This year, Wal-Mart employees — who have already been pushed to the brink by the store's recent policy of starting Black Friday on fucking Thanksgiving Thursday — are taking the day to protest a whole host of other unfair labor practices (retaliation against employees who complain, virtually no available full-time jobs, lack of access to health insurance), leaving people with sort of an awkward dilemma: respect the picket line, or stock up on deals, deals, deals?!
How did we get to this place, on a holiday that is (very hypothetically) supposed to be about breaking bread with your loved ones? Why, again, do you need to spend Friday hiding inside for fear of a public trampling? Let's take a look back at the evolution of a questionable, deeply American tradition.
After Macy's started holding its annual Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924, the day after Thanksgiving was cemented as the official kickoff of "Christmastime," and thus, Christmas shopping season. As such, the term "Black Friday" was coined not because the day itself inherently sinister and evil (though it may be!), but because it marked the season when retailers moved from the red into the black. That's some real inside baseball, there.
It was always a little sinister, though, because reports also exist of Philadelphia police using "Black Friday" and "Black Saturday" to refer to the inevitable, exhausting, and difficult to manage post-Thanksgiving surge in shopper traffic. A concerned PR executive tried to change it to "Big Friday" and "Big Saturday" in 1961, but as we all know, it didn't really take.
In response to what many view as Black Friday's unsustainable, increasingly disturbing frenzy of consumerist excess, a pre-Occupy Adbusters started countering the event with "Buy Nothing Day" in 1993. The event started off as a small Vancouver-based protest and has since expanded into a worldwide phenomenon.
At one point, the movement attempted to buy an ad on major networks, who unsurprisingly, opted not to run the spot. A CBS spokesperson reportedly told Adbusters, "This commercial is in opposition to the current economic policy of the United States." Which is not exactly untrue.
Somewhere around the 2000s, Black Friday made the shift from "general pandemonium" into "yearly catalyst for violence," thanks to stampeding crowds and frantic shoppers. There are lots of incidents on record that involve things like pepper spray and the shoving of the elderly (Wikipedia has a terrifying list an Buzzfeed has video, if you're so inclined), but the worst and most tragic took place in 2008, when a 34-year-old Wal-Mart temp was trampled to death while opening the store to shoppers. Even after the incident, police had trouble actually getting to the man because people refused to interrupt their shopping in any way. Everything is terrible.
Black Friday's gentler, nerdier cousin first hit the scene in 2005, when "Cyber Monday" was coined by retailers who claimed to have noticed a substantial bump in sales the Monday after Thanksgiving. Companies created promotions accordingly, and in '05 the New York Times reported Americans spending their entire work day that Monday shopping online. Which seems so implausible! No one spends their workday wasting time on the internet.
With not enough greedy, sometimes-fatal shopping incidents on record to crush our holiday spirit, stores — namely Wal-Mart, Sears, K-Mart, Target, and Toys "R" US — have spent the past couple of years inching Black Friday back into actual Thanksgiving, and this year are opening stores at 8 p.m. The idea of getting it together to leave the house the night of Thanksgiving, let alone shop, let alone being forced by your employers to come into work and deal with bloated, possibly drunk shoppers, is overwhelming. To name just a few things that are in pretty awful taste here. Whatever happened to just staying home and re-watching all the South Park Thanksgiving episodes, or getting into polite-but-very-tense arguments with your conservative relatives? These always seemed like such nice family traditions to me. Why sully them?
Anyway, if you really feel bad, Occupy now has a bunch of advice on how to participate and still be a nice person — pay in cash, support local businesses, try not to trample anyone. We'll all get through this.
Follow Virginia K. Smith on Twitter @vksmith.