Thursday, November 24, 2016

A Thanksgiving Memory: When Friday Wasn't Black

The Thanksgiving holiday brings back so many memories every year, I can still feel a "Thanksgiving morning" when I get up first thing on Thursday  Even if I'd spent the entire Mon-Wed. forgetting to look at the calendar, even when it's only me in the apartment expected to do my own sage-and-thyme cooking, and not stressfully throwing myself out of the kitchen and telling me to stay out until the turkey's in the oven, unless I wanted to help peel potatoes.  I still feel the gray nip of probably-going-to-snow in the air--gray skies were the Color of Thanksgiving, to go with all the harvest-browns--and want to rush to the TV to see the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade plug all the NYC family Broadway shows on the street before the parade started.  As we used to joke, we'd "Start preparing the turkey when the parade officially got going, and baste it every time an NBC soap star appears on a float lip-synching 'Winter Wonderland'".  
More to the point, Thursday and Friday were important days for TV, if you didn't have that personal alma-mater college-football Bowl game to watch:  One is that networks knew the kids would be home from school that day, and any that didn't have football would be using the time wisely, with bonus Saturday-morning cartoons and Hanna-Barbera's Kenner Classic Tales (with plenty of commercials for Kenner Toys).  And the second, tying in with the first, was that the local area stations that owned movies wanted to give their employees the weekend off, and would line up big three-hour blocks of all their family and first early holiday movies to fill time all afternoon, while you snacked on the chips-and-dips and carrot sticks that were being left out for company.  One of our Boston stations still owned George Pal's 1962 "Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm", which was three hours of family-demographic enough to end up on my all-time favorite lists, as well as a rotated holiday movie.
Ask some people to name "Thanksgiving movie", and on generational knee-jerk reaction, they'll say "Planes, Trains & Automobiles", because you're, like, supposed to watch it.  Depending on how far back in the generations you go, however, some will remember the days when TV networks actually showed a movie in the evening (preferably a three-hour one, also to give their employees the night off)--And you can probably judge how old, if they say either "Home Alone", "E.T." or "The Sound of Music".  Me, I go even farther back, and if I'm not using my ancient VCR to watch my last tape copy of Pal's Grimm, my conditioned reflexes expect a network or local station to be showing three hours of "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang".  It seems heresy to watch it any other day of the year.

The Friday after Thanksgiving was also a very important holiday--We called it "The Friday After Thanksgiving".  It didn't HAVE a name, because it wasn't supposed to.
It didn't exist for any reason except that most businesses thought it was cheaper not to open again just for Friday, and turn a three-day weekend into a four-day one.  That meant you didn't have to do anything, except sleep late, lounge in pajamas, snack on cold turkey, cranberry and stuffing for breakfast, while Mom tried to be domestic and boil the turkey skeleton and thigh leftovers hoping that Soup would come out, like in the old days of low-tech homemakers before her.  (Uh, that's not how you make soup, Mom, we'd say, but no one would listen.)  
The original day after Thanksgiving--what do we call it, "White Friday"?--still had an important purpose in holiday commerce, however:  In those days, it was considered tasteful to hold off on Christmas marketing until Thanksgiving, so, as every kid knew, White Friday was the official Starting-Pistol of the great Getting Excited About Christmas dash...Annnd, they're off!  No early jump-starts, contenders, or you'll be disqualified!
Local stations continued to want to give their employees the day off, but with fewer Thanksgiving football bowl games to air, that meant movies...The Christmas movies, this time, now that it was allowed.  You might find a station showing "Miracle on 34th St." (while we were still in a Macy's mood), but most started getting the cheap public-domain classics ready, while they dug the more "hardcore" Christmas movies out of the back for later in December--By the end of White Friday, you knew at least one station would start the ritual monthly showings (plural) of "It's a Wonderful Life", and one might be brave enough to start showing the Alastair Sim "Scrooge" early.  And if you lived in the broadcast area of the NYC stations, White Friday was annual Laurel & Hardy "March of the Wooden Soldiers" day.

Shopping?  Oh sure, White Friday was for shopping, all right.  You just didn't camp out at midnight or search the Internet for sales flyers about what big-ticket purchase you'd been holding off all year for, though.
You went to the mall because, by three or four o'clock, a day and a half of cabin fever had set in, and you didn't want to enjoy Christmas starting-pistol preparations from a distance.  The Christmas lights would just be starting to be put up at the mall, and the holiday Muzak, of Nat King Cole's "Christmas Song" and Darlene Love's "Christmas, Baby, Please Come Home", would finally be allowed to be played over the loudspeakers.  If you lived within range of the Big City (Rochester NY, for me, before we moved to within a commuter ride of Boston), the family urge might be to look at the big department stores, and maybe end up with taking the whole family to a movie (theaters weren't conveniently at the malls back then) or the Christmas show at the science-museum Planetarium that wondered whether the Star of Bethlehem was really a 4 BC comet.
Point was, shopping was to put us in the mood for Christmas shopping--and hope to brainstorm present ideas we hadn't thought of yet--and was still recreational.  It wasn't something you trained to knock yourself and/or others out for.  When you got to the mall or parking lot and discovered every other person in a twenty-mile radius had the EXACT SAME White Friday holiday-sentiment urges as you did on the exact same afternoon, that's when it might suddenly hit you what a stupid idea it was, and that's one thing that's the same today as it was then.  Believe me, that didn't change.

