There was something deeply unpleasant and deeply unsettling about shoppers fighting like crazed animals over discounted widescreen TVs at supermarkets up and down the country on Friday. Black Friday is yet another marketing strategy from the United States with the sole purpose of making us spend even more money in the run up to Christmas. The logic is simple. In order to make consumers spend more, goods are discounted on the last pay day before Christmas. In America, Black Friday has been around for a while and has even seen people killed in stampedes as shoppers fight with each other to buy discounted goods.
For me, Black Friday sums up all that is wrong with our Western consumerist and materialistic culture. It is evidence of the continued erosion of Christmas as a religious festival and its transformation into the worship of Mammon and all that the gods of consumerism have to offer. The tragedy and the scandal is that we as a society have bought into a culture that is the direct antithesis of all that Jesus stands for. Jesus was not born in order for companies to make a profit at Christmas. He was certainly not born as an excuse for us to gratify ourselves with the latest products. Neither was Jesus born so that shoppers could fight in supermarket aisles over a bargain.
Black Friday is the right name for this phenomenon as it lays bare the dark side of capitalism and consumerism for all to see. Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not against buying gifts for our loved ones at Christmas, but I am against the insidious culture of greed that Black Friday perpetuates and the constant pressure of retailers to make us spend more and more. There is something fundamentally wrong with a society that pushes people into debt simply so they can buy more and more each Christmas.
The best response to our rampant consumerism I think comes from one of the street artist Banksy’s works of graffiti art. It depicts Christ crucified while holding bags of Christmas shopping. For me, that image sums up all that is wrong with, not just Black Friday, but the whole culture of insatiable consumerism that surrounds the Western celebration of Christmas.
As a society we don’t need yet more stuff. Instead, we need an antidote to the retail bombardment we are faced with in the run up to Christmas. For me, that antidote comes during the season of Advent which starts today. But beyond it being a countdown to Christmas (usually in the form of a chocolate Advent calendar) Advent is lost on most people.
Traditionally, Advent was a time of self-examination and preparation for Christmas. It was a time of expectation in which Christians inhabited the wait for the long promised Messiah by reliving the wait for Jesus’ birth and also looking forward to his final coming at the end of time. It was when they pondered the big things of life: death, judgement, heaven and hell. Frankly, the themes of Advent are uncomfortable to the Western consumer’s mind so it’s not surprising that they have been long forgotten by most and have been replaced with tinsel and shopping.
However, I think that the frenzied shoppers of twenty-first century Britain still need Advent as it reminds us that there has to be more to life than shopping and more to life than fighting over electrical goods. After all, Advent reminds us that when life is done we leave behind us all our possession and stand before God. However much we want that flatscreen TV we can’t take it with us. Perhaps I am really a colossal scrooge and a festive killjoy, but I think we need Advent to put Christmas into perspective and to help us realise that the nativity isn’t a cosy children’s story but instead is the coming of one sent to rescue us from, amongst other things, enslavement to money and possessions.
Advent is like that last hour before dawn. The world may still be dark but we know that the sun is coming soon. In Advent we inhabit waiting in the darkness, but we also know that the darkness will not last forever. The darkness of our consumer-driven society may be all around us and we may have experienced a Black Friday, but soon the sun will dawn and the world will know the light and hope of Christmas morning.