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Tuesday, November 22, 2011

An alternative to Black Friday

Crowds on Black Friday
(photo: Wikipedia)
In my last article, I posted a letter my wife and I sent to our family and friends, telling them we'd like to stop giving and receiving store-bought merchandise as gifts, with exceptions for children and those in real need (see the letter that explains more). We asked only for their company, but recognized that giving is a valuable thing to celebrate and express too. So, we offered an alternative for those who wish to give, that gifts be something of their own creation. For those without the time or desire to make something, but wanted to give anyway, we suggested giving to a charity on our behalf.

We've gotten mostly positive feedback from friends and family, with the exception of one passive-aggressive, but still charitable, response. But our effort to simplify the holidays and return to core values brings up the question: What then of Black Friday?

Corporations have been known to create or modify holidays in the past to serve their interests. Some believe the reason fish was allowed as an exception to the no-meat rule on Fridays in Catholicism was because of the economic needs of the fish markets, and later, the reason for reducing the no-meat restriction from all Fridays to only those during Lent may have been to help an ailing meat market. Valentines Day, although associated with romantic love for ages, and sometimes accompanied by the giving of handwritten letters, has since been replaced by a day in which we are expected to buy mass-produced pre-written letters (cards), along with over-priced candies, props, and anything else comprised of cheep components which sell at much larger margins than their cost to produce.

The relatively modest and personal giving that used to go on for Christmas, has since been replaced with Consumas, whereby we buy as much as we can manage. You can still often see statuettes and paintings of the green and brown-clad "Father Christmas" in the stores; a little closer to St. Nicholas from which the figure hails. The modern image of Santa Claus began to form in the late 1800's, and by the early 20th Century companies began featuring the familiar red and white clad Santa in their advertisements - and image popularized even more by the Coca-Cola company marketing in the 1930's. Many are already forgetting that the retail chain Montgomery Ward created Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer in 1939. Black Friday is the day after Thanksgiving, when droves are expected to make the pilgrimage to retail shops and buy hordes of merchandise. It's name refers to the day in which retailers are "in the black", meaning a positive revenue balance. None of this is happening by accident. These are deliberate campaigns designed to shape the culture, the norms, and the traditions in directions conducive to profitability.

Now, corporations are not inherently evil or bad. They make possible countless goods and services that have helped to improve our quality of life since the industrial revolution. The ability of any person to harness their own productivity and capital in a free market is absolutely essential to personal liberty. As someone who is part owner in a business of my own, and someone with a background in marketing, I can't hold it against companies that they try to put out messaging that helps them make profit. That is what they are supposed to do. But what we are supposed to do is: be aware of what is happening, informed about where these messages are coming from, make sure that what we are doing is really what is in our best interests, not accept the social norms without question, and not being afraid to do what we know is right despite the pressures from those around us to 'go along'. There's nothing wrong with enjoying a magic show, but one of the magicians (me) is sitting next to you in the audience, reminding you that what these companies are telling you is 'just make believe'. We have our own agendas, which is to pursue the flourishing good life - something not dependent on material goods. We too want to be "in the black" but our positive balance refers to quality of life.

So, back to Black Friday...

For those taking a similar course to us this holiday season, it looks like we won't be doing a great deal of shopping compared to many others. This frees up our Friday after Thanksgiving. Here are some ideas for what we can do with that time:

1) One of the big challenges in trying to make our gifts be things of our own making, is having the time to actually do this. When you look at your pocketbook, and look at your calendar, it quickly becomes apparent that - even for those not super wealthy - our time is often a more scarce resource than our funds. This is what encourages us to just go buy something instead. But perhaps we can use Black Friday to instead stay home and make things for others? This can be as simple as custom hand-written letters, or it can be something like scrap-booking, artwork, crafts, etc. If we have a knack for cooking, it can be some kind of special dish or baked good.

2) If you lack the materials you need on that day, then you can use the time to plan what you're doing and for whom. Don't get discouraged - start with a list of people you'd like to do something for. Then for each one, think about what would be especially relevant and meaningful to them. Maybe they're facing a specific need and doing something for them or helping them with something can be a gift? Maybe you haven't given them as much of your time as you or they would like and you can organize an outing or other occasion with them. Once you figure out what you're doing, you can schedule your time in future weeks to gather supplies, work on things, and/or visit as needed.

3) If you'd like to give to a charity in their honor, you could spend time on Black Friday researching charities and picking something that would be meaningful and relevant to their interests and concerns. Even cash donations can be made far more meaningful in this way.

These are just a few examples, but the main point is that when we decide to make the season about something other than consumerism, this can give a whole new purpose to Black Friday.

How will you spend your Black Friday?

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