Well, here we are in Thanksgiving week, and as always there is great weeping and gnashing of teeth about Black Friday and the “official” start of the Christmas shopping season. This year the ante has been upped to a higher level than ever as some retailers move Black Friday back into Thanksgiving Day itself, while others pledge not to open on Thursday so that “employees can spend the day with their families.” And, as usual, there is much pious bleating from the religious community about the over-commercialization of Christmas and much finger-wagging at “those people” who will be camping out in front of stores and participating in the barely-controlled-riot that is Black Friday. For example:
Frankly, I’m just about as sick of the weeping and teeth-gnashing as I am of the unbridled commercialism, if not more so. At least the unbridled commercialism is honest. Walmart, Target, Kmart, Best Buy, and all of the other retailers planning “door buster” sales for Thursday evening are in business to make money, and they’re up front and honest about that. And if they are extending their sales earlier into Thursday, you can bet that they’ve done the research to know that enough people will shop to make it worth their while. Such is the way of capitalism in the 21st century.
The complaints about the stores being open on Thursday, especially those that make opening at 6 pm on Thursday sound so much worse than opening at midnight on Friday, are at best naïve and at worst disingenuous. Having worked two holiday seasons in retail, I can assure you that store employees have been at work Thanksgiving evening for a long time. Even if the stores weren’t open until 8 am on Friday, Black Friday would still have an impact family time for retail workers because they can’t travel to be with family. For those of us who don’t work in retail to bewail Thursday night sales at the same time that we make plans to hit the stores on Friday ignores the fact that we all have a privilege that few retail workers have: a holiday weekend.
Perhaps the most disingenuous of all, though, are those Christians (and especially Christian clergy) who adopt an attitude of sniffing superiority toward the money culture and consumerist culture of 21st century America, as though we don’t participate in that same culture the other eleven months of the year. What is it if not disingenuous for clergy to rail against the excesses of consumerism, but to post those rants via smartphones, iPads and other electronic gizmos that are well beyond the reach of the poor in our society? How dare we speculate about the emptiness of the souls of people who shop for Christmas gifts for their loved ones (see fine print in the graphic above) when we are just as addicted to our possessions as anyone? Is it not ironic that in the same week so many of us are complaining about society’s values with respect to money and possessions while at the same time bewailing a court ruling that may put an end to our tax-free housing allowances? Add to this the fact that so many clergy are so reluctant to talk honestly and openly with their congregations about their own relationship to money and possessions, and we can hardly complain that we don’t have much credibility when we start ranting about consumerism and materialism every November. It becomes just more noise in the system, like Christmas carols being played in stores or commercials on the radio, rarely even attracting notice and forgotten as quickly as the next distraction on the few occasions when it does.
The bottom line is that 21st century America is a democracy, and people vote with their feet and with their pocketbooks. Stores are open on Thanksgiving because people will show up to shop. If we don’t want stores to be open on a holiday, we need to do certain things. We need to make a decision not to shop on those days, and perhaps not to shop at all at establishments that are open on holidays. We also need to speak frankly and candidly about our own relationships to money and possessions and how we live our faith with respect to our consumption. Most of all, we need to do so regularly, sensitively and pastorally. Because if the move by big chains to be open on Thanksgiving night proves anything, it proves that our traditional month-long annual rant isn’t getting us anywhere.