Another Black Friday has come and, depending on where in the world you are, gone again. Did you enjoy it? Did you buy anything?
I must admit that every time I hear the day mentioned, it takes me a moment to remember what it is. In my life it’s quite a new phenomenon. Of course in the United States, it’s long been considered the unofficial beginning of the Christmas shopping period (though why it needs to be such a long period I don’t know: I usually manage to get everything after 20th December!) In Ireland it used to be 8th December, when it was said that all the country folk would come to the nearest large town or city to start their shopping. But now, as with so many things associated with Christmas, the shopping starts earlier, and there are more and more ads for Black-Friday deals. Which seems a little strange. I understand why it exists in America: many people have the day off, they’re starting to think about Christmas, and perhaps need to get away from their family after a day of cabin fever. But in Europe it’s a normal working day, so I don’t know how many people are shopping.
The first case of the day after Thanksgiving being referred to as Black Friday seems to have occurred in 1951 in the pages of the journal Factory Management and Maintenance, to refer to the number of people calling in sick to work. But this is not the only Black Friday, which isn’t really surprising when one thinks about our tendency to mark momentous yet tragic days with a the colour black. Perhaps most famously there was Black Tuesday, the day of the Wall Street Crash in 1929. The term Black Friday has long been used by emergency services and the National Health Service in the UK to refer to the last Friday before Christmas, when the increase of drunken revellers makes them quite busy. It’s also, contrary to a seemingly increasingly popular misconception, nothing to with slavery. Here are some more historical Black Fridays:
8th June, 1688: the imprisonment of the Seven Bishops of the Church of England on the eve of the Glorious Revolution
11th November 1887: four Chicago anarchists hanged without evidence for the murder of seven police officers during a labour meeting
13th May 1960: Protest in San Francisco against the House Un-American Activities Committee
13th November 2015: Paris terror attacks
24th June 2016: Brexit
And there’s the day when people camp out all night so they can rush into a shop and shove people out of the way to buy a big TV. Although that’s a little unfair, because while we all see such videos doing the rounds at this time of the year, I think most people are reasonably civilised in how they go about their shopping.
The strangest thing about the term is how such a pejorative name for the day became embraced by the big retailers. Unsurprisingly, in the 1980s, major chains were unhappy at the way the term was catching on, and felt it was unfair that they were being lumped with such a negative association. So some bright spark hit upon the idea of rebranding it as the day when many stores shift from operating at a loss (written in red in financial records) to making a profit (written in black, hence the phrases in the red and in the black). And it worked. Black Friday sounds like something you really wouldn’t want to get caught up in (and I didn’t!), but the allure of cheap stuff is never to be underestimated.
But there’s something a little sad about major corporations making an idea, and a term, popular because they want it to be so. It’s a situation in which regular people could stand up and say No, we don’t want to get involved and spend our hard-earned money! Ultimately, it’s us who decide if something will be popular or not. But then these companies can afford to generate a lot of advertising, and offer incredibly large discounts, so as always, they win. And I think the fact that Black Friday is becoming increasingly popular in Europe, where to tend to have more kneejerk cycnism towards any overt influence by major companies, shows that.
What’s more annoying though, is the way they reclaimed a pejorative term. It’s something minority, discriminated-against groups such as the gay and African-American communities have managed to do successfully to rob prejudicial words of their power. But it sticks in the craw a little to see the rich and powerful doing the same, but only to make money. It’s like they’re cheapening and commodifying one of the more revolutionary acts of language. So for that reason alone, I urge you to start your Christmas shopping whenever you damn well please, think about what you really need to buy, and enjoy a relaxing weekend without spending too much.