I was wrong about Black Thanksgiving: The Unbridled Spirit of Mammon

The Worship of Mammon

My father had a saying which he passed down to me, “I’m not always right, but I’m never wrong.”  A little more than a week ago, I wrote a post titled “Matt Walsh Deserves Black Thanksgiving” in which I took apart his arguments for ending early store openings on Thanksgiving day.  I did it without mercy and with the spite meter dialed up to eleven.  I’ve had a change of heart, and I am here to say I’m not right.  In fact, and not for the first time, I may actually be wrong.

My epiphany happened just last night, after my glorious Thanksgiving feast at my in-laws.

Long story short:  I went to Walmart, and there received my enlightening.

It was a baptism in the spirit of mammon, as fiery as the eighth circle of Hell where thieves, hypocrites, and panderers burn.

I wasn’t there to shop.  I was actually looking for a police officer to bless with a turkey sandwich, some fixings, and dessert goodies.  I couldn’t find a single police officer on the way home from the in-laws, so I went back out looking for one.  I drove around town for a while, spying no officers, although the streets were pretty busy for 7:30pm on Thanksgiving.  Two paramedics at a gas station (to whom I offered the food, but they’d eaten) told me all the police were at Walmart.  All the police.

And there they were.  I counted six patrol cars, parked in various angles all around the curb in front of Super Walmart.  Every single spot in the enormous parking lot was taken.

Every.  Single.  Spot.

It was total insanity.

I had never seen such unrestrained passion for shopping, and I’m not without experience.  I’ve been to IKEA on the first nice Saturday in spring, from which I had to flee due to crowd anxiety after attempting to go against the flow (if you’ve been to IKEA you know what I mean).  I’ve been to the Siam Paragon mall in Bangkok just before Christmas—in a 99% Buddhist country with more Christmas trees and decorations per square foot than the North Pole.  It’s a seven story Temple of Retail where they sell everything from frankincense to Ferraris, and it was very crowded.

Those places had nothing on Warner Robins, Georgia (and probably every city in America), on Thanksgiving day, at 7:30pm.  And it wasn’t just Walmart.  TJ Maxx, Best Buy, Bed Bath and Beyond, Kohls, Target, Toys “R” Us, Belks, and probably others I missed were open for madness, with boxes and clothes literally flying off the shelves and racks.

The experience stunned me.  Like an Amish man walking into a crack house, I was overwhelmed.

My only excuse is that I never went Black Friday shopping before.  Nope, not ever.  I grew up Jewish.  We didn’t care about Christmas shopping.  Hanukkah was not a big shopping deal.  A little “gelt” (money), some chocolate coins, and lighting candles, that’s it.  When I accepted Christ into my life, I didn’t suddenly become a WASP, with all the Gentile traditions, mistletoe, wreaths, and a tree.  I guess last night was God’s way of correcting me, kind of like Scrooge and the ghost of Christmas present, except for me it was the reality of Christmas presents gone wild.

There’s no way to describe the scene I saw last night, and I didn’t even go into the store, except to say it’s wickedness.  I know that’s a powerful word, but really, it’s wicked to spend hours that you could be happily doing other things with loved ones, lined up like cattle trying to get the last super-Black-Friday discount before someone else snaps it up.

Wickedness:  evil, sin, iniquity baseness, badness, degeneracy, depravity, vice; the quality of being evil or morally wrong.  What amounts to my city’s entire on-duty police department simply keeping order at Walmart because of Black Thanksgiving sales is bad.  I don’t care if the officers are getting overtime, paid by Walmart.  They are not available to work another shift, or they are working a double-shift—either way they’re not their freshest.  The shoppers who are up half the night spend half the weekend sleeping it off, then rush to get their Christmas decorations up before they’re the last undecorated house on their street.

When I wrote the argument against Matt Walsh’s position, I was talking about shopping.  You know, the normal experience of going into the store, finding the things you want, and buying them.   I realized that hysteria happens at some of these Black Friday shopping events, and even referenced the Walmart incident where a worker was crushed to death by crowds trying to get in.  I figured that by opening earlier, the stores would stop that 4am Friday mad rush, and people would take their time and shop normally.

But this is not shopping.  This is nothing short of the unbridled spirit of mammon.

