Yesterday was the day we gave thanks, and today is the day many people repent of that momentary insanity by indulging in a carnival of want. It's fitting that one of the first known widespread uses of the phrase "Black Friday" was to signify a collapse of stock market prices. It was one of those inevitable episodes when a great many people found that the wealth they thought they had was really just an illusion. At least back then the phrase referred to overvaluation of assets that still possessed some underlying capacity to produce wealth; now it refers to buying clothes that will be out of fashion as soon as New York designers can make them so, and flat-screen televisions with picture-in-a-picture functionality so you can waste time on two shows at once.
"But the bargains!" comes the rejoinder. This is why so many people rise early from bed, fresh from having consumed more meat than most African villages saw all week, to flock to stores that employ phalanxes of psychologists who know how to evoke possessiveness in the limbic portions of our brains. The time of giving thanks is a good 12 hours behind us, after all, and waking from our turkey-induced stupor, we find ourselves smack-dab in the middle of what the National Retail Federation calls "the holiday sales season," when we spend over $1,400 per American, according to NRF data.
I'm all for happiness, and $1,400 worth of happiness sounds like an awful lot of happy, but I don't know if that's what we're getting for our money. It certainly doesn't feel like it. I know Christmas has mostly been hijacked, but I'm wondering if we might take some of it back, beginning with the notion that because wise men brought gifts to Jesus, I have to buy something for my uncle's second wife's son.
It used to be that Christians fasted in the weeks leading up to the day we celebrate Christ's birth, and many still do. Maybe there's something to that, if not just to remind us that God humbled Himself so that we might have undeserved life, then perhaps only to counteract the messages darting in at our brains from all angles, urging us to consume, consume, consume, for the love of our fellow man and for the sake of a permanently fragile economy.
We're certainly not immune to the siren call in my house. But we're working on listening to it less. We'll still spend too much money on too many people, but not as much as we used to. Most important change is incremental like that, and generational. Hopefully our children will feel even less beholden to the tradition of consumption that has attached itself to Christmas. Except when it comes to presents for their parents, of course. Because even restraint has its limits.