Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Black Friday and Transcendentalism

Two items arrived in my email inbox before dawn on Thanksgiving morning. One email was from A Network for Grateful Living, which sends me daily words of inspiration. It said this: “Within us is the soul of the whole, the wise silence, the universal beauty, the eternal One,” a quotation from Transcendentalist (and fellow Unitarian) Ralph Waldo Emerson. The other was from Walmart and said this: “Shop Thanksgiving Day Online Specials Today & Plan Your Friday Store Visit‏ (Our biggest event of the year starts at midnight).”

I went from one to the other, a little bit bewildered by both, trying to decode the message the universe was sending me by stacking these two emails one on top of the other.

“Within us is the soul of the whole.” In just those few words are all the reminder anyone could need that flat-screen TVs and diamond bracelets really do not need to factor into our observances of the season of Nativity. I so resist the concept of Black Friday, shopping at 4 a.m. the day after Thanksgiving (or, as seemed to be the case this year, at midnight just as Thanksgiving was ending), and in some ways the whole notion of holiday shopping. It’s not a tradition I was brought up with: we did celebrate both Christmas and Chanukah, and we did receive wonderful gifts, but no one ever focused on the shopping aspect of it. Knowing my relatives, most of it was probably done by catalog even decades before the days of online shopping.

At the same time, categorically knocking the whole tradition of holiday shopping is a little too facile, I’m come to realize. My 8-year-old daughter looks forward all year not just to receiving gifts but to planning the gifts she’ll give. She spends the last week of November huddled over her desk listing ideas for what she can make for each family member. “Mommy, do you think Grandma and Grandpa would rather have cookies I’ve baked or a poem I’ve written?” she asks me, her brow wrinkled intently. “What’s Daddy’s favorite color?” she asks, wielding a fistful of markers. And while this isn’t shopping per se, it’s not entirely removed either: we don’t harvest our own cookie ingredients or make our own crayons and paper, after all.

Moreover, dismissing the big-box stores and their fliers as the ugliest sort of consumerism is a shade too myopic for me. In years past, I rigorously promoted the idea of Buy-Nothing Day, the anti-materialism movement urging everyone to avoid all stores and commerce on the day after Thanksgiving. And I still do observe that tradition myself, partly out of idealism and partly out of the wish to avoid crowds, but it’s not quite so easy anymore for me to condemn those who do shop. Many people’s jobs depend on shoppers. Not just the cashiers and shelving staff in the stores but the workers at the manufacturing plants who provide the goods, the custodians who clean the store at night after closing, the security staff who patrol the parking lot all depend on shoppers appearing on their doorstep. If I met a single one of those people individually, I surely wouldn’t wish unemployment on them. Yet their income depends on people who, unlike me, support the idea of rushing to the superstores to hit the post-Thanksgiving and December sales.

Like almost everything, it’s not a black-and-white issue. As Emerson said, “Within us is the soul of the whole, the wise silence, the universal beauty, the eternal One.” There is not a single thing more we need to acquire: not electronics, not toys, not even books containing the ideas of Emerson, to follow this logic to its end. And yet the superstores have their role to play as well. I wouldn’t want to go shopping, but those who do serve a function in keeping others afloat. I’ll postpone any holiday shopping until as close to Christmas as possible, and I’ll make whatever gifts I can from home, but I’ll also remind myself that there are so seldom easy answers. Holiday shopping, in that respect, is no different from any other aspect of my life.

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