To start, let’s look at the other black days as described by Wikipedia and others:
Black Monday — The October Monday in 1987 when world stock markets crashed.
Black Tuesday — The 1929 Tuesday when Wall Street crashed and the Depression began.
Black Wednesday — In Britain, it was the day in 1992 when the government withdrew the pound sterling causing huge trading losses. … In America, it apparently refers to a day in 1954 when bad weather backed up air travel and caused extreme angst among air traffic controllers.
Black Thursday — There have been many dreadful things that have happened on Black Thursdays around the world including bushfires in Australia, the Russian credit market crashing, a massacre in the Philippines and a day American gold medal favorites Ray Norton and John Thomas disappointed at the 1960 Rome Olympics. In retrospect, the last of these doesn’t seem quite as bad as the others.
Black Friday — SHOPPING!
Black Saturday — Let’s see — a bunch of fires at Yellowstone, massacres in Beirut, riots in Cairo, a dark day in Scotland that many saw as a sign from God that the world was coming to an end (there were numerous suicides).
Black Sunday — More fires, the day Dale Earnhart died, a novel and movie about an attempt to blow up the Super Bowl.
So, it seems like one of these is not quite like the others.
It always struck me that, underneath it all, Black Friday was a negative term. Black Friday was certainly a negative term before the shopping thing, back when it referred to the assassination of President Kennedy or the day windstorms killed almost 200 fishermen off the Scottish coast. Even when shopping took over the name, I still thought we were supposed to feel contempt for Black Friday, not unlike Tax Day.
Sure, I know, Black Friday has been promoted by stores for decades; there have been advertising circulars pushing Black Friday sales since the 1980s. But I always thought there was supposed to be some kind of irony about the whole thing. I always thought that everyone conceded that Black Friday was this dreadful, overbearing, frustrating, traffic-laden, overcrowded, can’t-find-parking, everyone-is-bumping-into-you, people-are-rude, kids-are-screaming thing. People endured Black Friday because it was a relatively convenient day to shop and nothing was on TV.
But it seems to me that in the last couple of years — especially this year — Black Friday has shifted somewhat. Maybe this happened 10 years ago, and I just ignored it. But it’s like Black Friday is now a happy term, a celebration, a joyous occasion.. It’s like Black Friday is its own holiday … one that is clearly bigger and more exciting than Thanksgiving. Even the term Black Friday is said to mean something different than I always thought. It’s now supposed to be the day that stores go out of the red and into the black. Or something.
The original term Black Friday — according to Visual Thesaurus and this excellent piece at Mother Jones and various other Internet hotspots — had nothing to do with that. The term originated in Philadelphia in the 1950s and it meant exactly what you think it would mean. You had Thanksgiving on Thursday, of course, and the Army-Navy Game two days later on Saturday. The Friday in between was unofficially tagged “Black Friday” by police and other officials because of the insane traffic as people went mega-shopping. This was definitively a negative term, so negative that according to a 1961 Public Relations News newsletter, there were business efforts to have people call it “Big Friday” instead. Ah, yes, Big Friday. That’s going to take off.
OK, no, it didn’t take off, but Black Friday did. And it had to spread. Philadelphia wasn’t the only place where people shopped a lot on the day after Thanksgiving. There’s a certain irony here — people could shop on Black Friday because they got the day off. Then, because so many people shopped, everything started opening up earlier, meaning fewer people got days off. And then, because places opened earlier, more people shopped, meaning stores opened earlier and more people worked, meaning more people shopped, meaning more people needed to work.
Anyway, it was the resulting traffic, noise, rudeness and so on that inspired Black Friday. It wasn’t until the 1980s that anyone said the “Black” in “Black Friday” referred to financials — give the marketing person who came up with that little twist a big raise. Even so, even after the “Businesses going into the black” thing, I always got the impression that people used Black Friday pejoratively as in, “Oh, man, I have to go shopping on Black Friday” or “I wouldn’t be caught dead anywhere near a mall on Black Friday” and so on.
But, more and more, stores started to embrace the whole Black Friday thing. And people embraced it more. And stores embraced it even more. Commercials have long mentioned Black Friday as a way to talk about incredible once-a-year sales. But I’m not sure when they started celebrating it. I’m not sure when people started saying Black Friday the same way they say “Valentine’s Day” or “Fourth of July.” I’m not sure about the history of opening early on Black Friday, but I know they started opening earlier, then earlier still, then they were opened at the stroke of midnight, and then people lined up for a half mile like Black Friday at K-Mart was a hot movie premier.
This year, as you know, Black Friday actually begins on Thursday. Again, it’s part of a long process, but it feels like there has been a leap taken. These commercials showing people waking up in the middle of the night for Black Friday are behind the times. I was in Best Buy the other day and the young woman behind the counter asked if I would be shopping on Black Friday. I told her there wasn’t even the slightest chance. She shrugged and said, “Well, in case you change your mind, on Black Friday this year we open at 6 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day.” She was obviously obligated to tell me this, and she said it unhappily. I know one person who is working on Thanksgiving.
She clearly used the word “Black Friday” the way I’ve always thought of it.