The Pagan Festival of Black Friday.

[Church of the Malcontent is back, taking advantage of Thanksgiving break to write a few things before the return to the hectic remainder of the semester. Some things to look forward to for the rest of the year (and into 2011) include more reflections on meaning and purpose, a series on atonement and redemption, plenty of thinking about Christmas, including the liturgical season of Advent and the miracle of the Incarnation, and some some musings like this one on Christians, consumerism, and American culture. Enjoy this reflection on Black Friday!]

Black Friday is – for me, anyway – one of the scariest days of the year. Even the name sounds scary: Black Friday. How ominous. It’s like Americans are celebrating a massacre or something. (There are actually at least three days also known as Black Friday that commemorate deaths: JFK in November, 1963; the Haymarket affair of 1887 in which four anarchists were unjustly executed; and the massacre of Iranian protestors in Zaleh Square, 1978).

And then every year people get trampled in the stampede to buy the latest things for sale in the stores that are now opening at 3 a.m.! This year, there were tales of grandmothers being trampled, cars being broken into, mob behavior resulting in store evacuations, and even a woman threatening to shoot the people ahead of her in line! When will we Americans learn that consumerism and materialism are going to be, in one way or another, the death of us?

This may sound like a stretch, but Black Friday reminds me of some of the things I’ve been learning about in my ancient paganism class this semester. In the ancient world, the various governments and empires would endorse a variety of deities in the official state pantheon. The entire year was planned around the worship of these gods and goddess, including days for fasting and days for sacrifice, which resulted in the consuming of that sacrifice, and all the excess of a large Roman party. If one did not participate in the public worship of the deity, one was viewed as subversive, and maybe even shunned from the community. To refuse to worship the gods was to refuse to ask the gods to continue to bless and protect the state. It was seditious, and very often was one of the primary critiques hurled at early Christians.

And yet, I wonder if Black Friday has become a public festival in honor of the American gods of consumerism and materialism? Think about it. The day is set aside every year for shopping. Most people have the day off (except for those poor and saintly souls who must deal with the absolute nightmare that is working retail on Black Friday) to participate in the festival, and forgoing the festival is frowned upon. One who doesn’t shop on Black Friday is not helping the economy recover or not helping businesses meet their annual profit margins. The fanaticism with which many Americans engage in this public festival is staggering. And I would be willing to wager that many of them would identify as Christians.

The Christian should view Black Friday differently. The Christian should see Black Friday for what it really is: a form of American civil religion that is focused on materialism. We should be like the Jews of antiquity and abstain from this public orgy. We should refuse to sacrifice our time and our money upon consumerism’s altar. We should be different! We shouldn’t be trampling people in a quest to gain the newest toy for our son or daughter, the newest gadget for our father or mother. We shouldn’t be zealous about sales and doobusters, we should be zealous for the kingdom of God, where the last shall be first (line jumpers, I’m looking at you). We should not be the same as the world, but show the world that there is a better way to live.

So, my advice to you is as follows:

  1. Spend Black Friday with your family – Sleep off that turkey coma a little later than usual, throw on some good Christmas music (the Friday after Thanksgiving is the official beginning of Christmas music season for me), cook up a nice breakfast, pour a steaming cup of coffee and just enjoy sharing more time with your family. Relax! Read something spiritual at breakfast or any other time during the day. Discuss with your family the dangers of materialism and a consumer oriented mindset. Talk about why you’re not going out today. Play some board games. Watch some favorite movies. Drink hot cocoa. Go sledding (if you’ve got snow). Pour your life into the people around you, instead of stuff.
  2. Go volunteer – spend the time you would have spent shopping working at the homeless shelter or the food kitchen. I bet they get a lot of help on Thanksgiving, but everyone still needs food and shelter on the day after, too. So gather up the whole clan and spend the day serving the less fortunate. Share the love of Christ, rather than the love of money.
  3. Don’t think I’m telling you that you can’t buy stuff – I’d be a hypocrite if I told you not to ask for things for Christmas. I’ve got a few items of my own this year. But I did not ask my parents to spend a perfectly good Friday standing in line to ensure I got the newest gadget or toy. Instead, ask for practical things (I’ll  be spending the semester in London, so I’m asking for an e-reader to reduce the weight and amount of books I’ll have to bring with me). My parents are fond of exchanging tools (for my dad) and kitchen gadgets (for my mom). Gift giving can be a great way to demonstrate your love for someone, but, in the words of a famous fast food employee, “Don’t get crazy.”
  4. Use your gifts – I mean the things you get, either on Black Friday or on Christmas. Got an Xbox for Christmas? Take it down to the shelter and let the kids play it. New camera? Create some new memories for the family photo album. (If you’re like me you got) books. Read them to the family, or share the things you’ve learned from reading them. New instrument? Arrange a family jam session. The possibilities are endless.
  5. And finally, if you absolutely must go out on Black Friday (and I admit there are some tempting deals) be both smart and Christ like: First, smart. Do your research. Realize that most deals are incredibly limited, or not that far from the original list price. Some other deals require you to do other things, or subscribe to certain services. Be smart about it. Don’t waste your hard-earned money on frivolous “deals.” Second, be Christ like. Give up your place in line to someone who looks like they “need” it more. Let the other shopper have the very last Tickle-Me Elmo (those are still popular, right?). Buy one item to give away to homeless shelters or other Christmas charities for every one item you buy as a Christmas present for the family. Don’t trample people. Be polite. Be very, very nice to the cashiers and other store personnel. This day is hell for them, and your kind attitude can brighten what is probably the worst day of their working year. Do what you know to do, instead of what a consumer-driven society tells you to do. Be like Jesus.

So, let’s stop participating in the pagan festival of Black Friday. Be subversive and anti-empire, just like the ancient Christians when faced with the pagan orgies of Rome. Don’t buy the lie that your spending can save the nation, and that you’re unpatriotic if you don’t shop. Remember that your allegiance is to the Kingdom of Heaven, not the United States, and that your real treasure is in heaven. Spend time with your family and spend time with Christ, and maybe we can make Black Friday a little less black next year.

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