So, you're probably asking yourselves--come on, start asking:  What caused the change?  When did the glorious holiday-tinged sloth and family time-off of White Friday turn moldy, and mildew into the predatory, kill-or-be-killed competition for the sake of sales figures once it turned Black?  And how did a name that was humorously given by news media, to explain the problems of stores and malls that had to deal with a mass-sentiment perfect storm of holiday urges, become ACCEPTED, and have its name now hailed as the center of American trade?  When did we think that Black Friday wasn't enough, that it should be a "week" instead, that it be lobbied to be declared a "national holiday" to help stores or employees, or that Saturday and Monday deserved their own names as well?  The historical cutoff point might be found in the Cabbage Patch.
In the 80's, Amazon didn't exist.  There was no "online" to order things--which is why you were deluged in paper snail-mail catalogues all month--and if you wanted to find the hot toy that season, you had to go to Toys R Us, because Target wasn't a wide chain back then, either.  And the big news story in November 1983 was that the Cabbage Patch Kids dolls, which had first started as prestige dolls from a small independent maker, were going national, causing parents to storm malls, empty shelves as if they were Wonka Bars, and do incredibly cynical media-happy stunts (like buying three or four, and hoping to auction one off for $1000), trying to find them.  That itself wasn't such a big deal, except that we'd had TWO similar manias the year before in 1982, with parents trying to find ColecoVision videogame consoles, and those with older or no kids trying to find a remaining copy of that new "Trivial Pursuit" game that a couple of smart guys in Canada had just thought up and were sending to us southerners.
But it was the Cabbage Patchers that stuck in our cultural heads.   Even when we similarly stampeded each other trying to find a Tickle-Me Elmo doll in the early 90's, the news talked of a "Cabbage Patch craze", and we knew in exact detail what they meant.  It was such a media-friendly story, because the obnoxious cuteness of the dolls was symbolic, you see, of frustrated parents having to spend money on their worthless children every year...Making the act of cynically fighting your friends and neighbors either a self-deprecating display of how much better a parent you were, or how cynically you were willing to knock yourself out once a year in December.  Eh, the holiday's for the kids anyway.

And that was the problem:  It was a neato story, but it didn't happen every year. It would be nice if a hurricane or earthquake happened once a year that we could put on our calendar, so we could all have fun preparing for it, and the news stations could have fun building up for the disaster coverage...But they're forces of nature, so they don't.  They just happen, unless they don't happen.
And when they didn't happen to happen in '85, or '86, news media tried to MAKE them happen.  It's now a tradition to say, not what will be the hot-selling toy or Christmas item, but, quote, what will be the next Christmas "craze".  What new item will we fight each other for, that store chains can count on to make up for any losses they might have incurred the other eleven months of the year?  
Usually, its what $200+ high-tech item, like the latest smartphone, will be groomed to be the next "craze", as a ColecoVision was more expensive than a Tickle-Me Elmo, and you don't have to be a greedy, cynical parent to buy one, you could be a Millennial 18-24, too.

So, with the jollity every year, we come to Black Friday.  A day devoted to treating the entire national consumer like deranged, greedy, cynical idiots like ravers at a rock concert.  Because idiots are easier to predict, and thus easier to manage, than intelligent, tasteful customers, that might do anything unpredictable.
When you see "Doorbuster Sales!" at Target, Wal-Mart, Sears and Best Buy (well, some Best Buys now close over the holiday weekend to give their employees a break), ask yourself:  What "doors" are we expected, even encouraged to "bust", and why?  A Doorbuster Sale is not asking us to be polite in our shopping, because polite shopping to them means we're probably not buying anything--Instead, they are literally asking that we create another 80's Frenzy-Stampede craze out of thin air, even if we or they don't know what we're crazing for, and risk fights, injuries and possible vandalism, to help out the chain stores annual holiday-quarter and year-end sales projections.  What thirty-three years ago we shook our heads at as greed, tragedy and self-serving dark-side, we now chuckle at as tradition, and hope such mindless turning-against-each-other-like-jackals will happen again, because we've been told it's such a rich evocative part of the HOLIDAY.

For those who want to start a new holiday tradition, here's my Thanksgiving present, from the Movie Activist to you:
This year, take the day off and celebrate old-fashioned White Friday, like your parents did.  Do nothing--you don't have any reason not to, after all--and savor an extra day off from the Thursday that you were probably too busy working in the kitchen, or driving to visit other friends' or relatives' kitchens, to enjoy.  Go look at the Christmas lights if you have the urge, and browse for the sake of browsing, not bargains, but if the parking lots are too crowded, don't worry, they'll thin out by Cyber Monday or Spent-Out Tuesday.  (Now that they all have christened names.)
Of course, the old tradition, of sitting home and watching TV try to fill time with holiday filler, isn't around anymore, now that stations have no more obligation to create local programming besides news.  Fortunately most of us probably have at least one of our favorite Christmas movies or iconic specials on disk...That's what they're for, after all.
So, for those of you who DIDN'T grow up within broadcast range of WPIX-11 NYC as a kid, a chance to enjoy an old-fashioned local-station public-domain White Friday the way we remembered it in the days before 1983:  Laurel & Hardy in "March of the Wooden Soldiers"  (And yes, badly colorized, as every cheap public-domain B/W movie on local channels was in 1982.)

You'll have to provide your own cold turkey, leftover pretzels, thin homemade turkey-peas-and-water soup and 5 lb. holiday tin of cheese-caramel popcorn.

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