Home Culture Business & Education A 400-Year-Old Way to Keep Black Friday out of Thanksgiving

A 400-Year-Old Way to Keep Black Friday out of Thanksgiving

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Photo by Nick Papakyriazis, Creative Commons Licensing.
Photo by Nick Papakyriazis, Creative Commons Licensing.

The American worker is a hard worker. Workers in the United States work longer hours than most other developed countries. Japan has a word — karoshi — which translates to “death by work.” But we work longer than them. The United States is the only highly developed nation that does not require paid vacation time or parental leave benefits. In the popular 1992 book, The Overworked American, author Juliet Schor theorized that the American worker, then, worked on average a full month more than the American worker in 1970.

According to a 2010 report by the Center for American Progress, 85.8 percent of men and 66.5 percent of women work more than 40 hours per week. The International Labor Organization notes that “Americans work 137 more hours per year than Japanese workers, 260 more hours per year than British workers, and 499 more hours per year than French workers.”

Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows a 400 percent increase in productivity per American worker since 1950. The workload is on the rise, while pay has stagnated and even decreased since 1975, relative to gross domestic product (GDP).

That’s great for the economy. But the more time dedicated to typifying the good capitalist citizen, the less time afforded to one’s family. The further down the wage ladder, the more the impact on that decreasing family time. And we know that. We know it so hard that we invented a day to combat it: Thanksgiving. Constructed on the flimsy foundation of a union between Native Americans and colonists (that never happened), we erected a monument to being together. For one evening. Over a turkey.

But even that is now quickly going away.

Infographic by Jan Diehm for The Huffington Post.
Infographic by Jan Diehm for The Huffington Post.

This Thanksgiving, nearly 20 percent of U.S. workers making under $40,000 (which is 63 percent of the workforce) will be working. That’s over 18 million men and women. They’ll be stationed at kiosks, cash registers, and stock rooms to serve an estimated 17 percent of consumers nationwide who plan to shop on Thanksgiving to take advantage of early Black Friday deals. Rushing to get deals on gifts often purchased for the same family members and loved ones whom they are sacrificing spending the evening with.

In Anchorage, Best Buy will be open from 5pm to 1am. Target will open their doors at 6pm. Old Navy will open at 4pm. Walmart is open 24 hours.

“Thanksgiving has been under attack by retailers for years and remains a significant issue,” Chris Thompson wrote for Alaska Dispatch News last week. Thompson is a religious scholar who writes about his experiences at local churches. “Not long ago, almost every store, gas station and restaurant was closed for Thanksgiving. But the retail sector has taken aim at Thanksgiving with a vengeance.”

He voiced his belief that consumerism is “destroying our national holiday celebration of Thanksgiving[.]”

Whether or not this War on Thanksgiving is winning is subjective, but consumerism is unarguably reshaping a day intended to be spent paying thanks to the people in our lives; retooling it to become a day spent purchasing consumer goods for some, and more work for others. A far cry from the imaginary free exchange of food and good tidings scripted and set in the 1600s.

A few states have an answer to Black Friday creep which is as old as the “Thanksgiving Story” myth purports itself to be.

Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island, retail stores are legally barred from being open on Thanksgiving and Christmas. The “blue laws” are holdovers from the 17th century, enacted to enforce the rigid religiosity and Christian morality of the time. Such laws, also referred to as “Sunday laws,” enforced observance of religious activities and regulated certain activities like dancing, shopping, and the purchase of alcohol on specific days — later, the laws were expanded to include buying cars and office supplies.

Although explicitly religious in nature, the laws have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court multiple times. Most notably, writing the decision in McGowan v. Maryland (1961), Chief Justice Earl Warren wrote:

Sunday closing laws started out to facilitate church attendance in colonial America; however, the present Maryland laws are based on secular rather than religious state interests. The laws are to improve the “health, safety, recreation, and general well-being” of citizens. The present purpose of the laws is to provide a uniform day of rest for all.

“The spirit of the law and intent is to give people a day off,” Patricia DeAngelis said, defending the Massachusetts law. DeAngelis served as the state’s general counsel for the Massachusetts Department of Labor Standards in 2011, when retail stores across the country began pushing into Thanksgiving. “[T]hat is why this state has exercised that authority in the way it has.”

Opponents of blue laws in east coast states say the restrictions hurt businesses, encouraging more online shopping and cross-state

Photo by Stefan Krasowski, Creative Commons Licensing.
Photo by Stefan Krasowski, Creative Commons Licensing.

purchases. Online shopping has increased markedly in recent years; over 191 million consumers in the United States shopped online last year and that number is expected to exceed 196 million this year. Additionally, blue laws restrict labor standards, meaning that employees are restricted from working until midnight — delaying midnight Black Friday openings.

But the laws on those three states have endured with relatively little objection. Bergen County, New Jersey, even continues to regulate retail sales on Sundays (excluding gas stations, hotels, and restaurants) and that prohibition has been upheld by numerous referendums.

In Alaska, the threat of customers crossing state lines to purchase goods on Thanksgiving poses little threat. Electronic sales will continue to rise — mostly because many prefer clicking things on a website to leaving the house in late November. The effect a blue law prohibiting Black Friday creep would have on the local economy would be negligible; mom and pop shops are not the stores opening earlier and earlier every year. It’s the giant retail box stores, whose revenue is sent to corporate bank accounts in Arizona, Minnesota, and other locales in the Lower 48 and overseas. Some stores, like Costco and Barnes & Noble, voluntarily shut down for the day.

Additionally, a blue law in the 49th state might keep more people off the roads after enjoying a few too many glasses of holiday cheer (there were 135 DUI arrests in Anchorage alone last November). And it might give families and friends a precious hour or two more to enjoy (or argue in) each others’ company.

Earlier this month, Alaska made a wise decision to give itself a raise. Maybe we should consider giving ourselves a day off too.