The secular shopping year takes a long time to die, but its death throes are now upon us. Yesterday was Black Friday, and not only across the U.S.—for while American Thanksgiving is hard to export, the morning-after kickoff of the Christmas shopping season has grown dark wings.
Truth to tell, I live a little aloof from what I call “the mall culture” (pronounced, “maw”) and it took me about four decades to learn what this term means. Black Friday to me had meant any number of unfortunate historical events, from Wall Street crashes, through obscure moments in Irish history, to the Suffragette riot of 1910. It was the sort of Friday you did not want to have.
This one apparently refers to traffic congestion in Philadelphia, circa 1966, as cars and pedestrians cluttered the streets for post-Thanksgiving sales. The term took another decade to spread into continental consciousness.
Anything that is given a name can be deemed to exist, and once it exists it can be deemed to grow. From what I can make out, through my electronic researches, Black Friday once barely made the top-10 list of retail blowouts. It began to rise, once nominalized, and reached the very top only a few years ago. Today, it is considered perfectly normal for great masses of shoppers to queue outside malls that will open for their Black Friday sales about four or five in the morning.
Formerly, in Canada as in the U.S., the Christmas shopping season was announced a little more discreetly with a Santa Claus parade. Stateside, Santa’s float came promiscuously at the end of the Thanksgiving procession. Because our northern Thanksgiving comes earlier, our parades came later. They were (and in some cases, remain) beautiful because they gave children something to see, that could enchant them. More generally, they answer to a deep craving for public theatre and spectacle, that has made, for example, Gay Pride Parades so popular, elsewhere on the calendar.
By comparison, the crush to get into shopping mall sales lacks something in the way of “community,” or even “dignity.” It is more of a Hobbesian spectacle, the “bellum omnium contra omnes” (war of all against all). Try as I might, I cannot find anything edifying in it.
Do not giggle at the Americans. As I was discussing this week, with European friends, there is no vulgarity of which Americans are capable that does not quickly spread around the world. Readers in doubt of this may call up the webcams for the Paris Metro, or any other place on the planet where large numbers pass in and out of view.
Or station yourself by a tour bus, emptying into a picturesque location. The fat, loud, and rather boorishly dressed biomass that will pass before your eyes may be German or Italian or Brazilian or Japanese. Odds on, they are not Yankees.
At the other end of this shopping season we have what we proudly claim to be a Canadian invention: the Boxing Day Sale. The “boxing” in this term, I must explain to foreigners, never referred to pugilism. Canadians are a peacekeeping people. It instead, we think, referred to giving gifts in boxes, which may once have been opened on the day after Christmas. The day thus named is the secular replacement for the Feast of Stephen which, in the calendar of the Western Church, was placed so poignantly: the very first Christian martyr recalled on the day after the birth of Our Saviour.
An expandable concept, Boxing Day or its equivalent may now refer to any day between Dec. 26th and about mid-January, and corresponds to further sales in the shopping malls.
Perhaps gentle reader does not need me to tell him that Christmas has been commercialized. It had to be sentimentalized, first, and that was the achievement of our Victorian ancestors. Nothing against sentiment, nothing against commerce: this is a business-friendly column. And only a peep when it begins to appear that this “culture” can suck everything into its “maw,” and that Santa claws have scraped an entire landscape into the bottomless gullet of consumerism.
I once wrote that, “I never thought the collapse of Western Civilization would turn out to be good for the economy.” But statistically, yes, the more we buy, even on consumer credit, the more our GDP grows. Statistics can even be skewed to suggest improvements in “the quality of life”—whereas, I would suggest, that in the mall culture, statistics are about the only indication.
Tomorrow is, incidentally, Advent Sunday. That would make it the beginning of a new liturgical year. So it has been for a long, long time, and so it will remain even when unnoticed. It is a day to make resolutions; to go to church instead of to the mall.