The Deeper Meaning of Black Friday

Giving a gift is an act of competition as much as generosity.

Alessandro Bianchi / Reuters

Get $100 off the iPad Air 2 at Best Buy. Save $50 on the Xbox One Gears of War Bundle plus get a $60 Target Gift Card. At Walmart, one can buy a Samsung Smart HDTV for under $200. Under $200!

These are the marks of Black Friday, the annual bacchanal for consumer excess. And excess, it is normally thought, is a sign of vice. Profligacy. Christmas, the backlash insists, isn’t about possessing things, but about family and salvation, respect and contrition.

Except, in another sense, it isn’t. Whether one is a believer or not, Christmas is about a particularly excessive gift—an ultimate gift, the gift of God’s only son, whom the scriptures declare would sacrifice his life for all mankind. Excess is the origin story of Christmas, rendering Black Friday strangely compatible with the liturgy.

Giving a gift is an act of competition as much as generosity. This is an idea first popularized by the anthropologist Marcel Mauss, whose 1954 study of the gift as a form of exchange upset the idea that barter and currency were primary modes of human economic exchange. Instead, through the examples of supposedly primitive societies in the ancient and modern worlds, Mauss argued that gift giving is both more fundamental and a greater collective good. That’s because, unlike barter or currency exchange, gifts rely on economies of reciprocity. In a gift economy, you have to give, you have to receive, and you have to return the gesture of the gift at a later time.

But in so doing, gift economies take on an agonistic quality. Mauss’s famous example of the competitive nature of gifts is the potlatch, a gift-feast event practiced by the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest in which aristocratic kin groups ceremonially give away or destroy material wealth. By foregoing possessions, the giver enjoys a heightened social status by proving that they can part with some—and often a great deal—of their possessions. Potlatches produce political, religious, and ritual outcomes by establishing pecking orders of power and prestige.

Gifts do this more generally too. In a roundabout way, the social one-upping of gift exchange explains why gifts are given at Christmas, and why so many Americans race to compete with one another to access them first on Black Friday. Some of this is intuitive: Giving a “better” gift to one’s spouse or kids or in-laws sets an expectation that future gifts given in return have to meet a particular bar of selflessness. When one person far outspends, out-shops, or out-crafts another, that individual also raises his or her social status in relation.

These are dangerous waters. It’s why some families and offices set dollar limits on gift exchanges, or why parents fear giving in to junior’s demand for the expensive PlayStation or this year’s unfindable, Tickle Me Elmo–style “it” present: in order to short-circuit the gift’s tendency to ratchet itself up into a competition for prestige. The goal is to maintain the economy of communal reciprocity.

But Christmas is different. Christmas gift exchange owes a debt to the social imbalance of potlatch-like excess rather than reciprocal exchange. Gift giving symbolizes the ultimate gift of the Christian God. As John 3:16 puts it, “God loved the world so much, that he gave his one and only Son, so that whoever believes in him may not be lost but have eternal life.” Theologically speaking, both God’s and Jesus’s sacrifices set an unreachable bar: a gift so peerless that no worldly version could ever best it. It is an excessive gift, a surplus of divine love.

Black Friday’s gift giving is not nearly as magnanimous, but there are gifts being exchanged nevertheless, and not only from parent to child or spouse to spouse. When Amazon or Walmart or Best Buy or Target or any other retailer offers sales, discounts, special hours, and all the rest, it’s easy to see them just as brusque trappings of consumerism run amok. That’s not entirely wrong, but it doesn’t tell the whole story, either: Sales and discounts are also gifts. And as gifts, they also participate in the social practice of reciprocity and one-upsmanship. Instead of offering greater or more valuable offerings, Black Friday deals issue their own version of the gift’s challenge: They allow companies to say, “Look what we are willing to give away, even though we normally operate by currency exchange.”

On the economic register, $200 HDTVs and $60 “free money” gift cards and the like aren’t really gifts—they are loss leaders, offered largely in very limited quantities, whose main purpose is to get customers in the door so that they might spend more money on other products. But in the context of the gift economy, Black Friday deals have a rhetorical function: They allow businesses small and large to partake of the same symbolic copy of John 3:16 as spouses and parents do. They too can give. By means of exuberant discounts and incredible deals, Black Friday allows Best Buy, Walmart, and their ilk to participate in the same symbolic nod to gifts as do the consumers who give the spoils of those deals. It’s hardly penitent, but it is a rite. Black Friday is no less compatible with the spirit of Christmas than is any allegorical practice of gift-giving as a faint copy of God’s sacrifice. Even the name “Black Friday” slots right into the rituals of the season.The name feels liturgical, akin to Good Friday or Ash Wednesday.

Sacrilegious though the suggestion might be, perhaps Black Friday ought to be thought of as the real start of Advent, rather than as a counterpoint to it. As a ritual, it is actually closer to the excessive origin of God’s sacrifice than is unwrapping the latest toys and electronics a month hence. Sure, we could do without the retail bedlam and trampling, without the shadow of consumption and corporate rule by proxy, and all the other very real defects of Black Friday. But there’s also something fundamentally fitting about it for the season.

Building on Mauss, the philosopher Jacques Derrida argued that the fundamental content of all gifts is time. In Mauss’s gift societies, it’s the time between the gift and its symmetrical counter-gift, during which unpredictability rules. But for Derrida, the real gift cannot participate in any economy, cannot ever demand repayment or return favor. The true gift never ends, but circulates eternally, asking nothing and expecting nothing. That corporate actors might offer an entry point into such a revelation need not bring comfort. Perhaps it’s important that Black Friday repulse—in its consumerist excess, it reveals the fundamental incompatibility between worldly gifts and celestial ones.