She’d gone to bed fully prepared:  coffee maker programmed for 4:45, purse and coat neatly by the door, alarm set for 5:00.  She doubted that she’d need it, but it was always best to be sure.  After all, it would be a disaster if she slept in.  As she lay waiting to fall asleep, she ran through her plan one more time:  put the coffee in the coffee mug, drive to Walmart, line up.  Once she finally got inside, it would be first things first.  The Sony Xbox was the priority, then the memory cards, the Christmas decorations and the photo-quality printer paper.  Her heart fluttered in her chest.  She’d need to be fast if she was going to get her share before things ran out.  Or –she swallowed, mouth dry in the darkness – or if things got really desperate, she could use the pepper spray.  It was in her purse:  she’d carried it ever since that fright from the man in the parking lot in 2009.  She didn’t want to use it, but she needed the Xbox.  She deserved it.  She’d missed out last year because some rough man with a red face had pushed her out of the way, and she’d watched him triumphantly carry off the last one as she picked herself up off the floor.  She’d been lucky she hadn’t been trampled!  And the year before, she’d missed out on a flat screen TV when a whole family had surrounded the shelf, loading up on them and stopping anyone else from getting near.  She wasn’t stupid.  She wasn’t going to let that happen again.  This time she was ready for whatever came her way.

OK.  The above is the stuff of Sunday-afternoon fantasy.  But how is one to make sense of the fact that an as-yet-unidentified woman pepper sprayed other shoppers at a Walmart in Los Angeles this week while trying to take advantage of the “Black Friday” sales?  It’s possible, I suppose, that she crowds simply made her panic, and she loosed the pepper spray to get some breathing room…and then just happened to use the opening to spirit away an Xbox.  But violence at the sales elsewhere in the States suggests that, though extreme, the pepper spray incident was part and parcel of an “anything it takes” attitude towards securing one’s deals.

For a self-confessed non-shopper of a Canadian who spent Friday working, driving my children back and forth to school and making tomato soup, the Black Friday mayhem is all a bit of a mystery.  After hearing about it on the news, I first wondered if the mob scenes were representative of a sort of odd collective effervescence, but, although people can be heard to be laughing in some of the video footage available online, they do not seem to be acting with a collective mind.  It’s actually kind of the opposite:  it’s highly individualist, with just a whole lot of people desperately trying to do their own thing, and to grab their own deal.

While I’m not proud of it, my first reaction was a sort of smug, “Tut, tut…look how greedy and foolish those people are.”  But if you look at the shoppers’ faces, they’re just ordinary people, not some caricature specimens of homo greedus.  They have a day off.  They want to prepare for Christmas.  It’s fun –usually – to participate in a shared event.  It feels fabulous to score a deal.

In fact, if you think about it, the shoppers are acting in a perfectly rational way considering the world in which we live.  It’s one in which an extraordinary amount of human creativity is devoted to fetishizing desire in the form of marketing.  In which wanting and buying are hailed as civic virtues.  In which shopping is billed as “fun”.  In which the over-riding message is that it’s what you have rather than what you do that makes life worth living.

The poignant thing for me, and I dare say many other observers, is that Black Friday is part of American Thanksgiving.  My perception of American Thanksgiving is that it’s the most widely-shared holiday, a time to gather, feast, perform family rituals…and yes, to give thanks.   Giving thanks for what you have seems far away from pepper spraying or trampling people to get more stuff, even if you intend to gift that stuff onwards.  This is not said in a spirit of sanctimoniousness;  it’s just an observation on the irony of it all.

After the euphoria of the deal…what next?  I suppose the delight of seeing a happy face as someone unwraps their X-box on Christmas morning, and knowing that you earned that delight through your Black Friday efforts.  But I can’t help wondering whether the pepper spray would be likelier to stay in the purse if we valorized gratitude to the same degree we did acquisition, and if we put our creativity and passion to use, not to whip up desire, but for thanks.

I was thinking how this could play out.  What if the Friday after Thanksgiving was used for a different kind of thanksgiving, where you thought of something in your life that made it special, and devoted your thanks to it?  It could be music.  It could be the beating heart in your child’s chest.  It could be your little garden.  It could be your library.  What if you gave thanks by giving that thing time and attention, or helped others to have something of the same?  What feelings would that create?  How long would that last?  How could you make it a gift?

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