Black Friday: How the Capitalist System Hijacks the Holidays

Mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie, and a nice, juicy turkey. Growing up, these words described the essence of Thanksgiving. They summoned an image of family and friends coming together to enjoy delicious food and — for once — actually count their blessings.

But now the only pumpkin pie and blessings I’m hearing about are on Snapchat filters and Instagram posts. When I talk to people about Thanksgiving, they get excited about one thing: Black Friday.

From my best friend who came home this break to the sandwich guy at Jersey Mike’s Subs, everyone has a wish list ready for Black Friday. And while I understand that this event — which ironically begins on Thursday evening now — offers exceptional deals that are difficult to pass up, I find it ridiculous that people now spend the holidays fishing for material goods, forgetting about all those blessings they had shared on social media.

I realize that I am not the first person to feel this way; the ironic contrast between Thanksgiving and Black Friday has been evident for years. And I’ll be honest, when I was younger, I used to love the idea of buying pretty clothes and jewelry at low prices during the holidays. Those little material goods that I could not get my hands on during the year, I could finally get on Black Friday. But I never understood the people who set up camp outside of malls in the cold and ran over strangers for the newest gaming console.

This year, I had no desire to go shopping. I couldn’t think of anything I needed, nor anything I wanted. In fact, the prospect of going out to shop seemed tiring and pointless.

I realized that this was because I was concerned about other things in my life: my grandpa was in the hospital, my friends wanted to see me, and my little brother needed help with his personal statements for college. And call me a nerd, but in the back of my mind I was worried about finals. I wanted nothing more than to see the people around me happy and to have the time to rest and reorganize myself for the ensuing weeks of studying.

The problem is that many people want more than this. Once family, school, and work are taken care of — or even when they’re not — people want the fleeting satisfaction of owning a brand new computer or set of leather boots. We have tricked ourselves into believing that after a year of hard work, we ought to “treat ourselves,” ought to take away some of the pain we have gone through with an immediately self-satisfying item from a department store.

Don’t get me wrong; some people really have been needing these things for a while, and could only afford the prices offered on Black Friday. Other people actually go out to buy gifts for their friends and family, the original intention of the pre-Christmas sale.

But the vast majority simply want stuff. Call me vague for using words like “stuff” or even “things,” but a shopping cart full of unrelated, unnecessary trinkets that happen to be on sale is simply a cart full of “stuff.”

I’d argue that this craving for material goods is an offshoot of our lovely economic system: capitalism. In my European history class, we discussed how capitalism arose in colonial America because of the Protestant work ethic. People believed that if they produced good work, they had proof on earth that they were destined to go to heaven in the afterlife. Only a good man could perform good work.

But as capitalism would have it, people not only work harder to earn more, but they earn more to get more. This creates a positive feedback loop: the more goods are available, the more you want them; the more you want them, the more they are made. A good person becomes someone who not only performs good work, but literally owns goods.

With this logic, Black Friday will only become a bigger phenomenon as the years go on, beginning even earlier than Thursday evening and offering more to-die-for deals.

And I fear that many people will not see a problem with this. They will forget about the turkey dinners for the night at the mall. They will make a list of gifts to get for themselves rather than for others. They will see Christmas as an opportunity to spend rather than to give. Even during the holidays, people will find themselves controlled by money, driven by the economy.

Then when the New Year comes around, they will resolve, for some reason, to be a better person than they were this year. And after two weeks, they will forget all about that.

Michelle Bui is a second year biological sciences major. She can be reached at mkbui@uci.edu.