I quickly learned that the real power shoppers had been camping out in front of stores since moments after their last turkey slice the afternoon before. Some of them may have been eating turkey on the sidewalk.
I also noticed the lack of a child-like gleam in the eyes of the young woman who kept ramming me with her cart, and I didn’t see any Christian charity in the salesman who stared at me with sarcasm when I asked about the cheap laptops in the company circular.
In any event, today I’m more likely to get rammed by someone’s electronic shopping cart online. Nearly 100 million of you will shop both on the internet and in stores during the fuzzily defined period between Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Finder.com says Americans will spend about $89 billion, much of it on themselves, and about 52% will later regret something they bought on sale.
People from my generation, by the way, will spend more than any other, totaling an average of $626.35 per person. That will prompt the other generations to say, “OK boomer, what’dja get me?”
None of today’s generations invented the commercialization of Christmas, of course. A hundred years ago today, the Deseret News carried an enticing ad for “The New Edison,” which was promised to be “The phonograph with a soul.” It was “less than” $300, the equivalent of more than $4,000 today, but only $1 down would guarantee delivery during the holidays. The same paper had a letter from Santa telling kids he was coming to Keith O’Brien’s Toytown and to be sure to enter for a chance to win either a doll or a coaster sled. The Friday after Thanksgiving was “saving day” at Walker’s.
This uneasy annual convergence of capitalism’s biggest moment and a sacred holiday celebrating the birth of Christ has long struggled for some sort of consistent meaning.
A few years ago, Ian Bogost of The Atlantic tried to explain how it might all work together. Christmas is about the “ultimate gift, the gift of God’s only son,” he wrote. That set “an unreachable bar” that no worldly gift could approach. “It is an excessive gift, a surplus of divine love.”
Thus, “Excess is the origin story of Christmas, rendering Black Friday strangely compatible with the liturgy.” It is “no less compatible with the spirit of Christmas than is any allegorical practice of gift-giving as a faint copy of God’s sacrifice.”
Maybe, but Christianity teaches people to love each other, to not take advantage of others and to give freely. As I noted 16 year ago, Black Friday, whether a test of endurance in a crowded store or a quest to be the fastest to click on an item online, can seem more like feeding time in a shark tank, a Darwinian test of wills and strength that Herod himself might have charged money to watch.
Even Bogost, after some wrestling with philosophers and the meaning of gifts, finally concludes, “Perhaps it is important that Black Friday repulse — in its consumerist excess it reveals the fundamental incompatibility between worldly gifts and celestial ones.”
And yet, who hasn’t experienced a worldly gift that was a true expression of love?
As you enter the holiday season in earnest, don’t look at me for the definitive answer on this one, other than to note that Christianity puts a great deal of meaning on intent, or what’s in your heart. That’s the true indicator of where our treasures lie.
Capitalism and Christianity don’t have to be at odds so long as hearts are right. That can be hard to remember when you’re jockeying for position with hordes of fellow shoppers, which may be why I haven’t ventured out in the early morning after Thanksgiving for 16 years.