I remember sitting at the table with my parents, my father's parents and his brother, my mother's sister, and a couple of other people whose exact connection to our family I was too young to glean. The only image of Thanksgiving I had at the time, it quickly became the ideal for the holiday, which all others would be compared. Whatever conversations happened around the table were beyond my grasp, and I wasn't adventurous enough to try every food in front of me, but the warmth of family stuck with me.
Then people moved, others passed away, and about a decade later, we had the last Thanksgiving gathering at my grandparents' house, with just my parents and grandmother. A day of togetherness lost its power.
But our final cross-generational Thanksgiving in 2006 also marked the first time my parents and I participated in Black Friday. We woke up early to go to the now-defunct Circuit City, to try and get a bit of Christmas shopping done early, to take part in the post-Thanksgiving spike in retail sales. We found ourselves in a line of hundreds in the cold morning, eagerly anticipating the moment the doors would open.
We—well, my mother—bought what we needed, but the experience wasn't merely practical. I had gotten a first taste of that rush, and I was ready to do it all over again when the opportunity came around.
The following year my grandmother was too sick to prepare a Thanksgiving meal, and so the day just became an over-elaborate afternoon lunch. As a three-person unit that rarely ate any meals together and was prone to awkward silences when put at table together, my family found it hard to be amped up about the holiday, even as we continued, and still continue, to go through the motion. The stilted conversations, the amount of work it took to prepare the food versus the amount of people that were going to eat it; the thought at the back of my mother's mind and front of her mouth that she was putting in so much effort into a singular meal on what was her time off from work—all contributed to a weariness around this particular fall Thursday.
So instead, what my mother and I increasingly took joy in was the madness surrounding Black Friday. More and more of Thursday was ritually carved off to make sure we would be ready for the next day's shopping. Rather than the forced togetherness of Thanksgiving, we found ourselves joining together to calculate what time stores would open in the early morning, or whether X percentage off one item was better or worse than a gift card worth Y.
We'd wake up Friday morning with a slate of stores we planned to go to. We would try to hit up multiple stores if the prospect of all three of us gaining another set of gift cards was at play. This became our way to come together as a family, not under our own roof, but under the warm glow of department store lights.
Over the last couple of years, though, we saw the magic of our particular holiday begin to fade. Stores opened earlier and earlier in an effort to compete with each other. Once we saw that a store was willing to open at midnight, it became hard to figure out our schedule. We still committed to going out to a couple of stores that were opening at ridiculous hours. Then we went back home and napped, getting out again to stake out a couple of other stores in the morning.
Our enjoyment of Black Friday as a family pastime ended on that day. It was still thrilling, and there was something fun about hanging out with other people on the same bizarre "deals over sleep" wavelength, but it was too much. We had lost the spirit of Black Friday.
This year, the war on Black Friday has reached new heights. Store after store is seeking to ignore the midnight boundary and open for business on Thanksgiving Day. Other stores are refusing, dividing the retail community. What was a busy weekend is just becoming a busy week.
Were all those cumulative hours spent outside department stores really worth it? Probably not. But after the first couple of years, we weren't doing it for the deals. Black Friday was our way to come together as a family. Lately, I've taken a more active role in assisting with the preparation of Thanksgiving food and the conversation with my mother quickly turns to the following day: Is there anything we need to get? What places do we want to go to? And most importantly: What time are stores opening this year?
David Turner is a writer who has previously written for The Fader, Pitchfork, and Spin. He tepidly embraces consumer culture everyday and can be reached on Twitter @_davidturner_
[Image by Jim Cooke, source images via Norman Rockwell and Getty]