It is incredibly ironic how the day after Thanskgiving in the United States is known as "Black Friday", the kick-off of the holiday shopping season and the biggest shopping day of the year. And why is it called "Black Friday"? I would venture a guess it's because the big corporations (and their shareholders) project being "in the black" financially as Americans throw away their money on whatever it is Wall Street tells them they should buy. The irony lies in the fact that the meaning of Thanksgiving---gratitude, sharing and family---is immediately superceded by a mad rush of unabashed consumerism of astronomical proportions.
On this annual day of rampant consumerism, Mary and I generally just stay home, refusing to buy anything, use a car, or take part in the mad rush to consume. I had forgotten that I was scheduled for a haircut some four miles from our house on Friday, and was disappointed to learn that our local buses would not be running, thus, thanks to a balmy 50-degree afternoon, I biked to my appointment, a cold wind making the trip only slightly arduous. Paying for a service (rendered by a local merchant) rather than goods, I still felt that I was honoring my commitment to not participate in the universal shopping spree, and I felt especially good as I raced along powered by my own physical exertion, cold wind be damned.
This week, stories abound of people sleeping on sidewalks for two days in cold rain to be first in line to a buy a PlayStation 3. Fistfights broke out as consumers waited in impatient lines to be the first through a store's open doors, some stores even opening at midnight to assuage the greedy claws of hungry consumers ready to pay their hard-earned cash for unnecessary frivolities. Is it really worth such extravagant effort?
Now, how many of these Black Friday sidewalk campers would spend two nights in the rain if it raised money to feed the homeless? Who would line up at midnight to serve the hungry in a soup kitchen, throwing punches in order to be the first to hold the ladle? Why isn't service to the needy as enticing? Why isn't fighting homelessness as sexy as shopping? Wouldn't it be radical if Wall Street announced that, next year, Black Friday would be called "Service Friday", and all consumers would be urged to get out and volunteer their time to those most in need? What if WalMart announced that it would sell nothing on that day, and instead, local relief organizations would have tables set up for citizens to connect with a volunteer effort of their choice?
While we love to give gifts, and send our share of humble packages to family and friends for the holidays, we attempt to do so in a way in which the impact of our purchases is as low as possible. Cheap gifts made in Chinese sweat-shops are eschewed, replaced by the most meaningful, affordable, and simple gifts we can manage. Our beloved nieces and nephews and godchildren love to receive gifts at holiday time---and we love to oblige them---but none of them have illusions that our gifts will reflect the latest trends in American consumer culture.
I always have mixed feelings about the perceived need to spend and give at this time of year. While I love the sentiment and the spirit of giving, I loathe the obligatory consumption that is part and parcel of the whole package. I still look for ways to express love and caring without the conspicuous expenditure of money for items built with planned obsolescence in mind, but it is a fine line we walk when we live and participate in this misguided society.
So, as this holiday season opens its doors, may we all remember the true meaning of it all, and refrain from being lost in the artificial pressures that transform this season of warmth and love into a season of frantic need to part with our earnings and create unnecessary debt. May the true spirit infuse our hearts and calm our harried minds, realigning our priorities in this time of increasing hunger and need. Our cultural priorities are skewed, and only we can make the choice to realign them once more.
Some selected sites for "alternative" holiday shopping:
Giveline: generates charitable contributions to your favorite non-profit with each purchase
The Hunger Site: special gifts which benefit those in need with each purchase
as well as....
The Breast Cancer Site, The Child Health Site, The Literacy Site, The Rainforest Site, The Animal Rescue Site
And not forgetting...
The Wildlife Adoption Center