The lack of Black Friday violence demonstrates that Americans love to wait on line

A woman pepper sprays her fellow shoppers to get close to the XBox she wants to buy.

A robber shoots a shopper in the parking lot of a mall.

A cop bloodies the face of a senior citizen who was trying to take advantage of the swarm of people to shoplift something.

What are we to make of these three unrelated violent incidents during the celebration of our newest national holiday, Black Friday? My conclusion: not very much.

An estimated 152 million people packed stores and parking lots during a one-day spree of crawling in traffic, hunting for parking, waiting on lines and pushing at counters, all a few hours or a day after an orgy of overeating and overdrinking.   Besides feeling overhung or dyspeptic, many Black Friday shoppers must also feel the emotional crush of the economic contraction:  lots have families in which one or more adults are unemployed or underemployed. A large number are living in houses worth less than the loan they have taken on it.  People are angry, worried, frustrated.

And all that the media could find were three incidents?  That sounds like an hour’s worth of violence in a small city on an average Wednesday evening.

The small amount of Black Friday violence reported in the national media suggests that security is working, the petty thieves are taking a holiday and people are pretty docile. Sure, they like to push and shove, and maybe surreptitiously give someone a little secret jab to the back or squeeze the breast of a stranger.  And sure it’s great to buy something at one of the lowest prices it’s going to be during the year, and greater still to be one of the “happy few,” or even the last one to get the hottest gadget or doodad in the store.

But I can’t help but wonder if, for many Americans, standing in line is the real pleasure of Black Friday.  We may complain about waiting for a physician or a dentist, but when it comes to entertainment, standing in line is as much a part of the experience as the blockbuster movie, the Disney or amusement park ride, the new Harry Potter book or tickets to that hot group that make people cue up like lemmings waiting to try blind cliff-diving.

And make no mistake about it, Black Friday is a form of entertainment, the form of entertainment that Americans seem to love most: engaging in a commercial transaction to purchase a good or service likely to fill an emotional need.

The history of American holiday celebration really reduces to the story of American businesses and mass media attaching two actions to every holiday: eating and buying stuff.

It’s been more than a century since we first commercialized Christmas.  In that time, we have created holidays that require us to make purchases, such as Mother’s and Father’s Day, and secularized minor religious holidays by reducing them to buying and eating; witness St. Valentine’s Day and All Hallows’ Eve (AKA Halloween).

For decades, Thanksgiving seemed to be immune to commercialization.  Yes, the holiday structures itself around a meal, but the basics of that meal comprise the traditional rituals of the celebration, and so have remained relatively unchanged for centuries: The food part of Thanksgiving– turkey, stuffing, potatoes, pumpkin pie—kept buying gifts out of the holiday celebration.

The recent emphasis on Black Friday in the mass media has finally changed all that.  The news of stores offering Black Friday specials before and on Thanksgiving extends the media coverage and advertising about our national shopping day.  Black Friday now surrounds Thanksgiving with commercialism and subtly changes the mix of holiday stories in the news media. More stories in the news media are about shopping and fewer about people helping other people participate in the ritual of turkey eating.

Encircling Thanksgiving with Black Friday also links the two more closely. Thanksgiving was long an oasis of quiet private celebration in the long season of riotous consumption that starts with Halloween commercials in early October and continues unabated into the flood of sales, gift card purchases and gift returns of early January. Thanksgiving has been diminished into that big meal we eat before we engage in competitive shopping in late November.

There is very little that 152 million people do together in any country.  Only 111 million watched the Super Bowl worldwide.  About 129 million cast votes for either President Obama or John McCain in 2008.  Imagine if 152 million showed up for one day at Occupy encampments all over the country?!

Thus, Black Friday has entered the pantheon of major American holidays.  Perhaps we can call it the first post-modern holiday, because unlike other holidays, for which the reason for celebration is a pretext for shopping, shopping is both the pretext for and the manifestation of the holiday.  Christmas is about shopping to give presents to your loved one.  Halloween is about shopping to buy the tools of celebration—candy, decorations and costumes. Black Friday is shopping for the joy of shopping. One characteristic of post-modern art is that it is often about the process of making art.  In the same way, Black Friday is about the process of celebration.

The next step in the deconstruction of Thanksgiving will surely be a spate of stories in the news media about charitable activity to help people participate in Black Friday. I can see it now: stories about teen groups that help seniors shop or wait in line for them outside Walmarts.  Toy drives culminate not under the Christmas tree at the local Y in December, but in a party for poor kids in a mall the day after Thanksgiving. Merchants start to brag that a small part of every Black Friday purchase will go to prevent breast cancer.  Target will announce a special program to make it easier for the disabled to participate in Black Friday festivities.

In short, I predict that Black Friday will take on some of the aspects of Thanksgiving as it continues to supplant turkey day as our most important harvest festival.


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