As Black Friday draws to a close, I’m reminded of a Facebook conversation I had a few years ago with a friend. Not a “Facebook friend,” but a bona fide friend who I know well, and who I know is legit into Christmas. I mean as in the birth of Christ and all that – not just a day to exchange presents and eat tasty food, though there is nothing wrong with the latter of course. But here’s the point: My Black Friday post was about how you couldn’t pay me to go near the stores the day after Thanksgiving, because it’s just not worth it to deal with that level of shopping stress, and moreover, that’s not what Christmas is all about anyway — forgo materialism for the true meaning of Christmas! The reason for the season and all that.
So what surprised me about her comment, an angry one, was that her reaction was this: don’t judge those of us who NEED to go out shopping on Black Friday, because we NEED those discounts on gifts for our kids, and if you had a shopping list like mine you would feel grateful for Black Friday instead of scoffing at it.
I wasn’t expecting this response, so I pointed out that my purpose was not to say that you should wait until after Black Friday (and presumably after the amazing sales) and pay more for the same gifts. My point was not to disparage those who have a hard time affording all those gifts. My point, instead, was to say that we should all look at our consumerism this holiday, and strive to be a bit less materialistic. Maybe each kid gets one really nice big gift! Maybe each kid gets only a few small gifts, and the adults get nothing! Maybe, more radically, we forego all gifts, work in a soup kitchen on Christmas, and have a nice dinner for ourselves as well! Right?
Well, we ended up taking the conversation offline, and the gyst of her point ended up being this: when you have kids (especially in a large family with lots of kids), you can’t *just* forego all the gifts, or even most of them, and expect that the kids will be happy *just* celebrating the reason for the season. In even the least materialistic, consumerism-conscious families, it’s not as simple as telling the kids that you’re not doing a lot for Christmas this year, or that Santa is scaling back because he wants us to focus on what’s really important, or that our capitalist system is the heart of all evil and that we need to forgo such worldly pleasures in order to live more meaningfully … kids just won’t get it, she said. Kids, even in families with modest means, get used to the idea of gifts at Christmas, and for some families, those Black Friday sales mean that the family can do Christmas AND get the mortgage paid that month. Yes, to some families, Black Friday is THAT important.
But another, overarching point to her argument was this: It’s easy for us to play the socially progressive card and talk about how, this year, we’re going to give up on gifts and celebrate the true meaning of Christmas … but at the end of the day, we won’t. The overwhelming majority of us will give in and buy the big gift from the big box store because, well, it’s just easier. How many times have I vowed to support small and local businesses, and then ended up ordering all my stuff from Amazon? (Or, horror of all horrors, from Walmart?!)
We stopped just short of discussing our actual finances. I suspect that it’s all a matter of scale — some use Black Friday because they “need” to save on what most would view as an exorbitant amount of gifts, while others truly need the Black Friday sales because they can’t afford even the little bit of cheer they hope to give their kids by way of a few items left under the tree by Santa. And yet still, there are some families who simply won’t be able to afford any gifts whatsoever, let alone rent and other necessities. For the latter, Black Friday doesn’t even begin to make things affordable enough to justify the spending.
Ever since that conversation I have honestly wondered … does Black Friday truly help families afford the Christmas their kids need? Or is it a gimmick that gets us to spend more than we need every year, and contribute to our already oversized Culture of Stuff?