbidity took over and I pulled into the spot, took a deep breath, and got out of my car. I crossed the street and joined the wave of people entering the mall only to be stopped dead by a crowd 200 thick throbbing in the hall. The noise made it impossible to make out individual conversations. The doors to Walmart were shut and locked; the store was at capacity! I stood taking in the scene, looking for some form of meaning in this bizarre way to celebrate Thanksgiving. I found none.
If I hadn’t been instantly swallowed in the crowd and unable to move I may have turned tail and ran. Instead the doors opened as an employee (probably making minimum wage as a temp worker on Thanksgiving night) radioed in “Heads Up, the next bunch is coming at ya.” I was swept into a massive sea of holiday consumerism. I wandered the store feeling lost. Aisles were roped off in an effort to shuffling people where they were supposed to go. Large helium balloons announced where to line up for which sale items. The store was so packed it would have been nearly impossible to navigate if I’d chosen to push a shopping cart. Luckily I had no need, I had no intention of buying anything. While Walmart workers were striking in cities all across the country, demanding a living wage, safe working conditions, and the right to organize unions, I wouldn’t be caught dead buying anything in a Walmart on Thanksgiving Day. But I just had to see it for myself.
I spent a good 20 minutes wandering the store and frankly wasn’t impressed. $479 TV’s for $449, Gun Cases for $5 less than their regular price. Most items showed their sale price but didn’t even say their regular price, which you know means the savings were miniscule. Yet people were waiting in long lines, with a bit of pushing and elbowing here and there, just to save a few bucks in the hours long checkout line. As I squeezed by the line of people waiting for the 32 inch plasma TV’s to go on sale at 845 PM, I saw a woman cut in front of a man in an electric cart. There were only 50 available at that sale price and it was unclear if they were close enough to the front to have the privilege of this purchase. Fearing his impending loss if she got ahead of him in line, he leaned forward and pulled her back behind his chair by the tail of her shirt. Words were exchanged and the toddler at her side just looked confused! It made the turkey and gravy turn in my stomach, so I left – empty handed as planned. I was suddenly fearful that my skirting around the line would be misinterpreted as cutting and I’d get trampled. I got a funny glare by the staff checking receipts as people left the store – who comes in here on Black Friday and leaves empty handed!? I really wished I had a sign to carry saying “support your Associates right to organize.” Instead I just returned home shaking my head and being even more curious about the history of the relationship between giving thanks, and bargain hunting.
What I learned will shock you. According to the website http://www.blackfridaydeathcount.com this year saw one death and 15 injuries, bringing the total count since 2006 up to seven deaths and 90 Injuries! With nothing more than a quick google search I was able to watch footage of fist fights and stampedes, as well as of the more than 100 protesters arrested this year alone. I learned that some companies have begun producing lower quality goods to specifically to sell for rock bottom prices on Black Friday – what a deal. One of the articles that struck me the hardest was straight from the BBC. Ten things you didn’t know about Black Friday, outlines a bit of history of the seemingly awkward relationship between Thanksgiving and shopping. Here it is straight from the BBC:
3. The date of Thanksgiving was, indirectly, determined by holiday shoppers.
From the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century, in a custom started by US President Abraham Lincoln, the president would declare a “day of thanks giving” on the last Thursday in November. This could either fall on the fourth or fifth Thursday in the month.
But in 1939, a funny thing happened – the last Thursday happened to be the last day in November. Retailers, worried about the shortened holiday shopping season, petitioned then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to declare the holiday a week earlier – which he did.
For the next three years, Thanksgiving was known derisively as “Franksgiving” and celebrated on different days in different parts of the country.
Finally, at the end of 1941, a joint resolution from Congress cleared up the matter. From then on, Thanksgiving would be celebrated on the fourth Thursday in November – guaranteeing an extra week of shopping before Christmas.
So there you have it, we celebrate Thanksgiving on the fourth Thursday of November simply to ensure that large corporations don’t get shafted by short shopping seasons. Now that’s something to be thankful for!