Thanksgiving – a History Lesson

Though it’s not a world holiday, here, in America, Thanksgiving is a federal holiday and is considered to be one of the major holidays in the calendar year. There are different ideas of how and why this federal holiday exists. The most common belief is that Thanksgiving originated with the Pilgrims. Most Americans have this idea that when the Pilgrims landed in America and settled themselves they wanted to give thanks and appreciation for making it through the long journey. Also, they ended up sharing their feast with the Native Americans. Or did they?

The fact is that the first Thanksgiving was shared between the Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians in 1621. The celebration was more of a harvest festival with sports, games, food, dancing, singing, and revelry. When it comes to the food they ate the menu wasnt much like todays. Instead, it consisted of venison, fowl, and other foods prepared by the pilgrims.

Interestingly enough the first Thanksgiving as we know it did not create a yearly tradition among the pilgrims. Partly because the following year was a poor one and because many new settlers had arrived, Thanksgiving became a celebration that was only observed occasionally over the following centuries. However, thanks to the Revolutionary War all of America celebrated Thanksgiving together in 1777. But, that still didnt get the tradition going like it is today. It wasnt until 1863 when Abraham Lincoln declared the last Thursday in November Thanksgiving that the tradition really became part of Americas culture. The only other change was when Franklin Roosevelt changed the date to the fourth Thursday in 1939.

As it evolved, it became a day when we gathered to celebrate family with a feast. Over the years, it then became all about “family, food and football”. And for the football widows and avid shoppers now enjoy a “Black Friday” on the day after. Errr, well, once upon a time it was the day after. Now, greedy corporations have pushed their greed onto the public so hard that many stores open around 6 PM on Thanksgiving Day. But, what is the first meaning behind “Black Friday”?

The first recorded use of the term “Black Friday” was applied not to holiday shopping but to financial crisis: specifically, the crash of the U.S. gold market on September 24, 1869. Two notoriously ruthless Wall Street financiers, Jay Gould and Jim Fisk, worked together to buy up as much as they could of the nation’s gold, hoping to drive the price sky-high and sell it for astonishing profits. On that Friday in September, the conspiracy finally unraveled, sending the stock market into free-fall and bankrupting everyone from Wall Street barons to farmers.

The most commonly repeated story behind the post-Thanksgiving shopping-related Black Friday tradition links it to retailers. As the story goes, after an entire year of operating at a loss (“in the red”) stores would supposedly earn a profit (“went into the black”) on the day after Thanksgiving, because holiday shoppers blew so much money on discounted merchandise. Though it’s true that retail companies used to record losses in red and profits in black when doing their accounting, this version of Black Friday’s origin is the officially sanctioned—but inaccurate—story behind the tradition.

The true story behind Black Friday, however, is not as sunny as retailers might have you believe. Back in the 1950s, police in the city of Philadelphia used the term to describe the chaos that ensued on the day after Thanksgiving, when hordes of suburban shoppers and tourists flooded into the city in advance of the big Army-Navy football game held on that Saturday every year. Not only would Philly cops not be able to take the day off, but they would have to work extra-long shifts dealing with the additional crowds and traffic. Shoplifters would also take advantage of the bedlam in stores to make off with merchandise, adding to the law enforcement headache.

By 1961, “Black Friday” had caught on in Philadelphia, to the extent that the city’s merchants and boosters tried unsuccessfully to change it to “Big Friday” in order to remove the negative connotations. The term didn’t spread to the rest of the country until much later, however, and as recently as 1985 it wasn’t in common use nationwide. Sometime in the late 1980s, however, retailers found a way to reinvent Black Friday and turn it into something that reflected positively, rather than negatively, on them and their customers. The result was the “red to black” concept of the holiday mentioned earlier, and the notion that the day after Thanksgiving marked the occasion when America’s stores finally turned a profit.

The Black Friday story stuck, and pretty soon the term’s darker roots in Philadelphia were largely forgotten. Since then, the one-day sales bonanza has morphed into a four-day event, and spawned other “retail holidays” such as Small Business Saturday/Sunday and Cyber Monday. Stores started opening earlier and earlier on that Friday, and now the most dedicated shoppers can head out right after their Thanksgiving meal. According to a pre-holiday survey by the National Retail Federation, an estimated 135.8 million Americans definitely plan to shop over the Thanksgiving weekend (58.7 percent of those surveyed), though even more (183.8 million, or 79.6 percent) said they would or might take advantage of the online deals offered on Cyber Monday.

So, over the years, this is what has happened:

We started here…
…and now we’re here…

Personally, shopping is not something I enjoy doing any day of the year, so you can be certain that I will never participate in “Black Friday” and the crowded rush of people. I support the concept of “Small Business Saturday” if you plan to shop at a small, independent place of business. As far as I’m concerned, “Cyber Monday” means nothing to me either! I shop for gifts throughout the year – when I see something I know someone would like, I buy it right away. I used to start that as early as January of the new year, but this year I waited until June to start and still managed to have 99% of my shopping done by Halloween! And yes, much of it was done online so I could avoid stores at all costs!

Meanwhile, for my fellow Americans who celebrate Thanksgiving, I hope you will make time together with family your number one priority. Gifts are nice, but families – even the dysfunctional ones – can’t be replaced! Please, spend time with loved ones and remember how lucky you are to have them in your life!