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Black Friday

It’s the last week of November, and everywhere you go in Helsinki, it seems like there are signs screaming these two words at you: “Black Friday” or “Black Week.” In Finland and other places around the world, Black Friday has become synonymous with hugely discounted retail prices. This, too, is what it means in the USA, where the term and the concept originated. As a linguist and an American, I think it’s high time to set the record straight about what Black Friday means and where it originated. In this overview, I will move beyond the strictly etymological and economic into personal and food memory territory. What is the origin of the term “Black Friday”? Over the years I have lived in Finland, I have taken an informal poll of all kinds of people and what they think “Black Friday” means. Most people seem to accept that the term is originally from the USA, but from there it becomes fuzzy. Here are some examples of the explanations people have proposed: “Does it have something to do with Black Lives Matter?” No. “It must have to do with the fact that this is the blackest time of year. It’s dark outside.” No. “Did it originate with Black people? Is it from the South?” No and no. These are the main explanations I have heard over the years (among others not suitable for repeating). So, are you ready for the actual explanation, as I learned it? Black Friday: a retails sales day that always occurs on the Friday after the US holiday known as Thanksgiving. When is Thanksgiving? It’s always the fourth Thursday of November. Therefore, the date of Black Friday varies just like Thanksgiving does, but it’s always the fourth Friday of November. This year Black Friday happened to be on November 24. Now comes the biggest question: why is it called Black Friday? It is a term that comes from the accounting profession. When doing accounting, something is “in the black” when there is a profit, when there is money in the bank. An account is “in the red” if there is a negative balance. Black Friday has traditionally been the biggest shopping day of the year in the United States, therefore it is the day when stores become “in the black.” There, mystery solved. But for me, a huge mystery remains. That is: why on earth do people celebrate Black Friday, when they don’t celebrate Thanksgiving or even know what Thanksgiving is? Nor do they know, in many cases, exactly what Black Friday is, why it is when it is, or why it happens. Oh wait, actually I do know why Black Friday but not Thanksgivingnhas spread worldwide , and it is a simple explanation: Money talks, and it speaks English. An excuse for retailers to get shoppers to spend money? Oh yeah, great idea. Money money money in English English English. Thanksgiving, on the other hand, a secular holiday when family and friends get together and eat traditional foods? Well, there is no huge commercial profit to be made off of this concept (compare to Halloween and Christmas), so … nah, not going to happen. It doesn't spread. Well, you’re missing out. Thanksgiving is far better than Black Friday. For many Americans, it is their favorite holiday, precisely because it is not a religious holiday, it’s not about jingoism or patriotism, and it’s all about spending quality time with friends and family. What could be better than that? There are several million Native Americans, mind you, who likely do not share this opinion. This is because, while other Americans are celebrating the folklore of an original first meal shared between indigenous people and European settlers in what is now the United States, this imagined first feast marks the beginning of genocide, disruption to lifestyle, mass displacement, and host of other forms of mistreatment for Native Americans. For other Americans, however, it is a day to be shared, a celebration of harvest, and a celebration of traditions. It is the only holiday in the American canon when pretty much everyone eats approximately the same foods: turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce, and pumpkin pie. The idea is to showcase foods that are indigenous to the Americas. Different ethnic groups and people from different parts of the USA add their own twists into the general mix. An Italian American family I used to know, for example, stuffed their turkey with spaghetti noodles instead of bread stuffing. And in the West and Midwest, it is common to eat Jello salad (no, it is not a dessert, it’s a salad) with the main course, as well as sweet potatoes dotted with melted marshmallows (again, not a dessert, it's a vegetable). During the two decades I have lived in Finland, I have celebrated Thanksgiving every year, normally on the Saturday after the US holiday occurs. The idea is that it is a day to open your home to friends, and especially to other Americans. We have welcomed a growing collection of friends of different nationalities to our table for Thanksgiving dinner. This year we were a German, an Italian, a Swede, a Finn, and me, an American. Many years ago, I celebrated Thanksgiving at the home of a friend from New York City who lives in Helsinki. When I entered her apartment, I was greeted by her husband and then a man I had never met before. The mystery man, it turns out, was an American guy my friend had met on a flight from New York City. He was alone in Helsinki for a few days, and it just happened to be during Thanksgiving. No one should be alone in a strange city for Thanksgiving, my friend reasoned. This, she explained, is what Thanksgiving is all about, so she invited him to join us. I hope you enjoy your Black Friday discounted clothes, televisions, stereos, iPhones, PlayStations, and whatever else you bought during the Black Friday sales. But you are missing out on the best part of the holiday, and that’s the Thanksgiving part. Next year, do yourself a favor and come to my place for pumpkin pie. Or you could make your own and invited your friends and family. It's time to change this tradition.

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