Before I confirmed a call to ordained ministry, my dad told me something I now tell students preparing for ordained ministry. The life of a pastor can be summed up in one imperative. On Christmas Eve, after the last worship service, make sure every toilet in the church is flushed. This imperative assumes an important fact. The imperative assumes that, on Christmas Eve, the pastor is the only one working. Even though the church may have someone on staff to lock up doors and to care for post-worship tidying, that person will not be working on Christmas Eve. My dad has flushed many Christmas Eve toilets over his half-century of ministry. Such is the glamorous life of an inn-keeper at Christmas.
Growing up in a parsonage, Advent involved more than the usual tidying up, as we hosted choir parties, youth parties, and Sunday School parties. The parties were spread out over Advent, so “Christmas” started early. My brother and I sliced sausage rolls and cut crusts off fancy little loaves of bread used only for such parties. We cleaned bathrooms and took out trash and dusted bookshelves, so guests would know we considered them worth the trouble. The timing of these church parties at our house necessitated that Christmas jump the calendar forward to Thanksgiving. We would often put up the tree before Thanksgiving, so everything would be ready when we came back from my grandparents’ annual Thanksgiving reunion. Technically, Advent is about anticipation – anticipating the birth of Jesus. But my mother is a practical woman, and she was not about to let a liturgical rule discombobulate the proper ordering of things.
My second home growing up – my home away from home – was the nearest shopping mall. My mother loves shopping malls. A fantastically creative seamstress, she goes to the mall to spark her imagination for unique twists on fashion. She started a Thanksgiving shopping tradition when I was young. Thanksgiving was my father’s family’s holiday. One set of cousins on that side did not celebrate Christmas, and my father always worked on Christmas Eve, so we would travel each year to Mineral Wells for a Thanksgiving extravaganza. This involved Russel Stover candies, squash casseroles, fried okra, turkey, ham, and at least a dozen pies. After all this cooking and an interminable amount of dish-washing, every woman and girl-child in the family was exhausted. While every man and boy-child sat around watching football Friday after Thanksgiving, those of us who had cooked and cleaned on Thanksgiving escaped to a fancy shopping mall in Ft. Worth. We spent the Friday after Thanksgiving walking under sparkling Christmas lights, looking at neatly arranged clothes – and decidedly not cooking or cleaning.
These are the backdrop stories for my assessment of what has come to be known as “Black Friday.” This time of year, news and social media sources offer a clashing combination of enticement and shame. “Shop big savings!” advertisements compete with “Shame on greedy shoppers!” op-eds, videos, and photos. News crews take cameras to big box stores, not upscale boutiques. Women who shop in bulk at Costco are not particularly greedy. But they apparently create a better spectacle for moralistic scorn than women shopping at Talbots. And women shopping anywhere are apparently a more effective story about the ungodly spread of rampant consumerism than are men watching football in the living room. I counter that dressing rooms can be a place for sisterly bonding, even with complete strangers. I prefer trying on clothes alongside other real people, with real, non-photo-shopped bodies and faces. Malls are more humanizing than shopping on my computer, trying to imagine what a dress on a pretend person would look like on my actual self. There can be a camaraderie of such kindness on “Black Friday.” I have seen holy mischief at the mall – the presence of God in the mix of neighbors watching mechanical bears sing “Silent Night,” weeks before we are, technically, supposed to celebrate the birth of Jesus.
I have been searching my brain for any possible upside to a new “Black Friday” trend, and I have come up short. Some stores have taken to opening on Thanksgiving night and staying open all night long, jumpstarting the holiday season by telling employees to host people all night long. This, I submit, is a story of greed, and not on the part of shoppers. My dad taught me to assume that a good employer does not expect the janitor to work on Christmas Eve. Charles Dickens teaches us that a boss who expects employees to work on an important feast day is headed toward a gloomy fate. Executives who tallied the numbers and opted for the trend of all-night holiday shopping should take another look, in the mirror.