With Thanksgiving less than a day away, and the long weekend to follow, I thought I’d offer a brief appreciation of my favorite American holiday. No, not Thanksgiving, which is perfectly enjoyable but merely serves as a calorie-packing warm-up for the main event: Black Friday.
Sure, it’s not officially a holiday, like Thanksgiving or Christmas, but it might as well be. In many ways, we already treat it like one. Schools and the federal government are closed. Tens of millions of Americans have the day off. And millions of those Americans participate in an exuberant, ritualized annual event: a multiday holiday shopping marathon marked by some of the year’s most aggressive retail sales.
The reason I love Black Friday so much is that it’s an unapologetic celebration of capitalism and commerce — not as sideshow, but for its own sake. There's something wonderful about the outburst of trade, and the enthusiasm to which both retailers and purchasers bring to the event. It’s a day to spend buying and selling, picking and choosing, finding out what you want and trading to acquire it, figuring out what others want and how to sell it to them. It’s a day that highlights the energetic joys of the mass marketplace, and reminds us of both its thrills and virtues. It invites everyone who's interested to experience the vast universe of amusing, interesting, and even life-improving goods and products available for purchase, and to participate in the complex web of barter, decision, sale, and production that is the market economy.
Part of what's great about Black Friday is that everyone enjoys it in their own way: Some arrive early to grab a deal they know they want. Others sleep in late and then window-shop for what looks interesting. Some people power through the entire weekend like its an athletic event. Others are drive-by deal-finders, arriving to pick a single item off the shelf. There are casual shoppers and hardcore retail warriors. Everyone customizes their own experience, and their own level of participation.
A critic might argue that unlike other holidays, Black Friday is essentially selfish, about acquisition and objects rather than people and relationships. But that misses the point. Sure, there are plenty of personal purchases on Black Friday. But with Christmas around the corner, it’s also true that many of the purchases are intended as gifts. Which just serves as a reminder of the way that markets help us show our fondness for others — and hopefully make their lives better in the process. Want to show your love for someone else? Markets can help you do that.
And even purchases made purely for personal enjoyment contribute to the lives of others. Black Friday got its name because the sales volume that many retailers finally went “into the black” for the year — making a profit that allowed them to keep operating, to stay open to sell again and to pay the salaries of their employees, the invoices of their business partners. Even the most selfish buyer does not make his purchase in a vacuum: There’s always a seller who benefits, as well as a network of producers who benefit whenever the seller does. Your purchase benefits you, yes, but it also benefits others; it's a way of negotiating what you want and what they want that can allow everyone to end up better off. Black Friday is a day-long public celebration of free exchange and gains from trade.
Mass participation and anticipation only serve to amplify Black Friday’s raucous festival spirit. In a way it resembles a major sporting event, with masses gathered around the country to individually partake in a group experience. Except on Black Friday, the masses aren’t just watching. They’re participating.
These days, those who don’t always love the crowds can join in the fun too: Online shopping, complete with blowout sales, makes it possible to participate from home. That’s the thing about free and functioning markets. They do their meet you where you are, to give you what you want, in the way that you want it. Black Friday is a celebration of much of what makes markets great — and spirited annual reminder of how much better we all are because of them.