Growing up, my family did not go Christmas shopping on Black Friday—the practice commercialized a holiday reserved for family and Christ, my mom said.
As an adult who now goes Christmas shopping on Black Friday, I can see her point. The way retail stores herd flocks of shoppers around with advertisements for deals on phones, computers, and clothing does not reflect the spirit of the Nativity. And yet in America—a nation for which seventy percent of the population is Christian—Black Friday is one of the biggest shopping days of the year.
The continuing popularity of Black Friday reveals one of the awkward truths about the American attitude toward Christianity, and in particular, toward Christmas. For Americans, December 25th is neither entirely about faith nor is it entirely about money. Americans want to have it both ways—a brand of Christianity that encourages us to take up our cross and follow Christ, but looks the other way when we let a desire for material goods take hold of us.
The duality of American Christianity has existed in the United States since before the country’s founding. For instance, in the 1500s, the Spanish conquistadors came for two reasons: to convert the Indians and then to mine their lands for precious metals. Similarly, the Puritan colonies in New England first formed as religious communities, but gradually their cities—Boston, Providence, New Bedford—became trading hubs for the New World.
By the time the United States became an established nation, the coexistence of religion and commercialism had become ingrained in American culture. In his 1835 book on the American way of life, Democracy in America, the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville notes that in America, a man is entitled to be materialistic, so long as his religion restrains him from going beyond moderation in his materialism.
“The chief concern of religions is to purify, to regulate, and to restrain the excessive and exclusive taste for well-being which men feel at periods of equality; but religions would err in attempting to control it completely or to eradicate it,” he wrote. “Religions will not succeed in curing men of the love of riches; but they may still persuade men to enrich themselves by none but honest means.”
Black Friday is the perfect way for Americans to indulge in their riches by honest means. Camping patiently outside the doors of a Best Buy at 4:00 am, practicing the great social virtue of thrift by looking for a good deal on a hot new product—these are our ways of showing each other that while we may want a material object badly, we are still Christians, and thereby willing to play by some rules to get it. By holding out for deals in this absurd fashion, freezing our butts off in a parking lot, Americans are trying merge the Christian life of self-denial with the commercial life of greed.
I experienced the truth of Tocqueville’s observations firsthand when I polled a number of Black Friday shoppers at a Walmart in rural Virginia last year. I asked questions like, “Why did you come here?” and “What does Black Friday mean to you?” I had expected responses purely commercial in nature—“I came for the iPhone” or “Black Friday is the best day to save money for Christmas.” Instead, the people I polled told me they had come because shopping is a good family activity or that they believed in Black Friday because it is the first day in the season of giving.
Critics of Black Friday often view it as representative of the dark side of the American dream—a holiday devoted to consumerism and materialism that parodies the community that people experience the day before on Thanksgiving. But the fact that people go out to shop at an ungodly hour in the name of a community or family gives the holiday a certain amount of legitimacy as a mode (although a warped mode) of Christianity. Turning this day into a family event represents an attempt to baptize it and make it something permissible because it is not just about greed: Black Friday is about family and Christmas cheer.
Of course, religion and commerce cannot coexist forever. Even now, it’s hard to see Christmas as a religious holiday because of all of the fanfare that surrounds the cult of Santa Claus, the blockbuster movie openings on Christmas, and of course, Black Friday. Maybe as Americans continue to compromise Christianity with materialism, Black Friday will become the new reason for the season.
But until then, the holiday remains something uniquely American—an attempt to conform a nationwide obsession with materialism and all of the post-Thanksgiving shoppers’ angst with the idea that it is all in preparation for the coming of the King of Kings.