It’s one thing to want a discount, and go out of your way to shop carefully.  It’s one thing to have retailers program their sales to entice you to come and shop at a particular time.  This isn’t either of those things.  This is beyond mere tradition of having the day after Thanksgiving off and getting some Christmas shopping done.  This is not even strictly consumerism, the urge to buy more and more stuff.  People don’t buy much more for Christmas now than they did in other years.  In fact, spending is down from its peaks in 1999 and 2007, and has finally recovered from last year’s drop.

What I saw is not consumerism driven by greedy retailers.  Consumerism means “the theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable, also; a preoccupation with and an inclination toward the buying of consumer goods.”  Neither definition really fits Black Thanksgiving; one is disproved, and the other is insufficient.  Many of the retailers open ten years ago are bankrupt today (remember Circuit City?).  Retailers who stay closed on Thanksgiving are doing a great service to their employees now, but are risking massive profits, even their survival, long term.  In short, there’s tremendous pressure on retailers to keep up with the trend, and open earlier and earlier.  Shoppers don’t seem to mind going out on Thanksgiving Day to shop.

Despite protests from religious and family-oriented special interest groups, the U.S. retail industry 2013 Thanksgiving Day sales results revealed that shoppers weren’t as concerned about messing up their Thanksgiving Day traditions as they were about missing a deeply discounted Thanksgiving Day deal.  It was estimated that more than 1.07 billion visits were made to brick-and-mortar retail stores on Thanksgiving Day, November 28, 2013, and that consumer purchases on Thanksgiving Day 2013 increased 23.7%, year-over-year.

Looking solely at the numbers, and jobs, and the economy, and freedom of choice, there’s no reason to oppose Black Thanksgiving sales, and that was my position before seeing the reality of wickedness and insanity.  The reality showed me that the problem has very little to do with numbers.  In fact, I believe stores could raise their prices 30% a week before Thanksgiving, and then sell half the items at 50% off and the rest at 20% off, and still sell everything on the shelves.  Some of them probably do this.  The problem defies rational thought, because it’s a of a spiritual nature.

The frenzy of shopping I saw was akin to what happened on November 11, 1987 when the rock band U2 announced a spontaneous free concert at Justin Herman Plaza in San Francisco.  Twenty thousand people gathered in just minutes to hear them perform.  Those fans were calm and patient compared to Black Thanksgiving shoppers.

I am absolutely convinced that people would gather in frenzy no matter when the stores opened, because the frenzy is what they crave.  It’s the one time of year when normally sane people who mostly spend their time and money wisely can abandon themselves to an orgy of mammon worship.  The only thing preventing the frenzy from happening before Thanksgiving Day is the fact that most people have to work (that plus having to cook for the Thanksgiving meal).  If companies started giving employees the Wednesday before Thanksgiving  off, then Black Wednesday would start a three-day bender of binge shopping.  Five days if you count the weekend, and of course you have to count the weekend.

Listen, people.  It’s not acceptable to binge shop.  It’s not right to submit yourself to an orgy of mammon worship.  It’s wickedness.  Sure, I know I’m sounding like Billy Sunday preaching against the evils of alcohol, but that doesn’t make binge drinking good, and it doesn’t make me wrong about this.

I can’t conceive of this being fun. Finding one parking spot in a sea of cars, walking to the overcrowded Walmart, entering an infestation of frenzied shoppers all looking for one incredible bargain, fighting over the last 60” flat screen TV, filling your cart with other stuff that you could simply order online, while you tweet about it, then heading for the line at the checkout which would put the TSA at Atlanta airport to shame; this is not “fun”.  It’s group hysteria and spiritual darkness.

Retailers have turned the atmosphere into a circus, and we are the clowns.  I don’t blame the retailers, because they are just responding to our urges, our abandon of good and wise choices, in favor of this spirit of mammon.

I was wrong about Black Thanksgiving.  All my arguments were correct, but I was so wrong because I totally missed the picture.  If you’re caught up in the frenzy, think about it.  Is it really necessary?  Is it really good?  Do you need this?  In a twelve-step program, like AA, the first step is admitting you have a problem.  America has a problem with Black Friday, and Black Thanksgiving, and frenzied binge shopping at Christmastime.

It’s time we face up to it.  I hate admitting I’m wrong, but this time, it really feels right.