Why is it called Black Friday? The most common answer is that on the day after Thanksgiving, it’s said that retailers go from being in the red to being in the black, with their profits for the year riding on just how much they can sell before Christmas.

But in fact, the earliest references to that day as Black Friday had little to do with business success—they were about the unusually high rates of work absenteeism the day after Thanksgiving. The shift of the day’s connotation from negative to positive points to the commercialization of holidays, and is an example of how the meaning of a holiday can shift over time, often as a result of contentious debates.

The first common uses of the term “Black Friday” referred to two devastating stock-market crashes that occurred on Fridays—one on September 24, 1869, when the price of gold collapsed, and another on September 19, 1873, leading to a decade-long depression. In the following century, the crash of 1929 started another depression, but it happened on a Tuesday, so naturally it became known as “Black Tuesday.” Calling a dramatically bad day “black” became a familiar turn of phrase, especially when it came to Fridays, and the label was applied even to some cases internationally, such as a November 1910 incident in England when police used force against about 300 demonstrating suffragettes, and to Australian brushfires in 1939.  Before it took on its modern meaning, the phrase “Black Friday” had a negative ring to it, and wasn’t even related to Thanksgiving.

The earliest known application of the phrase to the day after Thanksgiving is in the November 1951 edition of Factory Management and Maintenance, a newsletter for factory executives. In an article titled “Tips to Good Human Relations for Factory Executives,” an editor described the problem of worker absenteeism. “‘Friday-after-Thanksgiving-itis’ is a disease second only to the bubonic plague in its effects,” the editor wrote. “At least that’s the feeling of those who have to get production out, when the ‘Black Friday’ comes along. The shop may be half empty, but every absentee was sick —and can prove it.” At this point the Friday after Thanksgiving was already well established as a shopping day, and factories and other businesses had a hard time getting employees to show up at work, making it a “Black Friday” for employers.

To combat this absenteeism, the editor recommended that the day after Thanksgiving be used as a bargaining chip in the next round of labor negotiations. “If you can make a good trade in bargaining, there are lots of worse things than having a holiday on a day that was half  holiday anyway,” the Factory Management and Maintenance article went on. “Shouldn’t cost too much for that reason, either.”

From there, the phrase first started gaining widespread traction in Philadelphia in the late 1950s and early 1960s—this time among the police, bus drivers, and retail workers, who had to cope with the day’s crowds, traffic jams, and rude behavior. Problems with crowd control were especially an issue in Philadelphia because the hordes of Friday and Saturday shoppers were joined by 80,000 to 100,000 fans attending the annual Army-Navy football game.

As before, the connotations of this Black Friday were negative. Recognizing widespread references to Black Friday among residents, Philadelphia newspapers picked up the phrase, but merchants quickly realized that such labels were “hardly a stimulus for good business.” One public-relations executive recommended that the days be rebranded as “Big Friday” and “Big Saturday,” which (obviously) did not catch on. Eventually a more successful strategy was to accept the expression but change its meaning, and the new, more upbeat connotations of healthy balance sheets began to spread in the 1980s. Since the 1990s, the label Black Friday has been in common use nationally, with today’s “red to black” definition underpinning it.     

Black Friday’s significance arises from its relationship with the two major holidays surrounding it—if it were not for Christmas and Thanksgiving, Black Friday would not exist. The tradition of gift-giving associated with Christmas is what drives Black Friday’s holiday shopping. And if Thanksgiving were not cherished by many as a time of homecoming and gratitude, there would be no reason for cries of disapproval when sales crowd the edges of Thanksgiving and even move into the day itself.  Whether Back Friday should be called a holiday or not, it still is all about holidays.

I believe that holidays, to slightly amend some ideas of the sociologist Amitai Etzioni, serve one or more of three basic functions: reinforcing individuals’ and groups’ commitment to their religion, nation, or society; allowing for recuperation and reduced pressures; and carving out time for revelry and indulgence.

Many of the conflicts that people have over the symbolic meanings of holidays, including Black Friday, result when these three functions bump up against one another. When families protest the transgression of Christmas sales into Thanksgiving Day, they see commercial interests undermining a sacred time of recommitment and relaxation for family and friends. When crowds get out of control, at parades or football games or Best Buy parking lots, desires for revelry clash with desires to domesticate celebrations, to make them more family- and child- appropriate. Christians who complain that Christmas has become too overwhelmed with merrymaking and merchandising want to protect the season for recommitment to basic affirmations about Jesus Christ. Recognizing the variety of inclinations and motivations behind these important holidays does not automatically solve the conflicts, but it at least helps illuminate why it happens. Holidays are contested ground, and Black Friday, with its changing meanings is right in the middle of it all.