I’ve got the Black Friday blues

What is it we’re actually trying to buy during the holidays?

November 28, 2013 5:00AM ET
Shoppers getting an early start on Black Friday deals at a Walmart superstore on Thanksgiving last year in Rosemead, Calif.
Frederic J. Brown/AFP/Getty Images

I am usually only vaguely aware that Black Friday, the day that heralds the start of the holiday shopping season, is going on somewhere out in the world. It’s one of those annual nonevents that local news crews are obliged to cover, like empty shelves at the supermarket before the first snowstorm of the year. It has become a sort of depressing new American holiday, with people lining up the night before and waiting for hours in the November cold, malls opening their doors earlier and earlier, some as far back as Thanksgiving night. A website called BlackFridayDeathCount.com — it’s unclear whether this is adolescent ghoulishness or a grim electronic conscience — lists four fatalities and 67 injuries sustained during Black Friday sales from 2006 to 2012. Statistically, this is not a national epidemic; it’s about as many people as are killed or mangled every hour enjoying the freedom of the roadways or exercising their Second Amendment rights. It’s the triviality of these deaths that makes them so appalling.

I have always regarded people who enjoy shopping as a leisure activity the same way I do people who like going to nightclubs or shooting animals or being urinated on — incomprehensible and faintly disturbing in their bizarre enthusiasms but essentially harmless. I have my own weird vices, and life’s too short to spend it being snobby about the imbecilic things other people do for fun. It’s a laissez-faire attitude that collapses annually the first time I hear Christmas Muzak in a store, which this year was on Nov. 17. Christmas, like its parents, Christianity and capitalism, isn’t content to go its way and let you go yours; ultimately it wants to force everyone to join in the fun.

As a child, I loved Christmas, for the same reason I loved Halloween and my birthday: I got stuff. Kids are insanely, shamelessly greedy — they shriek and keen for checkout-aisle candy, resort to physical violence to defend their proprietary rights over 25-cent vending-machine prizes, sob with rage when they see other children getting presents and they’re not. It’s an attitude they have to be slowly and patiently socialized out of. (Not all of them grow out of it, of course. Those pathological cases whose antipathy to sharing and fairness is permanently arrested at the developmental age of 2 currently drive the economy and exert disproportionate influence over the running of this country.) But atavistic greediness rears up and repossesses a lot of adults for one month of the year, in a sterile, joyless saturnalia.

The Christmas season is by now one of those vast, inexorable institutional atrocities that almost everyone hates but to which we all helplessly acquiesce, like yearlong presidential campaigns or car commercials in movies we’ve already paid 14 bucks to see. At this point, the only people who look forward to it with anything other than dread are small children, retailers and the kinds of people who’d be wearing Minnie Mouse sweaters anyway. Since I’m a childless grown-up and an atheist, Christmas has pretty much nothing to offer me. In my early 20s I asked my family whether we could stop exchanging gifts, since I now had enough stuff and hated shopping. This plea resulted only in my not getting presents for anyone and everyone else getting presents for me and my feeling like a heel. So I’ve given in, and now go Christmas shopping once a year, usually around Dec. 23 and well anesthetized. A few years ago I had some kind of a breakdown in a large chain bookstore in a mall on Christmas Eve and had to be gently led out by my friend Alicia, a performance artist and fetish model. She tells me I was gibbering that this year I was getting nuts for everyone — macadamias for Mom, hazelnuts for my sister, cashews for her husband, party mix for the kids. I remember none of this clearly.

I don’t want to sound like some Scrooge here. I love gifts and surprises 11 months out of the year. I was elated when I happened across the sound track from “Phantom of the Paradise,” my friend Ellen’s favorite movie, on vinyl. I’ve spent a month tinkering with the playlists of some mix CDs for a friend. I crosshatched for weeks drawing the view from a friend’s kitchen window in rural France as a thank-you gift to her for letting me stay there this summer. I recently found an entire vulture skeleton intact on my beach, delicate elongated radii and all, and immediately saved it for my friend Roxanne, an artist who I knew would love it and use it in her work. To me, this dead vulture symbolizes the true spirit of Christmas.

Ritual gift giving would seem to be a fitting observance of the birth of Christ, who preached a bottomless generosity and heedless altruism and whose life was itself, according to Christian creed, a gift. (And there are, of course, people who celebrate the holiday not by buying crap but by donating to charities or volunteering at homeless shelters or soup kitchens.) But obligatory gift-giving is an oxymoron. Having to buy gifts under duress is like teaching children to say “please” and “thank you” by yelling at them. In any case, most Christmas shopping now involves people giving you a list of what they want and you dutifully buying those items and wrapping them up so that they can then unwrap them and pretend to be pleasantly surprised. It would be more efficient for everyone to just agree that we’re all going to buy X dollars’ worth of crap for ourselves once a year. Checking off names on a Christmas list is to true generosity what a job is to a passion, what prostitution is to love.

Compulsive acquisition, like overeating or addiction, is a symptom of a deep emptiness.

