Perhaps it is a bit premature, but ABC News this morning was predicting that Black Friday as we now know it may be coming to an end. I, for one, have never cared much for shopping on Black Friday (I was one of the founders of CyberMonday, I’m sure!), and the spectacle of screaming people wrestling one another for a 48″ TV at 5:30 in the morning seems to me show what hell is like.
The idea of Black Friday actually goes back several decades, to the depths of the Great Depression. President Franklin Roosevelt, in an attempt to build national unity and at the same time rebuild the economy, persuaded Congress to set an official date – the fourth Thursday in November – as Thanksgiving Day. Before that, state governments were responsible for establishing a “Thanksgiving Day”, with mixed results. But FDR and his economic advisers believed that setting Thanksgiving at the end of November would help merchants by sending the message to consumers that they better start their Christmas shopping. Since many merchants, particularly during the Depression, barely saw a profit, they counted on the Christmas buying season to make money – so the retailers could be in the black, not drowning in a sea of red ink.
Of course, now preparation for Christmas does not wait until the day after Thanksgiving – go into CVS in late September, and you can see the Christmas merchandise coming out. But, ironically, for many retailers, the month after Thanksgiving is still critical to their bottom line.
Black Friday also signals the start of other holiday events, such as tree lightings (here in Syracuse, since 1914, the downtown Christmas Tree on Clinton Square is lit on Black Friday) and parades. The Macy’s “Thanksgiving Day” parade is the most televised parade, and concludes with the arrival of Santa in his sleigh, but Macy’s was not the first to launch the holiday season with a parade. Philadelphia claims to have held the first parade, over a hundred years ago, but Peoria, Illinois disputes that claim, having held its first parade in 1896; Santa arrived to that parade not in his sleigh, but on a special car on the Rock Island Railroad.
(Santa does like to keep up to date with transportation: in 1933, Santa arrived on an American Airlines plane in Syracuse, then drove through the city to the downtown Sears store in a shiny red convertible. But he has also shown up in fire trucks, tow trucks, and on hay wagons).
Other cities, such as Memphis and Cleveland, also held holiday parades, sponsored by one or several of the local department stores (remember the Christmas parade scene in “A Christmas Story?”) Iszard’s Department Store in downtown Elmira, New York, sponsored a Christmas parade on the the day after Thanksgiving as well. The picture below shows the fire department and other volunteers decorating for the parade.
Sadly, as the downtowns of cities have declined, and retailers have closed up to move to the suburbs, holiday parades have also decreased in number. Iszard’s closed its downtown Elmira store in the late 1990s, and Iszard’s became the Bon-Ton. Perhaps it will take more time to establish new “traditions”, but I certainly do not count the consumer chaos of Black Friday as one of those!