Final Word

Black Friday, the commercialisation of religious tradition


The annual peak of the American consumer-driven economy, known as Black Friday and already a worldwide phenomenon, also hit South Africa with force this year.

For South Africa it really started last year via the global internet-based phenomenon,   e-commerce, when companies like Amazon and Apple piggybacked on American retailers’ tradition to kick off the Christmas shopping spree on the Friday after the religious public holiday, Thanksgiving.

At Johannesburg’s Southgate Mall shoppers at Checkers pushed and shoved as they jostled for nappies, milk, soft drinks, biscuits and soap going at 50% discount. Some had even been queuing from the early hours of the morning.

Origin and name

Not many of those frantic Joburg shoppers might have known where this tradition came from or got its name. In fact, not even American sources are absolutely sure, except that it is coupled to Thanksgiving, the last annual religious holiday before Christmas in the US.

The date of Thanksgiving moved around quite a bit since 1730 and it was only in 1941 that the US Congress finally declared November’s fourth Thursday to be Thanksgiving Day.

The tradition of ‘thanksgiving’, however, goes back much further. It was first recorded in 1621 at the Plymouth Plantation, New England, by the Pilgrims or first European settlers in America. The settlers held a three-day harvest feast after a successful growing season.

Early feasts continued sporadically at various times of the year, first as an impromptu religious observance thanking God for blessings, and later as a civil tradition, at times including thanks for military victory or the end of a drought.

It became a national fixture in 1789 when President George Washington proclaimed November 26 of that year as a national Thanksgiving Day and almost a century later President Abraham Lincoln declared a national holiday, giving thanks for all the blessings bestowed on the US.

It became a national fixture in 1789 when President George Washington proclaimed November 26 of that year as a national Thanksgiving Day. It is said that the writer Sarah Josepha Hale, best known as the creator of the rhyme Mary Had a Little Lamb, drove the years-long campaign that persuaded President Abraham Lincoln to declare it a national holiday almost a century later, giving thanks for all the blessings bestowed on the US.

Enter consumerism

Thanksgiving was a holiday marked by feasting and celebration and had little to do with commerce. But everything started changing in the 1920s when consumerism emerged as the central driver of the American economy. With it came instalment buying, mass media, advertising and the ‘ideology’ of “the business of Americans is business”.

In 1924 the employees of one of the biggest department stores – Macy’s in New York – held the first Christmas parade on Thanksgiving Day, highlighted by Santa Claus making his appearance to mark the start of the “holiday shopping season”. The parade tradition spread to most big cities in the US.

Then came the Great Depression of the 1930s that sent the consumer economy plummeting. But the Thanksgiving parades continued as retailers attempted to bolster the weak turnovers of the rest of the year.

Black Friday

In 1939 a sharp recession cast a shadow over economic recovery after the Great Depression. Thanksgiving would have been on 30 November, shortening the shopping season by four days.

The National Retail Dry Goods Association successfully lobbied President Franklin D. Roosevelt to move Thanksgiving up a week to provide extra shopping days.

In 1941 the US Congress indeed moved Thanksgiving Day from the last Thursday of November to the fourth one – as it remains to this day. The tradition of Black Friday the day after Thanksgiving also lived on.

But why Black Friday?

On the back of the Roosevelt proclamation a legend developed: that it is the day on which merchants endeavour to put their turnover in the ‘black’ (positive) after running in the ‘red’ (negative) most of the rest for the year.

There are also those claiming it is called Black Friday because, in the 1800s, Southern plantation owners could buy slaves at a discount on that day.

Another explanation has it that in the 1950s, police in Philadelphia used the term to describe the chaos of hordes of shoppers and tourists flooding into the city, the Saturday being the day of a big army-navy football game.

Police officers were not able to take the day off, had to work extra-long shifts dealing with the crowds and traffic, and with shoplifters taking advantage of the chaos in shops.

Final word

No one is absolutely sure why it became known as Black Friday. What we do know is that the term was first recorded in 1869 in connection with a financial crisis caused by two notoriously ruthless Wall Street financiers, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, who worked together to buy up as much as they could of the nation’s gold, hoping to drive the price sky-high and sell it for astonishing profits. But their plan backfired and caused a spectacular collapse in the price of gold.

And after a religious tradition praising God for blessings was commercialised in the 1920, the crisis of first a depression and then a recession in 1939 gave Black Friday new prominence.

Has anyone noticed that Black Friday has also taken hold of South Africa at a time that its economy is facing a major crisis?

by Piet Coetzer

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