Black Friday; maybe we should chill?

If you follow Anglican and Episcopalian blogs right now, or you have clergy Facebook friends, you're probably seeing calls for a simpler Christmas. The Advent Conspiracy is leading the charge asking people to refrain from buying too much as way of keeping Christmas. The secular media is picking up on the idea too; someone from a TV station called me last night looking for a quote decrying the latest Black Friday mayhem.

But, Diana Butler Bass points out that the luxury of conscious minimalism is really an upper class problem. Some of the people in line on Black Friday are there because they can't afford to buy what they need at full price, and these teaser sales are incredibly helpful to them. She asks us to look at just who it is standing in line on Black Friday. It's not the wealthy or the well off. It's the working class and the poor. The same people who tend to attend Church week in and week out.

"By contrast, the rich—the people who aren’t in lines on Black Friday—are less likely to be religious, more likely to find meaning in materialism, and give a lower percentage of their income to help those in need. According to a recent New York Times story, the wealthy will spend most of their holiday cash at stores like Nordstrom, Saks, and Tiffany where there will be few sales and no door-buster specials.

On the morning of Black Friday, I watched a reporter interview two women at a mall, who had arrived early for the sales. He asked, “What are you going to buy?” The woman, clearly not a well-off person, responded: “Shoes.” He said, “Shoes? You’re not supposed to be buying shoes!” She said, “But I need shoes.” He pressed the issue, “Are you buying anything else?” “No,” she replied. “I just need new shoes.” Her companion was buying jeans. The reporter didn’t know what to say. How many people on Black Friday are like these two women?

And that is the morality tale of Black Friday. Yes, there will be mall riots over flat-screen TVs. But maybe, just maybe, people are shopping on Black Friday because they can’t afford the prices that greedy corporations charge on a regular basis—saving up to buy things like shoes on deep discount. And, of course, people who are suffering under the weight of economic inequality would like to have nice toys for their children and decent electronics (electronics are arguably a necessity to participate in 21st century western society) and the only time of the year they can afford such things is during the super-sales pushed on us by mega-business on Black Friday."

More here.

Comments (6)

I suppose Ms. Bass is looking for the silver lining in all of this mass consumption hysteria. But, has she taken a drive over to any three shopping centers and examined the parking lots? They are packed to the gills with autos--autos of every stripe and size. This hyper-consumerism extends through the great middle of the country.

You needn't be "upper class" to eschew gross consumerism in favor of something else. The commodification of our holidays and time has reached terrible levels, even to language. As people in this nation we are typically described as consumers, not citizens. The solution to this problem on an individual and family level is pretty simple--just say "No, thanks."

We've all been sold on the idea that the meaning of our lives is to be a vital part of our Capitalistic economy. I have noticed that it is the poor and middle class who tend to purchase lottery tickets and huge Halloween displays, not to mention the Christmas ones. Black Friday actually scares me more than Halloween. We need to figure out a way to reclaim ourselves and not just our holidays. If anyone could show us the way out of that madness, they'd rival Moses.

Crowds flocked to stores on the the Friday after Thanksgiving well before anyone thought to name it Black Friday. Why? Because in many families, especially large families, preparing to the Christmas holidays takes all of the weekends between Thanksgiving and Christmas itself. If you have a day off, you put it to good use. I wish people behaved themselves better when they were shopping. I wish advertising were not the dominant medium in our culture. But, like Diana, I am tired of people taking potshots at the millions of people who are simply out there trying to prepare what they deem to be a good Christmas for their loved ones. It may not be the Christmas that people who think of themselves as more spiritually enlightened would prepare. But I am in favor of giving people wide latitude when figuring out how to bring happiness to those closest to them.

I think it's a matter of motes and beams. At 11:00 pm on Thanksgiving night, as my sister and I drove past the outlet mall near the home of family members, we could not believe the traffic, the cars backed up in the left-turn lane, and the police on hand to orchestrate the whole thing. When I'm in that kind of overheated, artificially lit shopping space, I routinely feel a bit sick and depressed. To my mind, it would be wonderful if our churches could provide a place for prayer and celebration - and perhaps even fun - that was an alternative to what the consumer culture has to offer.

That said, I've had my fill of anti-materialist sermons given by people who own second homes. I'm also fed up to a place somewhere above my forehead with the straw "we" (where "we" translates as "you clowns out there"): "We have lost the mystery of Advent in our lust for shopping." As mentioned above, I hate shopping, but for years wrestled with the issue of whether to forgo sending gifts to family members who just wouldn't understand. Now that younger family members are grown up, we've been able to talk about how we all feel and agree on a more scaled-back holiday season. But we could only make that change that at a point where everyone understood what we were doing.

It's important to remember the "voluntary" in "voluntary simplicity." I recall hearing a sermon in which the speaker talked about forgoing Christmas Eve dinner in favor of a delicious and fragrant lentil soup, so the family could simplify their time and focus on each other's company. Well, that's awfully nice, especially if the rest of the year features as many meals as you want and need. I loved that scene in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women as much as the next gal. But for people in some cultural backgrounds, the Christmas Eve feast is part of their identity and celebration. It may be the one time of year that all the family can get together. The lentil sermon produced a great deal of guilt for one or two families who didn't fall into the category of crass consumers, but instead held onto their holiday traditions in the midst of other strain and stress.

When I've volunteered at conventions and other big events, I haven't noticed anyone subsisting on lentils. Until that happens, I take all of this high-flown discussion of Yuletide simplicity with a grain of salt.

How about this:

I purchase only used cars for cash.

I have only one wardrobe and some of it is from thrift shops.

I keep downsizing because I don't want to tend to my stuff as a vocation.

I give lots of money away.

I don't spend more than I have.

I don't shop for recreation.

There are lots of things that could be added to the list and I think it would be great to generate a bunch of ideas for folks to tap into over the holidays.

I don't have a taste for Black Friday blowouts, but then I can afford to buy a new TV whenever I want. In the dark time of the year, we are called to take up our lamps and be ready. That also means we're ready for whoever else might come to the door. And there's a feast going on. Giving and receiving, "treating" others and sometimes yourself too. Why do Christians feel too guilty to really bring the wine to the wedding banquet? Why don't Christians believe Jesus when he wants us to party sometimes? There's a time to party and a time to go out to the desert; a time to feast with your loved ones, and a time to take care of the hard-up stranger. Without that balance, we fail to understand the full, rich life that, from what the Gospels tell us, Jesus wants us to live. Right now, during Advent, we keep the lamps burning and wait for the Bridegroom, but we welcome our family, friends and strangers to our well-lighted rooms and our well-stocked table, and when the Lord comes, we feast. Jesus also didn't tell anybody how to have a wedding feast; I can't imagine that village wedding feasts didn't look something like Black Friday feeding frenzies. He didn't advocate anything other than what he already saw, there was no admonitions to a well-ordered, not too extravagant feast. If the resources are there, and the feast is laid out, get in there and get it because it might not be there later, and they don't happen very often. Some want to always link alms giving and feasting, but reading the Gospels, I see that sometimes you have charity, sometimes you have feasting, and sometimes the two overlap, but not every time.

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