All advertisements, no matter how well crafted or clever or ingratiating, utilize essentially the same strategy: They make you feel anxious, guilty or bad about yourself unless you buy some junk you don’t need. Christmas is an ad beyond the most hubristic and cynical dreams of any depraved Madison Avenue genius, an annual event whereby everyone in the entire nation is doomed to feel ashamed unless they spend more than they can afford on things the recipients will probably return. I just learned that the average American family spends $500 annually on Christmas shopping. This seems like a lot to me. And this is all on stuff like Bert and Ernie pajamas in adult sizes, decorative gallon cans of sugar cookies, Minecraft and Pokemon, Xboxes and Snuggies. It’s effectively mandatory consumption. We are, after all, a nation of shoppers now. Since America stopped making anything and all the real jobs got outsourced, our new national industry, our only remaining use as a people, is buying crap.

Compulsive acquisition, like overeating or addiction, is a symptom of a deep emptiness. Buying crap is a kind of existential hedge. Our things have a permanence that we lack, and by surrounding ourselves with impressive and pricey stuff, we’re trying to wall ourselves off from time, like pharaohs entombed with all their gilded and lapis-inlaid knickknacks. It makes a morbid sort of sense that the holiday season that begins with Black Friday’s avaricious frenzy ends with New Year’s Eve, when we get wasted in the face of time’s passage. I think what we’re trying to buy with that 500 bucks a year is the past — memories, more memories like the ones we have (or think we have or think we’re supposed to have) of our childhoods. We’re trying to buy back that sense of crazed anticipation that’s long since turned to grown-up obligation and regret.

I still vividly remember getting the Christmas present, circa 1975, that I had hardly dared hope I might really get: Hugo, Man of a Thousand Faces, a sort of bald ventriloquist’s dummy who came with a lot of rubber prosthetics you applied with spirit gum — there’s even Super 8 home-movie footage of my astonished reaction and Hugo’s wig falling off. What I don’t remember is actually ever playing with Hugo a whole lot. Eventually we all learn that the brief buzz of Getting doesn’t have much to do with the boring experience of Having. Ultimately, buying stuff doesn’t help any more than drinking, and each comes with its own brand of hangover. A Christmas moment that’s seldom commemorated is the dazed letdown that sets in sometime late morning or early afternoon on Christmas Day. If Norman Rockwell were still alive, he could do a really depressing painting of this scene: the living room rug strewn with wrapping paper, plastic and Styrofoam packaging, unhappy Dad trying to figure out how to hook all this stuff up, the kids already bored with their new toys and stupefied in front of a screen, the grown-ups clearly worrying about the bills and yearning for something a lot stronger than eggnog. Everyone secretly wondering, “What the hell was all that for?”

A common news story from a couple of years ago was that the recession was adversely affecting the holiday retail season. The officially sanctioned newsperson face to accompany this story was Earnest Concern. I, a godless and unpatriotic person, secretly thought, Good! Maybe instead of buying crap, people will make things for each other or do nice things for each other or just spend time with one another or maybe just enjoy their Christmas vacation for once instead of spending it all in a mall parking lot. It was like the staycations of the same era, wherein, instead of fleeing to St. Kitts, people were forced to hang around in their own lives for a couple of weeks, find out what their hometowns had to offer and have fun with one another.

A friend of mine has lately been suffering bouts of terrible clarity while doing the dishes or changing her kid’s diaper, in which she suddenly understands that she is going to die. She has, in reaction, begun ruthlessly purging her house of clutter, especially useless memorabilia — the seating chart from her wedding, autumn leaves pressed by her husband’s aunt, 20-year-old old love letters from me. We cling to these things, she says, only out of some delusion that by holding on to them, we’re not losing our past. This is magical thinking, the grown-up version of elves and reindeer; the past is gone. We have only the present moment, for whatever we can make it worth. Our stuff is just junk. Purging is the opposite of shopping, which first feels compulsively fun but leaves you depressed and empty. Getting rid of stuff feels initially scary. You’re absurdly reluctant to part with things you’ve been keeping in a box in a closet for 10 years. But then, once they’re gone, you feel better, cleaner and free.

Jesus of Nazareth said, pretty unequivocally, that if you really wanted to be a good person, you should sell off all your things and give the money to welfare mothers and bums and that rich people are damned. He once physically assaulted some small businessmen he found taking canny advantage of the sacred. It’s hard to envision his reaction if he could see his own birth honored with a vast marketing scam. But Christmas is of course only the latest incarnation of an ancient holiday. Before it was ever co-opted by the current deities, Jesus and Mammon, the winter solstice was celebrated with festivals for as long as human beings have kept track of the skies and seasons. It’s the moment when things have gotten as dark as they’re going to get, when the long night starts to shorten and the shadows recede. At my own most optimistic, least Scrooge-like moments, I like to imagine that now is the Black Friday of our discontent, the height of our own lethal shopping spree, and that after the inevitable post-binge crash, an American Spring might not be far off.

Tim Kreider is an essayist and the author of the collection "We Learn Nothing" his work has appeared in the New York Times, Men's Journal, Nerve.com and the New Yorker's Page-Turner blog. His cartoon "The pain, when will it end" ran in the Baltimore City Paper for 12 years. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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